I still have total recall of walking into the hall for my own 0-levels during the hot summer of 1976, and the spectre of my candidate number card (which I still have) placed precisely on the desk. I remember, too, my mounting panic: I hadn't done any revision for French and it was too late.
Yet the first stint as invigilator in my probationary teaching year gave me an intense feeling of power and freedom. At 23, I had finally dispensed with the annual exam ritual forever, or so I believed. Eighteen years on, I am dealing with the administrative side of the process by choice. In the few months since I took up the post, I have grappled with new computer software, redesigned the office and thrown out 10 years' worth of defunct official stationery.
But these are all minor triumphs compared to the hours I spend attempting to get through to the exam boards. My lunch hours pass in a haze as I'm lulled to sleep by the monotonous engaged tone on my phone in the vain hope that someone will eventually deal with my queries. Not only do I wait to get through, but my requests are then often ignored and I find myself photocopying enlarged papers for candidates with special needs 15 minutes before a public exam.
But what really takes up the time, apart from the walking to and from the sports hall and the monotonous pacing up and down the aisles doing buttock clenches and pelvic floor strengtheners, is the "special consideration" requests. What is the matter with everyone? Why do pupils have to make excuses for their performances even before they've sat down and read the paper?
I realise every school is chasing results and pupils are under tremendous strain, but does a candidate really need to ask for special consideration as a consequence of hay fever? (Retrospectively, of course, because the conditions that afflict sufferers can never be predicted.) We've also had broken legs, abscesses, flu, menstrual pains, panic attacks, dyslexia, dyspraxia, hyperactivity, back problemsI But what no one warned me about were the other human factors. Naively, I thought I would simply punch in the information, take delivery of the papers, distribute them and send them off to be marked. No one told me about the heads of department who can't add up, don't follow instructions, don't know what syllabuses they're doing, can't remember who they're teaching - let alone what level they're studying - and those who simply lose everything. Add to this the pupils who oversleep, refuse to part with their MP3 players, decide to have noses pierced, dye their hair pillar-box red, wear the wrong shoes and generally crack up when you gently remind them that school rules definitely do apply during the exam period.
This week, one candidate applied some creative artwork to his hair, then shouted, banged doors and burst into tears when we told him his appearance would prevent him from sitting the exam in the main hall. We then had to find an appropriate venue, organise an invigilator and oversee breathing exercises to engender calm.
My "to do" list includes setting up word processors for those who need them, administering university English proficiency exams (at the weekend), organising a padded chair and additional invigilators for a pupil with specific physical needs after an operation, completing those special consideration forms, chasing GP certificates and beginning the process all over again for next January's modules.
I have always wondered why there were two large safes in the office ostensibly labelled GCSE and A2; I now realise they are for the secure stowage of malt whisky and absinthe. Cheers.
The writer lives in Cornwall