Creating a flap before exams

10th June 2011 at 01:00

A story about penguins hit the papers a few weeks ago. According to The Mirror, the terrified birds had to be fed "calming pills" after "sick yobs" broke into their enclosure at Scarborough's Sea Life Centre and chased them for 30 minutes. Exposure to such an unnatural experience meant that the birds were unable to sleep, sign autographs or perform in shows.

While this bizarre episode seems a sad indictment of human nature, it is probably an even starker indictment of North Yorkshire's night life. If Scarborough had a few decent night clubs, penguin-chasing might not seem such a glamorous alternative. But then this is Scarborough, the only place outside Peru where donkey riding is venerated as a national sport. Don't get me wrong: startling penguins for pleasure is a reprehensible crime, but my condemnation is slightly tempered by the fact that I have just done the same thing to a colony of A-level students.

It happened last week. There they were, a flock of black and white uniformed bodies huddled together outside the exam hall. Despite their anxieties, they seemed focused, alert and prepared. Or at least they were until I burst in on them, snapping at their Achilles' heels like a keen young border collie. I had spent the previous evening preparing a slurry of "last-minute information" that I wanted to shovel down their throats before they went into the hall. As soon as I began, their expressions transformed from calm to horrified.

What I failed to realise was that their brains had reached saturation point, so to accommodate the new knowledge I was pouring in, something had to trickle out. While I rattled through the key gothic terms and mimed Macbeth's "Is this a dagger?" soliloquy using jazz hands and an HB pencil, the students struggled to store the extra information.

Every time they tried to save it, little pop-ups appeared in their memories warning them that "The file `important stuff to remember' already exists. Do you want to replace it?" And unfortunately, like Windows 2010, their default setting was "Yes", so in seconds I managed to overwrite all their good, solid revision with random literary facts. Thanks to me they went into their gothic exam with a few bars of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights ringing in their ears, a healthy contempt for physical theatre and little else besides.

I should have realised that last-minute cramming would end in disaster. It never works at home. My husband and I have an agreement that he will help with housework as long as I write him a list. That way, there is a strong possibility he will hoover and do the dishes after he has checked eBay and had his morning wank. But if I leave him with oral instructions, the chores remain undone.

The problem is that the stressed brain has a finite capacity for storage. It is like a free Tesco carrier bag; it can only hold so much before a hole appears. You often see it at school. While our senior management team can recite the academies legislation, they have forgotten that blusher and spray-on skirts aren't regulation uniform.

This neurological incontinence worsens with age, with cases of selective amnesia occurring more often in middle-aged men. Hence when you come back from the shops, your partner knows what is happening on Twitter but not what is burning in the oven. When that happens, it is not just the penguins that need calming down.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

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