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Facing Fear and Slaying Exams

I have been meeting with some of the seniors the past few weeks reflecting on their quotes for the yearbook.  Several had agonized over what wisdom would truly capture their hearts.  Others seemed a bit more aloof in their selections.  One quoted himself.  I was a little concerned about the last.  I was concerned until I picked out my own yearbook and read my senior quotes.  I listed four one line quotations.  I am a bit embarrassed of them now though I probably overestimate the current readership of the Hill School Dial from 1991.  I wrote:

“Don’t believe the hype ya’ll”  -Flavor Flav and “Just Do It” -Nike, the quintessential marketing mantra of an era.

I was more gratified that I took the higher ground for my two other quotes.

Probably more out of a sense of obligation rather than a real sense of commitment to Christ at that time, I quoted the Golden Rule and attributed it to Matthew, though the wording I used really would have been more accurately attributed to Luke 6:31.  I guess there were no biblical scholars on our yearbook staff.

Loving history, I had to pick FDR’s epic “all we have to fear is fear itself” for my last quote.  I am kin

d of curious what exactly I may have been so fearful of at that point in time.  Our Headmaster’s letter to us in the yearbook reminded us that the times were tenuous.  The Berlin Wall had just fallen; the Soviet Union was disintegrating and as a result the Middle East was unstable.  The volleys of the First Iraqi War were fired during the fall semester of that year.  Some less than informed fellow students talked of the reinstatement of the draft.  More likely we were afraid of not getting into the college of our choice or just worrying about a date to the prom.  (Incidentally, our all-boys boarding school had to cancel my senior prom for lack of dates, but that is a story for another time).

Today, in the role of principal, I think a lot about what fears our students may be facing.  Realistically, the economy has steadied (though many are still hurting), and while the war in Afghanistan is still a reality, I’m not sure it weighs heavy on the hearts of our high school students.   Some of the most astute may be thinking about Syria and the potential for the unraveling of the Middle East just as seemed to be on the minds of many in the early 1990’s, but I doubt it.

It is my observation that our students (and students in general at strong independent Christian college preparatory schools) are more clearly fearful of either doing poorly academically or being socially isolated.    One big test that one has not prepared properly for or one wayward tweet that a “friend” posts can be enough to send the fear racing th

rough our students.  Much could be written on the latter, but today I focus on the former.

We are heading into exam time later this month.  Exams heighten this fear. Before exams it is important for us to partner with our young men and women to handle such fear properly.  Fear severely hinders the decision making process, especially in the pubescent and post-pubescent mind.  Academic related fear comes from lack of preparation, uncertainty about expectations, irrational worry about things out of our control, and lack of trust in God given ability. Fear rarely leads to better performance according to psychologists.

However, new insight into fear about fear directs us toward better conclusions about how best to handle fear.  Mega bestselling author and 21st Century analyst Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter to conquering it in his new book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (for a full review of the book by Trinity’s Donna Sibenthaler see David and Goliath.  A particularly astute passage from the book quotes psychiatrist J.T. MacCurdy from a book entitled The Structure of Morale relating the fear of being of afraid. He writes:

“We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration…When we have been afraid about something and then (it happens)…we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and the feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage” (Gladwell, 133).

Part of the exam process is the opportunity to conquer the fear of future exams. It is a huge element in the college preparatory education.  Starting exams in middle school helps students begin to conquer fear of exams with very little on the line.  The continuation of exams through high school prepares one for college.  Each step of the way, however, there are opportunities where fear may do what it does best: create a sinister, irrational need to cheat.  I say irrational because one’s integrity certainly is worth more than a few points on an exam or a higher grade for the semester.  Even if one is attempting to get into a specific college or earn a scholarship to said college, certainly one’s academic integrity is worth more than these.

Several of our students during exams might be like Saul and the Israelites standing in absolute terror of Goliath when he famously called the nation out in 1 Samuel 17:10.  The next verse says that they “lost their courage and were terrified.”  But Gladwell reminds us that there is more to the story than an underdog winning a battle.  David never felt that he was an underdog.  Actually in convincing Saul that he could stand up to Goliath he refers back to all of his training slaying beasts: “your servant has killed lions and bears; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them” (1 Samuel 17:36).

Throughout this semester, our students have been slaying beasts in the form of equations, theorems, formulas, thesis, philosophies, and linguistics.  Exams present a wonderful opportunity for our students to feel the exhilaration of whichMacCurdy speaks, slaying the giant found in fear and coming out the other side.

Partnership Study Tips: would you be willing to set aside some time with your child to talk for 15-20 minutes about the story of David versus Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 as it relates to exams?  Talk to him or her about what fears they may have.  Have them write down the tests and specific content they are most concerned about and come up with a written plan for studying (smooth stones in their pouches 1 Samuel 17:40).  You may also have them think about and shed any extraneous items they do not need as they prepare.  Saul gave David a bunch of armour and weaponry that was not going to be useful in battling Goliath.  David wisely shed it.  Sometimes students go over things for exams that aren’t necessary.  Sometimes they have their phones with them studying and getting distracted (when all they need is their notes or a book).  Taking time to prepare for battle makes sense and the time to start is now.

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