The last exam

I like to blog but increasingly it is getting hard to find time to indulge. My plate is normally piled pretty high with life during any week. I like to keep busy. For example, I teach a class on Tuesday night. That takes time and preparation but I consider it fun, in spite of the fact that it chews up part of my weekend and makes Tuesdays a sixteen-hour day. And there are lots of other things that keep me busy, including the usual: a full time job, various onerous and not so onerous duties around the house, exercise and other volunteer activities.

Blogging requires leisure time, and at least this week it has been largely nonexistent. This is because in addition to teaching a class, I got to sit in the classroom this week. I got to be a student again, which in this case meant cramming a semester course into three days. Speaking for middle age people everywhere who encounter this: Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!

The course in question is this one. I won’t identify the vendor except to say I got to take it locally in nearby Fairfax, Virginia, and the view from the 11th floor of this office building is impressive. Taking the course and hopefully passing the exam was challenging, in part because I am a middle aged dude, grad school is more than a decade in my past, and those old studying and cramming skills have atrophied. There is no denying it: I am just not the student I once was. Perhaps I have become a bit soft, or maybe it is just general laziness. I wish my mind were as supple and capable of absorbing knowledge as it used to be. Hunkering down at age 54 has become really hard to do.

“Why am I doing this?” I kept asking myself. The training was not required and I suggested it to my boss, in part because I had an employee take it and she found it useful. I am not required to get a certain number of continuing education credits every year, but when I had to in the past getting the course certificate was good enough. But certain courses demand more. They demand that they monopolize your life for the time you take them. This course was a three-day course, but it essentially packed in a semester course into three days. It came complete with a high stakes professional exam at the end that had to be shipped to Great Britain for official scoring. I won’t know for a week if I passed. I can say that it was one of the hardest exams I have ever had to take, and that includes the SAT. Some of my classmates were sweating bullets. Their jobs literally depended on passing the test.

Fortunately, the instructor coached us heavily. When you have a course book with more than three hundred pages, there is no way to read it in three days. She knew what to have us focus on and what could safely be ignored. She had us bookmark certain pages and underline key phrases. Even so the course was incredibly briskly paced. Moreover, it came with plenty of homework. Except for some few hours of poor sleep, the course consumed your life for three days.

I was lucky because my boss did not demand that I take the exam. But once in the class my darned sense of professionalism and pride kicked in. How could I shamefully audit the class when everyone else was sweating it? And who knows, maybe I would put the material to use, in spite of the fact that I am rapidly approaching retirement age. Mainly the peer pressure got to me. So I jumped in headfirst and hoped I would make it to the other side of the pool, which looked so far away.

It all felt and was quite daunting, but I know twenty years earlier it would have felt much less so. The course’s pace made my heart beat faster. My hand raced to keep up with the notes I was taking. Very soon my head started throbbing because the fire hose of information just kept coming at me. At the end of the day I staggered home only to find a stack of homework that had to be done, notes to be reviewed, highlighted and terms committed to memory, and my mind fatigued and numb. Perhaps it was psychosomatic, but I started to develop cold symptoms. They were really stress symptoms. I was like a Ford with 200,000 miles on it, rarely driven faster than sixty miles an hour suddenly being asked to drive at 120 miles an hour for a hundred miles.

Even with all that preparation and coaching, when I took the practice exam I managed to squeak by with only one point. We quickly reviewed it and our mistakes, and then were given the real exam that was considerably harder than the practice exam. I won’t know for a week or so if I passed. I’m guessing I probably passed, but likely just barely. If I were twenty years younger I might have scored twenty points higher. But those days are sadly behind me. The CPUs in my brain have slowed down over the years. Indexing all that material left some broken links and filing the material was a slow process. The more supple minds around me, principally brilliant students from India and China, seemed to handle it with equanimity.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will be the last exam I have to take in my life. If I have to take another, I should get some sort of handicap for age. Perhaps I needed the same class to be a day longer and not quite so hurried and harried.

For now much of my week remains a cloud of intensity and mental pain that has passed, I hope for good.

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