He’d known for a while it was coming. But he got the news this week. My 21-year old son was told by his university that his finals were cancelled. They were planning to ask the biochemists to ‘sit’ an online essay style exam across 24 hours, but even that imperfect possibility had been pulled. We sat together and he talked me through all the exams, practicals and coursework he has completed this year, and the previous two, and considered how he thinks his university will come to some algorithm of assessment for the final grade and degree class. He was deflated, but against the background of national emergency, pretty stoical.
My mind raced. I drew on ten years experience as a Headteacher plus a few more as a father, then conjured all sorts of practical suggestions for the next five months. I could imagine what he could do with his time, could see it all planned out. I suggested a few ideas. He went very quiet. He asked that we take the dog for a walk. “Let’s go further than normal, Dad.”
I was reminded of Brian Draper’s brilliant and encouraging Lent series ‘Wilder-ness’ here that I’ve been following, where he writes about a similar experience with his son:
“I found myself walking this tight-rope on Friday, when my son returned from school for the last time. He was meant to sit exams this year, but in two brief days went from full-on revision mode to saying farewell. Tears weren’t far from the surface, and I was wobbling up there on the high-wire, too. We looked down at all the revision cards and exercise books he needed to clear from his bedroom floor. “Nothing is wasted,” I heard myself say, with some vertigo.”
So Sam and I and the dog headed to a remote spot (our one exercise routine of the day) and as we walked I tried to stop making suggestions and just tried to hear him. I breathed out, shut up and listened to my son. To his frustrations, his anger and his unformed ideas. At one point the spring light shone through a wooded bank of wild garlic. We both just stood and watched for a bit saying nothing.
And then, slowly, as we meandered back to the car, side by side, a train of half-formed ideas emerged as he talked. I made myself stay silent. He spoke about how he might use this time, learning a new language, playing some new music, maybe doing some NHS volunteering, perhaps looking at some research. The time ahead slowly seemed less a punishment and more a new possibility.
Nothing is wasted.