Tightrope

That was a strange day yesterday, studying alone in the 13th floor classroom that’s unused and open for students just before the exams (well, this year it’s not official, so sometimes you have to ask someone with a key to open it, but it always works). It’s facing south, with a wide view of the inner city that takes in the entire array of landmark buildings from the Elbphilharmonie (concert hall) in the south to the medieval and early modern main churches and the city hall downtown to the radio tower and the prominent Radisson hotel highrise at Dammtor train station in the west, plus some view of the dark blue Außenalster lake less than a mile away. We had been studying here exactly a year ago during the G20 troubles in Hamburg, each day wondering whether we’d make it here and home again without being affected by demonstrations, police operations, and road closures. Helicopters all over the sky, some passing very close to our windows high up in the BT7 tower. And student representatives running amuck, closing down their office in protest, as if anybody cared.

And now I was here again, but alone, reviewing my 539 flashcards for Certified Tester for the umpteenth time in the course of six hours, but always finding that I already knew them by heart. That was striking in a way, because quite a lot of these cards had been added in the last ten days or so–at least 150, or about a quarter of the total. Yet strangely I found that those written last–those I had reviewed the fewest times–nevertheless stuck in my mind almost as if by photographic memory. Totally counter-intuitive, because for nearly four months I had severe problems trying to remember those 200 or so added first. In fact, for the first time since I’ve been doing this–for nearly two and a half years–I had Anki (my trusted flashcard software) mark a few cards as “leeches”–cards so often reviewed without success that Anki thought I should stop trying to remember them at all because the benefit might not be worth the cost. Granted, a lot of these cards cover those vague, wordy, frequently redundant definitions for the official certificate exam. Really hard to remember in any case, but still. It took me months to be able to actively reproduce some of these. In the last couple of weeks I could write dozens of cards very similar to those on a single day, instantly remember them, and not forget them again.

It’s always amazing how sharp and keen your mind becomes and how absurdly effective and productive you can be once in exam mode. Only for a short time to be sure, but really, it never fails to fascinate me what you can do when you become single-minded. What a pity it’s so rarely possible in real life.

I went home with the feeling that I could really trust in my being supremely well prepared now, so I should unwind and try to find some peace of mind. There was totally no sense at all in doing anything more for this exam (and even less in doing something for the next one before this one was over).

And I didn’t. I had dinner with my family, studied a little French and little Russian for a change (remember my fascination with languages? The World Cup in Russia made me really curious about those funny characters), and went to bed early.

Except, as so often, my subconscious refused to let go. I slept well for just about 2 hours and then a few more hours uneasily, with confusing dreams, often lying awake for some time. At 4:30 it was completely over. Not quite so bad as before the architecture exam last term, but still I felt reasonably tired this morning, and for no good reason at all. Well, maybe except this feeling that somehow there was a small chance that this could still go wrong, this late in the game.

At least I didn’t have to go last. I let my practicum partner go first, but in return claimed second place, leaving the third of us no choice because the two of us were in agreement.

But I was absurdly nervous in the exam. I had not practiced my five-minute opener so I talked very fast to make sure I could get most of the contents across. Since I was doing test type classification I sketched a diagram to a wall-mounted chart, but had my back to the professor and the note-taker and was obscuring their view to the chart which made me more jittery still. The marker didn’t work, I lost the cap and had to dive for it while talking, and so on. And the professor looked very critical all the time, but then she usually does. Some of her questions were very probing, and I thought, my god I am losing it. After we had discussed the classification of tests there were 10 minutes left and she really made me do data flow analysis on a small piece of C code, very low level stuff. And then it was over.

You know, it’s kind of insane. I have published over a dozen books that were, and still are, available in libraries and bookstores and that have been equally publicly reviewed, and frequently trashed, by my colleagues. I have talked before hundreds of people, often without notes, and never been nervous. I can speak up in public without any tremble in my voice or any fear that I’ll not be heard, because I always am. Yet this exam situation does something with me I can’t quite control.

Maybe it’s only because the way our study program is organized, every grade counts towards the final grade on the certificate so it’s really a single, three-year-long effort and I’ve come so far already. As I said before, at this point I am primarily nervous about spoiling my excellent record in the final days. Certainly a luxury problem, but since all went so well, so far, it’s some way of making sure all the effort this cost me and my family makes at least some sense.

When I returned to the room after 30 seconds of deliberation between the professor and the note-taker they both said I had quite surprised them. How so, I said? By my being so nervous. That’s just my normal exam mode I said. I’m an emotional person at the best of times, and increasingly even oral examinations, usually my preferred mode of exam, are stressful for me. It’s my subconscious. It just doesn’t take note of the fact that I am extremely well prepared and very unlikely to fail, or even get a poor grade. And in fact I walked out with another A+ and the assurance from the professor that she’ll hate seeing me leave UAS. So do I! But then of course, at my age, there is really no choice. Nothing else makes any sense.

So that’s my 23rd exam over with, and my 22nd A+ in a row. One step closer to the end of the tightrope. I can almost bodily feel I’m just a couple of feet from being home and dry. What a way I’ve already come, in these past nearly three years. And how little left to do. In fact, all this exam thing has to work just once more and I’ll have achieved all I set out to do all this while ago. In fact, an awful lot more than that, because I never really expected it would work so well and be so much fun.

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