Opinion

GCSE results day: Won't someone think of the parents?

The stress of GCSE results day has Sam Delaney's nerves shredded, so why is his wife so calm?

The phrase Everything is going to be Okay typed on a piece of paper

Image: Shutterstock

It’s a wet, warm morning in late August. I’m sitting in my car outside the school, worried about where my daughter is. She walked through the gates almost an hour ago with her mates to collect her GCSE results. My wife and I are waiting outside for back-up purposes only; under strict instructions to keep a safe distance but be ready for emotional support should things go wrong. 

I tap at the steering wheel anxiously and study the faces of other kids emerging. Could their expressions offer clues to what’s going on inside? Why is my daughter taking so long? Is that a good sign or a bad sign?

“I think it’s a good sign,” I tell my wife. “If it was bad, I think she would have shot straight back out to see us.”

My wife doesn’t respond. She is relaxed about the whole thing. She has faith, I guess, that the results will be good. Or that, if they aren’t, we’ll work out what to do next and life will go on. 

Sometimes, being married to someone so rational and calm can be as annoying as it is reassuring. 

Mind you, I don’t suppose it’s as annoying as being married to a neurotic like me, who responds to moments of tension by pathologically filling silence. I begin to describe my own GCSE results day, 32 years previously, when I had attended the very same school. Only I didn’t go in to collect the results. I was on holiday in Europe and had to get my mum to read them out to me over a crackly phone line. “I think you got a kkkkzzzz crackle in Biology…and, um, let’s see, a fffffzzzz crackle ffffzzz in English…”

I wasn’t sure if I had passed or failed any of my subjects until I got home a couple of weeks later. I hadn’t expected to do well. I ended up doing well enough to qualify for my A levels. Once it was all confirmed I remember a feeling of unprecedented lightness and optimism. I had hardly smashed it, but I at least knew I had done enough in my GCSE results to secure the next little chapter of my life. I could stop worrying for a short while. Until the next uncertainty came along. Life has pretty much stayed that way ever since: an endless cycle of worrying about the future punctuated by the occasional respite, in which life seems fleetingly safe and predictable.

For me, it was never A grades or jackpot wins or massive promotions or glittering awards I craved. I’ve never really thought about my self-worth in those terms. I’ve been far too preoccupied with survival and the endless search for security. I’m just always happy to know I’ve got the next mortgage repayment covered, to be honest. I don’t have time to think about the bigger picture.

My wife, who rarely got below an A in anything, had no detailed recollection of her GCSE results day. Nor her A levels or university graduation or any other moment of achievement. I find this strange – I can usually recall the sounds, the smells, the shoes I was wearing, the prevailing weather conditions and everything else about every significant episode I’ve ever experienced. Maybe because the fear and tension I feel makes me hyper-vigilant.

My wife is straightforward by comparison. She doesn’t think in the same dramatic terms of survival and security. She makes unswervingly reasonable assumptions about the future; not that it will always be OK but that we will find a way to cope. It’s a sound point of view, based on precedent.

Why are we built so differently? Maybe it’s because my childhood was a bit more chaotic than hers. Or maybe our nervous dispositions are dished out arbitrarily at birth. Either way, I sit there hoping that my daughter’s brain is built more like her mum’s than her dad’s. Finally, she emerges through the gates and walks towards us with an inscrutable half-smile on her face. I make a choking sound. My wife tells me to start the engine. I guess things are going to be OK.

Read more from Sam Delaney here

Sort Your Head Out book cover

Sort Your Head Out: Mental Health Without All the Bollocks by Sam Delaney is out now (Little, Brown £10.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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