Testing Times – by Olly Double
Although it’s nearly a third of a century since I took my O-levels, I vividly remember some of the exam rituals we used to have. As you sat down in the exam hall, you’d take all the stuff out of your special pencil case and line it up along the back of your exam desk – pencil, pencil sharpener, ruler, at least two pens (in case one of them ran out), and possibly some kind of plastic mascot or furry gonk to bring you luck.
My mum also used to make me take glucose tablets in, because she said that they would boost my blood sugars and that would help me to concentrate. Not being diabetic, I don’t think they did any good, but I was still at the age where any chance to eat something sweet was instantly accepted. So I’d take the glucose tablets into the hall and chew away at them through the exam, even though it made me feel slightly sick by the end.
The reason I’m recalling all of this is that my son Joe is currently in the middle of GCSE exams. Unlike me, he does have type 1 diabetes, so his pre-exam ritual is a bit more serious than mine. The stuff he lines up along the back of the desk includes his blood glucose testing kit and a bottle of Lucozade in case of hypos – no glucose tablets for him, as he finds these chalky, medicinal sweets far too unpalatable.
Before the exam starts, he tests his blood glucose and writes his level down on a piece of paper that the school provides him with. He also has a stopwatch with him, and if he has to stop and test his blood sugars during the exam or wait to come up from a hypo, he times how long this takes and then gets that much extra time at the end.
In among the GCSEs, Joe’s also taking an AS-level in philosophy, which he started studying this year. It’s quickly become his favourite subject. He loves contemplating the nature of existence, and engaging me in arguments about, say, whether free will exists or not. These debates often go on for weeks, eventually leading me to say something like, ‘Look Joe, free will definitely does exist, so please feel free to stop haranguing me about it while I’m doing the washing up.’
Exams affect Joe’s blood sugars, and like everything else with diabetes, the effects are complicated and unpredictable. He finds revising tends to make his blood sugars run low. Anything that involves a lot of concentration tends to have that effect. As Descartes might have put it, ‘I think, therefore I am hypo.’
However, during the actual exams, Joe’s more likely to get high blood sugars. Presumably, the effects of thinking hard are more than counterbalanced by the sheer terror of taking exams, and as we know, stress can often induce hyperglycaemia. Joe says having high blood sugars makes him feel so horrible that it’s hard to think straight. Apparently, if he spends most of the exam over 14 mmol/L, that’s supposed to be somehow taken into account with the marking – but Joe has no idea exactly how that would work, so he gets worried when high blood sugars have made his thinking go all wonky.
I should point out that the special allowances that help to ensure that Joe isn’t disadvantaged have had to be negotiated, and some schools refuse to take even these simple steps. My wife Jacqui, who’s involved in various diabetes networks, tells me that in some cases kids with diabetes have been banned from taking blood glucose monitors or even hypo treatment into the exam hall.
At the end of the exam, Joe always tests his blood glucose, and takes any necessary action. If he’s low he’ll have a swig of Lucozade, and if he’s high he’ll dial up a correction bolus on his insulin pump. Socrates is supposed to have said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, but I think most of us would happily spend the whole of our lives without the scary rigmarole of sitting exams.
However, diabetes adds an extra layer of complication and annoyance to the whole exams palaver, and it makes me feel very grateful that I didn’t have to put up with that all those years ago when I was taking my O-levels.
Mind you, Socrates is also supposed to have said, ‘I know one thing: that I know nothing.’ That wouldn’t have helped him much when he sat down to do his GCSEs. He should have done a bit more revision.