The best exam question I was ever asked came at Christmas in my sixth form year. It was in a British Studies class: in interdisciplinary History and Literature class, team taught by two of the best teachers I have ever had. It was my first three hour exam: an hour for literature, an hour for history, and an hour for… well, that’s the bit I want to tell you about.
The third hour was a free for all. In the last minutes of the second hour, the teachers began placing postcards face down on our desk. The postcards had something to do with the curriculum, and it was our task to figure out and write about what. That was all. ‘Please write for one hour in reference to your postcard and the things you have learned this term.’
Mine was of a boar snuffling around the base of a tree. At least I think it was a boar. It might have been a pig, but it was hard to tell. It was richly coloured and glinting, from some illuminated manuscript or other. Quite lovely, in its way, but a bit alarming as an exam question.
I paused briefly to panic, and watched as every illuminated boar-related though flit through my mind.
- scribes, literacy
- poverty and riches
(no, I don’t know why either, but it works like that sometimes)
- Boar’s Head Carol
- Boar hunting >> dangerous >> knights>> chivalry
- heir to the throne, risk
- oh help, I need to write an essay about a boar?
- England and France
- The Lion in Winter
No, wait. That’s a different course.
- Oh help.
Anyway, you get the idea. There is actually more than enough there to write for an hour. You just need to sort it into clusters and wax lyrical. I took a deep breath, and wrote frantically till the time was up.
And then I panicked all through the holidays because I really hadn’t a clue as to what they had wanted or whether I had given it to them.
Thankfully, I had. It was a turning point for me: the first moment my terribly divergent mind was given free reign and deemed worthy. It was fun. And, I confess, all the more so because most of my classmates — who were usually smarter and faster and more clever than I– had not coped with the postcards at all and suddenly, my essay was offered up as the model.
I was reminded of that exam as I looked at the wall paintings in Easby recently. Easby is best know for the Abbey ruins, and the Turner painting thereof. But what I didn’t realise for years was that the real treasure of Easby is in the parish church. There, unguarded and unprotected, are a set of wall paintings dating from c. 1250 which tell the story of salvation.
They are captivating and beautiful, and I will say more about them later in relation to my nascent thoughts on wonder. But for now, I just want to show you my favourite and ask you to consider in in the spirit of the British Studies exam.