This week, I saw a girl walk into the bathroom in Barrows, messy hair stuffed into a ponytail, wrinkles all over her shirt and Cal sweatpants. She placed herself in front of the mirror, plopped her forehead on the mirror’s cold surface and just stood there silently for a few minutes, staring at her tired and worn face.
Because it’s midterm season.
As this is my first semester at Cal, I am new to these couple of weeks of hell. Earlier this semester, I laughed when someone told me that usually around midterm season, campus is splashed with fliers advising people on how to deal with stress. “I’ve got this under control,” I said, oh-so-naively. And I would have, had I not had the ludicrous idea of going for a statistics major, which made me sign up for Calculus II three weeks into the semester. They say math is a universal language, but it sounds a hell of a lot like Latin to me these days.
I started worrying about these exams so far in advance that my brain doesn’t understand how I still haven’t taken them. But as a proud survivor of the Syrian Bacaloria (our exit exam), stress is not news to me. The freak-out back-flips my brain keeps doing are actually nowhere close to being as bad as those I had in my senior year of high school.
In Syria, none of your high school grades count toward college admissions, nor do any extracurricular activities or jobs. The one thing that “determines your future” is your final grade from senior year. Commence hyperventilation.
One day in April, your school says adios and sends you home. For about two months, you pore over book after book of different subjects, including five types of math and two types of physics. You end up with a total of nine exams, each a new wave of horror, scattered in the lovely, scorching month of June. For the last three years of high school, every teacher made it clear on a semi-daily basis that these would be the two most challenging months of our lives. They don’t exaggerate much.
My bathroom wall was crowded with doodles of various physics equations. I once started crying and yelling at my dad because he wouldn’t let me make potato soup, the one thing I was looking forward to doing all week. My friend called me the day before our physics exam, crying hysterically, and, to this day, I feel guilty about my response. “I don’t have time for this; I have to reread everything by tomorrow. Go talk to your mom.”
I was convinced I’m a horrible person.
But it’s because everyone psyched us out. People in their 50s recited the questions they had on their own exams back in the day, stressing the fact that their Bacaloria was both the most memorable and stressful year of their life. My grandma called my mother after our math exam asking if I was OK, as there were ambulances all over the city because students kept passing out in the exam halls. When a friend fainted in the courtyard of our school, the policemen perched outside didn’t allow parents to enter and help because they were worried this was a ploy for students to cheat. Yes, police officers. Because this exam is that legit.
I’d love to tell you that the exam process goes smoothly, but it never does. You start listening to that part of your brain that tells you you’re dumb and those voices in your ear that whisper wrong answers in the middle of the exam. But you soldier on, and you emerge (hopefully) victorious. To clarify: victorious not because you aced your tests but simply because you survived.
I remember on the last day, I walked past the cheering crowds, complete with horns and singing, and walked over to my mom’s car. I got in and silently plugged in my phone. I soaked in my relief that this nightmare was over as we drove through the windy streets with Michael Buble’s “Feeling Good” playing on repeat.
I definitely took those finals seriously, but I refused to give them power over me. The stress that saturates the air in Doe and Moffitt around midterms reminds me of the students I used to hear of back home who committed suicide over a math exam. Whether we’re Bacaloria or Berkeley students, we all need to pause, breathe and remember it’s only a matter of life or death if we make it so.
Regardless, it’ll all be over soon. And then we can ease back into our standard level of stress that comes with the burden of being a student at UC Berkeley. We’ll go back to worrying about problem sets and readings instead of review sessions and back to dealing with professors who believe their class is the only one we’re taking instead of figuring out grading curves.
But for now, this the moment I’m looking forward to: pumping my hand in the air and strolling down Sproul with “Feeling Good” blaring in my ears after my last midterm is over. So look out for me next Thursday: It’s happenin’.
Bring it, Cal.