After a chaotic week of school holidays, I am hastily dumped at the train station. I have to go to Bristol to take the IELTS - The International English Language Test. My partner has been offered a job in Toronto, and we both need to fulfill the Canadian visa requirements.
I have a note around my neck, Paddington Bear like, which says, 'Please Get a Good Score on This Test'. This a request from my partner, who wants me to go first because he doesn't like exams. He also knew that I wasn't really interested in a trip to the spa, but generously thought that I might 'enjoy' an exam more than one more day alone with my kids. Exam please.
Arriving at the IELTs test centre in Bristol at eight thirty on a chilly Saturday morning, I shuffle in to the queue behind a large crowd of Asian students. They nervously joke with each other, taking last minute glances at revision notes. The smell of smoke from their roll ups drifts through the air, and I feel like it might be 1994 again. I start to wonder if I should have prepared. There's a middle aged British couple who want to go to Canada too, handing out pencils, and explaining jovially that they're too old to get any points for age on the Canadian system.
Registration is strict. We enter in small groups, no phones or watches are allowed. Passports are inspected multiple times at different points. We are led to a large room, assigned a desk, and told that we are now under exam conditions.
I look up at the white clock on the wall and realise there's fifty minutes before the exam is due to start. The prospect of sitting at my desk burning fifty minutes in silence, with only my own mind for company is excruciating. The rest of my group look relaxed. They're used to this kind of thing. I'm just a stressed out Mum. One guy puts his head down on his desk and goes to sleep. I spend fifty painful minutes making a poor attempt at being mindful.
When at last the exam invigilator stands at the front of the room and starts speaking I'm relieved. Until she lets us know that this will be a three hour exam. She wakes up the young man who is still sleeping before stating that the first part will be a listening test. A what? Don't they excuse anyone with a baby under twelve months from this bit? They will play each part once only.
I'm aware that my concentration is shot to pieces. I've been existing like my phone: uncharged and on ultra power saving mode. I knock on my head and surreptitiously slap myself a couple of times. Luckily they play the CD on a really high volume which forces my attention, just like my kids.
Next is an hour of reading comprehension. I start skim reading confidently before realising that there's eight pages of it, culminating with a tortuous essay on the Dodo. With five minutes to go, I realise I've made several mistakes and start rubbing out my answers, before realising in my blurred state that I've changed the wrong ones.
Attempting to rectify the situation, I look up and see a boyish looking student, seated two chairs in front of me raise his hand.
The invigilator walks over to him and he looks up at her, pushing his uncombed hair away from his forehead . He wants to look at his answers from the listening test. 'You can't change your answers now,' she tells him. He just wants to look at them. 'Okay, just look' she allows, and he flips his paper over, searching through his answers.
He seems panicked, rechecking answers he can no longer change, and I feel a stab of pain. He seems so vulnerable, his skinny arms, and the nervous, repetitive hair smoothing reminds me of my own five year old son. This is someone's child, far from home, reliant at times on just the kindness and protection of strangers.
Here I am behind him, taking an exam in my own language, and the whole thing starts to seem slightly ridiculous. If I need to be an expert on an extinct, giant pigeon in order to be accepted for a visa, so be it. But now, I'm watching this young man in front of me struggling to prove his English by understanding a long, convoluted natural history essay, that many British people couldn't. Our lives, our circumstances world's apart, but now both of us just a number. A number to be assigned a rating which will determine a large part of our future - I'm rooting for him.
The next part of the exam is an hour of writing, where I'm incredulously handed a question about children and iPads. I get a little carried away, and in my enthusiasm end up with two pages of childishly written scrawl and copious crossings out making it almost illegible.
Now I only have to make it through the speaking test, but I have a three hour wait before my slot. By the time I arrive at four thirty in the afternoon, I don't want to have a conversation with anyone. Definitely not one, which skips from one subject to the next like a four year old on a sugar high.
In fact, I mumble so much, failing to give eye contact for much of the conversation, and going completely blank at points, that I'm sure I see the examiner write 'Almost illiterate'. It's a strange sensation to do a speaking test in your own language.
This whole visa process can be slightly dehumanising, your life compressed in to a series of tick boxes - tragically dehumanising for so many.
I head to the train station, my ability in my own language deposited onto four pieces of paper. It wasn't easy. Maybe we should all take a lesson from the Dodo at this point, who got so greedy and comfortable on his little island, that he lost his flight muscles and we all know what happened after that. And you know what they say, 'If you don't use it, you lose it' - so go and take the IELT's. You need to make sure you really are proficient in English before you start banging on about people not being able to speak it. Then learn another language, just like over sixty percent of the world has.
I think of the young man who sat in front of me. For now, we are both ID numbers in a pile of papers, sealed in an envelope. For now, the tired Mother of four, and somebody's lovely, dark haired child - will both remain 'pending'.
Anne writes at Untamables
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