Three years ago this week, my then ten-year old daughter embarked on the 11+ private school entrance exams. My empathy lies with those now facing the same brutal process, which I still recall so clearly.
That year, Christmas fell between a gruelling term of preparation and the exams themselves. "I don't feel Christmassy, Mum," she said as we wrapped presents to the drifts of winter candles and Slade. So I cast aside her punishing school revision timetable. "We'll give you a whole week off over Christmas," I announced, "and we'll have a swear box if anyone mentions the 11+ or exams."
We made sure that she lived that particular Christmas just as a ten-year old should, blissfully and carefree. Still, I lay awake fretting over what I was about to put her through - my child who was so young she still wanted to believe in Santa. My gut knew that this 11+ circus was ridiculous, but I was a clown on a tricycle chasing all the others round and round that ring.
Christmas over and a gloom descended as we trudged through the past papers for Maths, Comprehension and Composition. For the first time, I wondered if we should have gone down the tutoring route, as so many other parents had. We'd stood our ground, believing the head's words that it was not necessary, that secondary schools penalised for what they clearly perceived as a tutored child. What's more, they said if a child is not bright enough to pass the entrance exam without tutoring, then they'd not be able to keep up with the work once there, and that would be cruel. Whatever, it was all academic by then.
Two days before her first exam we stopped work and she rested. We mulled over a new jigsaw, a photo of sweets in a heap, which gave her the chance to moot her nerves, and me to offer gentle reassurance. Finally, I cuddled her into bed and settled her down for an early night. Next morning, ours seemed to be the only lit house in the street. We set off in the pitch black to the school, where, with a bright smile and a thumbs-up she clipped off into the hall. When she emerged five hours later, she was still chirpy - apparently it hadn't been too bad - and we headed home to the telly.
Over the following ten days, she sat a further four exams, as advised by her school to ensure a good spread and back-ups. But, let's face it, all we parents had a first choice in mind, even if we tried to shield our children from the burden of our hope (and if ever their antennae were up and twitching...). For me, one school had a certain magic about it, a tangible sense of community, of contentment, of inspirational teaching, and we dearly wanted her to get in. Admittedly, she wanted it for herself, though how much of that was... well you know where I'm going.
Her second exam was at this school - the biggie. After more of our tricky jigsaw and a brisk walk in the sunshine she found sleep easily enough and woke rested. A short bus ride and then we shuffled through a pavement queue, seemingly with all the other ten-year old girls in London. She emerged yet again smiling. It was not as tough as some of this school's past papers and she had coped, her stress visibly melting as we headed off for pizza. As for me, I felt... well I just felt again.
Interspersed with the exams were interviews. Advised by school to 'sell herself' my daughter trotted off to her first one. "It means I've got to try and make the interviewer like me," she said. Yes, she'd got the gist I guess, but surely one so young lacked the self-awareness to pick out, evaluate and emphasise her qualities as 'selling points'? My own memories of being ten extend to snatches of The Big Ship Sails on the Alley Alley Oh.
We rehearsed a bit of technique - 'look at this painting and tell me what that cat's thinking,' and a bit of the need to impress - 'tell them about the song you wrote and performed at that concert.' They, of course, were wise to that, asking her simply how she might raise a million pounds. Run a mile in the park she'd said - adding, well you'd have to do it a few times!
Back home, the cat had started nicking pieces of the sweet-shop jigsaw; I found some on the stairs, and hoped he'd not been eating them too. The puzzle eased us through two more exams to the final one, which she tackled like an old hand, somehow marshalling that last spurt of adrenaline. It was over. I presented her with Taylor Swift tickets, her first ever concert, and her treat for such amazing resilience. We'd heard dreadful stories, of kids throwing up, of tears, and even meltdown, and our daughter had come out of this, the most intense experience of her life so far, optimistic and upbeat. She was so young that I could still count her age in months, she'd been on the planet for just 128 of them, but during that particular month she'd matured, and now seemed like a child who never had believed in Santa. It had been a rite of passage for her. It had been a far cry from the Big Ship Sails on the Alley Alley Oh.
For me, it felt like some giant social experiment: how much can we squeeze out of a child so young? I fear it is now even more ferociously competitive. Will new schools open to meet demand? Will expensive tutoring become the norm? They say everyone gets a place somewhere, that it all comes out in the wash, but I would hate to go through this again.
Triumphantly, we two slotted in the final pieces of our jigsaw - none had been snaffled by the cat - and then the long wait began. "I'm relieved, nervous and worried all at once, Mum," she told me. Quite a complex mix for a girl I'd assumed was unable to sell herself.
The post came on Valentine's Day. At the thump on the mat I scuttled to the hallway looking only for fat envelopes, not red ones; there were four of them. I tore open the one from her first choice school and saw only, "We are delighted..." We skipped around the room.
Later, as I shared texts with other mums it did feel suddenly as if the whole saga hadn't been that dreadful after all. But then we all knew that it had.
As my mother-in-law said to her late husband on their wedding night, "Oh, Eric, it's all over!"
And he cocked his head with a smile. "Don't you mean it's just beginning?"
Diane Chandler is the author of two novels, Moondance, about a couple struggling to conceive, and The Road to Donetsk, about an idealistic overseas aid worker in Ukraine.