Those butterflies hate flying

My abdominal butterflies, heavily medicated with Gravol, are packing the last of their belongings and have placed all the liquids in those transparent bags for security. All the diligent office workers upstairs have set ‘out-of-office’ messages on their phones and e-mail. The stylish European designers who continue to renovate the old ‘Language’ floor into a strange collection of three-wall sets following the blueprints of an arcane bargain-bin version of a memory palace have bogged off to wherever it was they came from. And I, slightly shaky with nerves and possibly fending off a pre-trip mugging by the common cold, fight to keep my figurative ‘sh*t’ together and get through this. Monday morning I fly out to Heathrow and on to Oxford. Thursday and Friday I take That Test.

On the 20th, after some logistical confusions born of inconstant international e-mail delivery, I met with an Oxford disability adviser via Skype so she could conduct a writing assessment. This was necessary to satisfy the needs of the University Proctors, officers once tasked with maintaining moral and legal order amongst the students but now mostly concerned with the enforcement of work-place safety regulations and the requisite evidence for special exam accommodations. My assessor, who worked with an admirable mix of casual professionalism and friendly seriousness, thought, based on my 2009 cognitive assessment, that I would struggle with written exams. She implied that this test was largely pro-forma, but I had asked for the use of a word-processor on The Test making it was necessary to have that assessment. Since the College required evidence in support of the request by the 21st, this odd long-distance interview was arranged.

One of the ‘symptoms’ (for lack of a better term at this time) of my cognitive condition is that I perform well below expectations on timed long-hand exams. Time limits cause stress which impedes ordered thought, which further strains working memory. Add to this the hidden process of taking all the lovely thoughts from one part of the brain and passing it through the less efficient part that codes into written words and manually applies them to paper, and you get trouble. Probably the best analogy that explains this is a fairly crude one.

Take your average, over-achieving student and place him or her before the test paper as usual but require that the student wear mittens while writing and provide only soft crayons. When the test begins, the invigilator plays loud, discordant music and every ten minutes or so, walks past the student and slaps the crayon away. Gifted students will still produce some good work under even these circumstances but it will be an inaccurate measure of their ability. For this reason, no matter how strong I was in any class, I always took a hit in grades if I had to write a final exam. For my strongest classes that could mean a 90% in course work with an 80% on the final. That was certainly good enough to keep me in the top of the class when there were only a few other students who could do better or more consistently than me. At The Test I will be in a room full of students who were all at the top of their respective classes, and I will be the only one trying to write his script with a purple crayon while listening to looped tracks by Nickelback.

Using a word-processor would solve some of these problems because it frees up the working memory and puts less strain on the conversion process that takes thought and turns it into language. Motor skills aren’t the problem. It’s ordering and coding the information onto the page that is the problem.

For the writing assessment I was asked to think of a topic, something I was familiar with and which was academic in nature. I was told to write with a learned audience in mind and once this was all decided I would write for ten minutes, long-hand, and then continue for ten minutes on a text editor. Naturally, I wrote about my thesis project. I don’t know how my work would look to anyone else, and I know that they typed part read much more like me.

I am fairly quick with the pen, although my legibility is poor. What’s worse is my spelling, syntax, and organization. When I write by hand my sentences are shorter, simpler, almost crude. I dumb down the vocabulary because I struggle so much to spell it. I often lose my place and direction and I must re-read my work regularly. Often that reveals some tangent or error in direction. I often change my mind about what I was going to say, and how I wanted to say it, half-way through a sentence which leaves crossing it out or finishing it without much commitment. All this makes it harder to remember details, names, dates, authors, examples, and counter arguments. All those extra things make a decent essay into a great one.

It’s hard explaining the effect this has on my experiences, and it’s even harder justifying a need for concessions when I have managed to get this far without them. In a way, my time in school (pre-diagnosis) was the experience of a professional athlete forced to wear a backpack full of bricks, when he played against rec-league teams. The professional will hold his own, even outdoing others from time to time, but he is not capable of doing his best. At The Test I will be competing against other Olympic grade professionals as a pro-amateur, with a backpack full of bricks on my back. That is, if they make me write the essays out long-hand.
I know my chances of actually landing the glittering prize that The Test offers are very low, but I want to feel like I have done the best I can under the circumstances. If I can manage that, I will feel good about all of this. I’m alright with being judged and graded, so long as the measure is accurate.

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