Last Thursday, I mentioned that the end of law school feels a lot less like an end, and more like a beginning. So goes the circle of life. Now I’m thinking about that even more, because yesterday I took my last final exam of law school. There is the bar exam, but I’m trying NOT to think about that for the next week! Mostly, I’m flashing back to Finals at Oxford. They felt very, well, final. About a fortnight before I left, I experienced the tradition known as ‘trashing’ that takes place when you finish Finals, and it comes at the end of what feels like a lifetime of ‘revision’ (studying – there’s an Oxford term for every word!) The day I actually left felt more like a slow fade into the next phase of life, the beginning; trashing was the end that circled into it.
The way it works at Oxford is that you apply and are admitted to a college to study a specific subject. That’s difficult for a lot of Americans to fathom; our liberal arts college system is built on exploring all sorts of academic areas. Oxford (and Cambridge) focus on depth rather than breadth, so that even within History I specialized in a few areas and really learned a lot about them. For that reason, very few American students study as full-time undergraduates – after all, how many 17-year-olds are ready to commit like that? I knew I loved history, and I do wish I could have dabbled a bit elsewhere. Then again, it was the experience of a lifetime, and I would never trade it for anything else. The tutorial system, where students meet weekly with a tutor (professor) and study and read and write on their own otherwise, really suited me, and I appreciated the chance to learn in a self-directed way, through individual exploration.
The upshot of this system is that you read and write in your subject for a few years, in the library or in cafes, with checks on your progress through weekly essays and mock exams at the start of each term to refresh what you learned in the last term, but without formal grades. In History, you sit ‘Prelims’ or preliminary exams after the first year, but these don’t count towards your degree. Then, for the next two years, you go on further into your area of study, and the level of your degree (First, Second, or Third Class Honors) is determined by your thesis and a battery of exams sat at the very end of the third and final year – Finals. The entire last term, or trimester, is devoted to studying and sitting for Finals.
The exams take place in a very large hall in the Exam Schools building in Oxford. Students have to wear ‘sub fusc’ academic dress, and it’s all very formal and starched. There are many little traditions that grew up around the exam ritual. One of these is carnations. On the first day of your exams, you wear a white carnation pinned to your gown. The middle days, you wear a pink carnation. And the last day, a red carnation. Legend has it that students of yore would leave white carnations in their inkwells over the course of exams, so that they slowly turned color. Today, the red carnation signifies who’s finished Finals to everyone waiting outside the building at the end of each exam day. On red carnation day, it’s open season for trashing.
Some students are trashed quite horribly, with eggs and fish and flour. But my friends made it magical for the three of us doing History. Confetti, Champagne, party hats, sparklers, and a St. George’s Cross to drape me in, enveloping me in English tradition once and for all. When I walked out of Exam Schools with my friends Elli and Lauren into the midst of celebration, a million thoughts ran through my head and suddenly none at all. I was totally present in the moment, something rare for me, the perpetual over-thinker. We laughed and cried and rolled around in Christ Church Meadow, drinking from the ingenious Hat of Wine rigged up by a friend. We went punting that afternoon and ate strawberries and cream, and finished the evening up right out dancing, although we were all nodding off much earlier than planned. The adrenaline that kept us going came to a crashing halt, and the weeks without adequate sleep suddenly made themselves known!
I didn’t leave Oxford for good until two weeks after this day, but looking back, it was the day I knew I had made it through. I wouldn’t receive my exam results for more than a month, but I felt such a sense of accomplishment, relief, and joy that afternoon. Everything I had been through at Oxford and in my life before added up to this experience. No exam I took before or after has ever felt the same. Not the SATs or the LSAT, and not any of my finals in law school, even yesterday’s final exam. I suppose the bar exam might feel similar – or totally different. For now, I’ll have to wait (and study) and see!
When big moments in your life happen, do they tend to feel more like ends or beginnings?
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