Every End is a Beginning



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. 


Brasenose in winter

Brasenose in winter


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.


Brasenose History Freshers 2009

Brasenose History Freshers 2009



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 Radcliffe Camera, which houses a lot of the History library

The Radcliffe Camera, which houses a lot of the History library – and where a lot of my academic exploration happened.




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.


Students waiting for finishers to emerge

Students waiting for finishers to emerge


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!




3 girls 1 hat 3


Trashed Pose


me post-exam


 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?  


© 2015 Renaissance Runner Girl. All rights reserved.


4 thoughts on “Every End is a Beginning

  1. What a cool experience! Thanks for sharing. It sounds like Oxford was such a special time in your life!

    I tend to feel like things are more of beginnings than ends. It’s been this way my whole life: I remember being so sad in the weeks leading up to my 8th grade graduation, but at and after the actual graduation I felt nothing. I’m a forward thinker so I’m just always anticipating the next thing. I couldn’t wait to graduate high school, then college, then AmeriCorps, and so on, so those graduations always felt like my go-ahead to finally move forward instead of feeling like an ending. I think it’s just my personality: I’m an INFJ, and we are known to live more in our thoughts and dreams and plans than in the actual moment. That we have to work harder to do. But I’m finding that now that I’m more settled, and thus more often I’m watching others go rather than being the one who is going, endings are starting to feel a little more like endings, if that makes sense.

    Good luck on your bar exam! Look forward to hearing about it.


  2. I think I can usually see both sides of it…like when I graduated college i felt like the end of the “fun” part of my life was ending but I also felt some excitement for the opportunities that were ahead of me. I think when I was younger it was harder to see things as a beginning- like graduating high school I felt like I would never see any of my friends again. Ha! I am still friends with them 15 years later!


    • It’s only been about 6 years since high school graduation, but I know my best friend and I will always stay in touch. Everyone else…I think the distance when I left for college made losing touch more a reality, an ocean is quite large!


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