The English Exam That Changed Nothing

Or how I learnt to stop worrying and love the wall

A.H. Starlingsson🌲
4 min readMay 5, 2024
Proof I have scribed, actually

Let me start this piece with a short tale, and in fact let it peter out so: for years, then decades, I wondered how I’d ever passed that high school oral English exam. French had been a doddle, given that my French teacher had given me all the answers to the questions he was about to ask, before he clicked the tape recorder on. Still, he had not been happy, admonishing me for using cocaine before the exam, playing an excerpt of my sniffing. I hadn’t, but given he was an ex-tour manager of the Rolling Stones, who was I to argue.

The afternoon-tea at-the-Ritz styled woman who was to give my English oral exam was not made of the same mettle as my ex-impressario French teacher, but she was a kindly soul.

My problem with English were books. Despite wanting to be a writer, I did not read them. I did not carry them, did not use them as defensive piles from behind which I could shoot rubber bands from, nor as door stoppers: they had simply gathered in my locker over the years.

So it was with some consternation carefully stage-managed as focus and concentration that I waited for the first question.

“What symbolism does one see in the Scarlet Letter?” the Ritzy dear enquired.

The pause that started then in some ways never stopped.

Birds chirped outside.

Further afield a bus honked.

“I do not believe in symbolism in literature.”

Decades hence, I do understand that the voice that spoke was mine. I find it hard, though, to connect with the mind that had mutated it. What wonderful career choices must have opened for me then, with a mind capable of taking such unadulterated shamelessness. I certainly did not see myself as above the fray, in any sort of Julius Cesar sort of manner, nor did I feel acting was anywhere near my vocation, or midnight comedian in a small shack somewhere off Route 66.

“Artificial meaning, then,” came her voice, from elsewhere than my reverie.

“That, I like,” I answered, “but you’ll have to give me examples of what you mean.”

It was quickly as if we were indeed sipping the best Darjeeling out of finest china at the Ritz, along with poodles, diamonds and the odd fur coat interspersed between bags of blue, or red, or sumpuous edgy black leather, hinting at a hidden life.

And she enjoyed it so much that she almost forgot who was posing, not reacting to the set questions.

But I was faster, catching sight of two books on the table: Waiting for Godot, and The Travelling Salesman.

“I have always been struck by the similarities between the two,” I announced, not with too much grandiosity, I hoped, and feared.

“You have?” she asked, in a voice that would have been incredulous had it not been trimmed by years of sipping tea at the given hour and chair by the window with the most discrete view.

“I have.”

This second pause was the one just before a waiter appears, pours the warm tea from a spotless white pot, and murmurs a “thank you, ma’am,” before retiring in a manner Mr Bean has long learnt from.

Indeed, my examiner glanced to the door.

“I wonder if you might be able to think of any possible ones,” I asked.

She sighed, “another time or place maybe,” she said, “but not at your higher English exam.”

I looked crestfallen, and was, for surely now was coming the killer question to finally expose the actual depths of my lack of knowledge.

She sighed again.”Welll…” she said.

The question, these decades, years and months hence, then, was more of a why. Why had she given me nearly the top mark, a flat century, if not for a matter of a few numbers here and there, as my English oral grade.

Of course the secret to my success was wicked charm and what the French call culot.

That kind of charm works well when there is eyesight in the air and the absoluteness of youth. And no pen. On paper, it does not work. Pens and paintbrushes remains the arbiters of graft and training. You simply cannot turn up with a shoot of bamboo and state you thought it would make a perfectly utilisable writing utensil.

So why had I not read any books? Because I did not write. Why did I not write? Because no teacher had instilled the need in me to stand on the shoulders of giants and carry the tradition. Some are intrinsically motivated, some extrinsically. Like many, my motivation was extrinsic, and being told to write five pages on why tea represented civilisation is not teaching writing.

years later I set about changing all that, by becoming a teacher of English department in a college on the windswept puszta, The Great Plain, in Eastern Hungary.

And if I could come from that lowest of barriers I had set myself in that English exam to teaching writing, then it was worth exploring how, if not why.

alone, the flower grows



A.H. Starlingsson🌲

—Playwright, writer, editor, theatre director, 🇺🇦 fighter, aforestbather Substack podcast Churchill was also a druid🌳