In the life of every university finalist, there is a dream. For most it’s a distant dream, yet still one that provides elusive hope throughout the exam period. It’s the ultimate prize, the get-out-of-failure-free card. It will turn that frown upside down. It will strap you safely into the super-express highway to high earning. It’s just a little piece of paper, but it has big dreams for you. It’s the extenuating circumstances form.
Extenuating circumstances are like the sob story that gets talentless oiks through to the finals of TV talent shows. Except that the student who wins the extenuating circumstances prize will not be talentless, nor an oik, but a gifted individual with a gammy foot and some gumption. They’re the ones brave enough to stand up, take a deep breath and say, “I did bad. But it, like, totally wasn’t my fault.” And I applaud them.
While many are called, few are chosen. Extenuating circumstances themselves can present something of an academic challenge, balancing just the right note of pathetic misfortune with a good dose of conscientious student moral. “Dear Mr Nice Kind Examiner. I’m sorry my essay on Hamlet was just a paragraph-long synopsis of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Last Action Hero followed by a cartoon drawing of Groucho Marx eating a pie, but I had a bit of a dicky tummy at the time. It later turned out to be dysentery. I can still have a First, yeah?”
Exam halls are pretty much a greenhouse of festering maladies anyway, the rattling coughs and synchronised sniffing echoing off the walls like performance art. But there will always be a couple who have it worse than the rest; those who need sun lamps or traction or freestanding drips. The lucky sods.
Of course, extenuating circumstances are also the hypochondriac’s meal ticket. Headaches become migraines become brain tumours, leg cramp is definitely DVT and could that twitchy eyelid be a small stroke? Of course it could! Get that form, quick, before the Nurofen starts working!
But right now, none of that creativity is even needed - the press are handing us panic on a platter. So it’s their fault that I’ve spent more time in the British Library bleating “I inhaled on the tube, Mum! I can feel the disease in my actual pores!” than reading Henry IV, and their fault that all my dreams are haunted by visions of myself with a snout. Yes, what could be more compatible than a six-hour Shakespeare exam and a timely bout of swine flu?
It doesn’t help that the symptoms are so pedestrian. Headache? Fever? Nausea? Tiredness? I run the whole gamut of warning signs during a standard trip to the big Topshop, how the heck am I not supposed to worry? Plus, the lifestyle of a finalist lends itself so well to thinking you’re dying – heart palpitations from the espresso consumption, aching joints from hard library chairs, general sense of overwhelming pressure smooshing you into the floor like a fly under the thumb of responsibility.
So when, on Thursday night before my Shakespeare marathon, I developed a sudden ‘fever’, it was impossible not to adopt my Beth in Little Women pose of martyred tragedy as I lay back and waited to be discovered by my adoring flatmates. Could I do an exam from my hospital bed? Would I be the girl on the front page of The News of the World, “I Did My Finals With Swine Flu”? Would I get to meet Lorraine Kelly or maybe write a bestselling memoir?
Four hours later and adoring flatmates still not home, it started to become clear that while I had not died yet, I had also not done any work. Furthermore, the fever seemed to have miraculously cured by taking my jumper off. Whether “acute hypochondria and severe idiocy” is enough to earn a girl an extenuating circumstance form, we shall see. I did bad. But it, like, totally wasn’t my fault.