How I Topped my Class but Failed the True Test of the HSC

HSC Time is looming again. Across NSW, year 12 students are enjoying a small reprieve between the half-yearly exams at the end of last term and the Trial HSC exams coming ever closer. And while I took my final exams more years ago than I’m happy to count, I’ve been thinking about how I’d do it all differently if I had my time again.

It’s not that I didn’t get good marks. I actually did quite well. I topped my grade, in fact. But as I’ve had some time to reflect and as I’m a very different person from the person who sat in that exam room all those years ago, there are some glaring mistakes I made back then that I’d hate for anyone else to repeat.

So I write this as a warning to anyone sitting the HSC, or anyone who knows someone in that boat, to help them avoid making the mistakes I made.

No, I didn’t study the wrong book for Extension English, and, no, I didn’t forget what time my Modern History exam was – or what World War we were focusing on. My mistakes were much much worse, and had nothing to do with what was on the test. My mistakes were all mistakes I made as a follower of Jesus.

In my HSC year, I failed the test of being a good family-member, a good friend and a faithful follower of Christ. More than that, I traded worship of my Lord and Saviour for worship of myself and my final marks.

What do I mean by that? What did all of that actually look like?

  1. Family

I failed my family by neglecting to love them while I was in the midst of deadlines, assessments and exam stress. I wonder if you can relate to this? I wouldn’t tidy my room because I didn’t have time between study sessions (although I did have plenty of time to message my friends and play around on the computer!). I wasn’t home for family meals because I was too busy at the library or staying late at school (which were really just covers for hanging out with my friends). And worst of all, I used the excuse of stress to lose my temper at my parents at anything and everything.

How about you? How’s your relationship with your parents, your brothers and your sisters going? How are you treating the people closest to you in the world? Are you using the HSC as an excuse for laziness, or worse, fits of anger and frustration?

James 3:10 “Out of the same mouth come praising and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be”.

  1. Friendships

How did I fail my friends? Well, I didn’t love them either. I remember how I would whinge and complain if I didn’t get the marks I had hoped for. But in doing this, I wasn’t taking a moment to consider how my complaining would affect my friends.

At one point, I was so self-involved with my grades and my marks that two friends took it upon themselves to rebuke me, pointing out how my behaviour was making them feel. It was really gutsy of them to do that, and while I was really upset at them at the time, I’m so thankful for them now – and we’re actually still pretty close! I was valuing marks and HSC success much more than friendships which, can I say, are still strong some 18 years later!

What about you? How are your friendships going? Are you supporting one another through, or are you treating one another like enemies on the battlefield in the fight for top marks?

Proverbs 18:24 – “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

  1. Faith in Jesus

How did I fail in my faith in Jesus? Did I stop going to church and youth group during the HSC? Not at all! In fact, I remember the Senior Minister of our Church telling me at the time how impressed he was that I was still playing piano at church right though my final exams (but seriously, who’s studying on a Sunday morning anyway?).

On the outside, I seemed like a “good Christian”, and I think I even thought I was.

But I was just like the Pharisees.

Jesus talks about how the Pharisees in his day are “whitewashed tombs”. On the outside they look perfect, but the inside is full of death and decay.

My mistreatment of my friends and family is part of this. I wasn’t loving God, and because of that I wasn’t loving people as I love myself.

But more than that, while I was really good at turning up to events, I was terrible at my personal relationship with God. I wasn’t learning anywhere near as much from the Bible as I was learning about the causes of World War II. I wasn’t memorizing passages like I was memorizing lines from Shakespeare or Poems by John Donne. And while it wasn’t wrong for me to study for my exams, it reveals what my priorities where that I could find 2-3 hours a day for English, History or Maths study, but not 15, 10, or even 5 minutes  for time studying God’s Word.

And while I did pray throughout the HSC – I very clearly remember praying before every exam began – I wasn’t casting all my anxieties on God. I was channelling my anxieties in some pretty unhealthy and unwise ways – like drinking alcohol at parties as each of my friends started turning 18 (even though I wasn’t 18 until the following February), or trying to feel control over my situation by developing some pretty unhealthy controls on which foods I ate.

What about you? How’s your personal relationship with God going? Are you spending time in prayer? Are you reading his word? Are you casting your anxieties on him?

Philippians 4:16-17 –  “Do not be anxious about anything but in everything in prayer and petition with thanksgiving present your requests to God and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”.


  1. Flawed Worship

What was my greatest failure? I was worshipping the wrong thing.

For me, all I wanted was to come first in my grade. More than anything, I wanted my name on the HSC high achievers board. I wanted glory for myself.

(The great irony is that while my name is there and the board is still hanging in the office of the high school I attended, it’s my maiden name, a name I no longer use for myself!).

I did exactly what Paul describes in Romans Chapter 1:

For although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or show gratitude. Instead their thinking became nonsense, and their senseless minds were darkened …They exchanged the Truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served something created instead of the Creator who is praised forever (Romans 1: 21, 25)

If you are a follower of Jesus, by all means study, by all means try to do well, but also try to do well in the test that matters – the trials and difficulties of the HSC which have been sent by God to produce in you endurance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3-5).

If you are not a follower of Jesus, know that this is more important than any HSC outcome. It’s more important than what uni degree you’re going to get into. It’s more important than your job, your career or anything else in your future. Those things will fade away but the Glory of the Lord is forever.

I challenge you to take some time during your HSC year and ask your Christian friends the reason for the hope they have in Jesus. The answer may surprise you.

Why have I told you all of this?

I know the HSC is hard, it’s stressful, it’s difficult time for your relationships with your family and friends and even your faith. But it doesn’t have to be. Draw near to God at this time, and, as his word promises, he will draw near to you.

And I suppose for me, now I have children of my own, I’d much rather see them faithfully following their Lord and saviour than topping the class. Hopefully, when their time comes, they can, by God’s strength, pass all the tests that I failed.


Love and War

It took a war for my grandparents to meet.

I’m sure I’m not unique in this regard. Who knows how many untold thousands had parents, grandparents and great-grandparents meet as a result of the upheaval faced by those whose lives were marked by not one, but two World Wars.

In a world before commercial air-flight, traversing the more than 10,000 miles between Scotland and Sydney would have been unheard of. Without a war, two teenagers, born only days apart but half a world away would never have met, fallen in love, and started a family linage which today includes three daughters, nine grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

The HMS Anson pulled into Sydney Harbour on a wet and cloudy Sunday morning in July 1945, carrying my grandfather into the city he would soon love almost as much as the young woman he was about to meet.

The 19 year old Aussie girl from the Eastern Suburbs had no idea that night when she arrived for her volunteer shift at the British Centre near Hyde Park that her life was about to change forever. I wish I could ask her to tell her side of the story, how she felt when she laid eyes on the strapping young man, or heard his Scottish lilt for the first time. I’d love to know what crossed her mind when she took this young Royal Navy Sailor home to meet her family – (only several hours after meeting him herself!). Or how she passed the long months after his ship left Sydney, sailing for Hong Kong, then Tokyo, then back to the UK where, once the war was ended, he waited for his turn to return back to his new home, with his new love.

I can only imagine her side of the story. She’s no longer here to tell it to me. But in my Poppa’s memories, I see her through his eyes.

On my first Saturday  night ashore, I has a meal, served by a lovely dark-haired girl behind the counter. I went back for some apple pie, as well as to flirt with the lass. After a while I plucked up the courage to ask if she was staying for the dance.


“Yes,” she said.


I met her after her serving duties were over and we danced all night until 11pm when she had to go home.


“Where do you live?” I asked.


“Clovelly,” she said, although I had no idea where that was.


“How do you get there?” I asked.


“On the tram.”


She steered me through Hyde Park towards a street I would later learn was called Elizabeth Street. The tram stopped just outside St James Station.


Australian trams were strange. No corridors, just hard seats. We bounced along with it as it ground and squealed along the tracks. The trip seemed to take an age, through a dark area of factories (now known as Moore Park), and finally to the stop at the end of her street.


Despite the late hour it seemed the whole family was still awake. I met them all, a blur of faces and names at the time. But most importantly, I had learned her name. Merle.


I’d arranged to meet Merle the next day after her shift near St James Station. As the time drew near I realised – in sheer panic – that there were dozens of young girls, all leaving work, standing around, hurrying to their tram or down to the train station, and lots of them meeting sailors.


And I had forgotten what she looked like!


All the girls had the same hairdo, all of them were pretty, all of them wore nice clothes. What was I to do?


Suddenly, there was a tap on my shoulder. I spun around.


There she was. Smiling, pretty, Merle. Of course I remembered how she looked!


I never told her about this.

I wonder what my Nanna would have said if he had told her. I’d like to think she’d have the same wry sense of humour I have. I’m sure she would laugh at Poppa, and then pat him on the arm in comfort, saying “Well it all turned out right in the end,” or something like that.

And it did turn out alright. In the end they were married for almost 35 years. Only death had the power to separate them.

I can’t imagine the pain of war. I can imagine the grief for those who lost loved-ones. But I can be thankful that in my little corner of the world, in my grandparents’ experience, out of war came love, and life and a family. And me.



The Reality of War

Today is ANZAC Day.

Growing up in the relative peace and safety of Australia, war has never touched my life beyond the occasional image on the nightly news. And so, when days like ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day roll around each year, I’ve never treated them as anything more than a reason for a day off.

But in recent years, I’ve started to think beyond my current circumstances and to think about how war has touched the lives of those in my family.

My Grandfather (whom I call Poppa) is a remarkable man. Born in 1926 in a town not too far from the Scottish border, war made an indelible impact on his young life. The inter-war economic depression meant scarcity marked his childhood. When World War II began, he couldn’t run from it. It came to him.

A few years ago, as his 80s were drawing to a close and the dreadfully ancient-sounding age of 90 drew nearer, Poppa wrote a chronicle of his memories. Never trained in the “art” of computing, he wrote each page in his sprawling near-illegible script (the result of when, as a left-handed schoolboy he wast threatened with harsh corporal punishment until he learned how to write right with his right-hand). My dad, Poppa’s son-in-law, himself quite familiar with his own illegible penmanship, dutifully transcribed the memories into a word document and arranged to have a copy printed for each of Poppa’s three daughters, seven surviving grandsons, and one granddaughter (me!).

Clocking in at over 350 A4 pages, it’s quite the read!

Today I was struck by a passage he wrote reflecting on his memories of Christmas 1940. At the age of 14, he was then living in Manchester as bombs fell in nightly storms over the British continent.

It’s hard for me to imagine it. War seems so foreign. But in my Grandfather’s memories, it’s so much closer, and all too real.

Manchester was heavily blitzed over a few nights leading up to Christmas in 1940. We could hear the bombs hitting and all the Anti-Aircraft guns firing from ten miles away. Come bombs dropped short and fell locally. Searchlights probed the sky.


From our back door we watched the shells bursting. We couldn’t watch from the safety of our house as all the windows had been sealed shut with brown tape to stop them from shattering.


We didn’t get much sleep.


Bombs hailed down on warehouses, railway stations, good yards and sidings. Not even the glass roof of Piccadilly station was spared.


The night was dark with strictly enforced blackouts, but Manchester was lit by fire. Rail wagons lit by the hundreds, burning for days before being brought under control.


Just before Christmas arrived, thousands of turkeys and other livestock were burned in a bombing raid. The smell spread for miles and lingered for weeks afterwards.


But it was still Christmas, so by daytime we braved the destruction, out bus passing mile after mile of rubble to take us to Lewis’ – the biggest department store in town. But even it had not stood unscathed.


We looked for Christmas gifts among damaged aisles and sickening smells.


But we were the lucky ones. Hundreds of people had died in the Manchester area during that winter. More in the later, more sporadic, air raids. And even more still in towns and cities all over the U.K . – Plymouth, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Coventry, Birmingham, York, Belfast, Cardiff, Manchester and Liverpool.


London bore scars from bombs that would take decades to heal.

The war made an even more personal impact on my family. In all honesty, if not for Hitler’s machinations in Germany and the threat of Japanese invasion in the pacific, I would not have been born. But more on that in another post.