What is disappointment?
I know it now.
Having failed my oral Animal Behaviour membership exam the feeling is of huge disappointment. The word is not being enough.
We are driving in the Byron hinterland when my friend calls my mobile to tell me my result. Immediately on hearing her voice, flat and lifeless, I know the call is not what I want. It is a moment of disbelief. I have spent most of my time imagining what it might feel like to pass. Imagining how relieved and elated I will be. Instead I am feeling that spiraling, hideous feeling of chagrin. There is shock too. There is disappointment.
Graham pulls the car over on to the verge of deep winter green grass. Two women, out on a morning stroll, peer into the car to see me in tears, hauling myself through the gamut of negative emotions. Perhaps they think the man and the woman are fighting. Perhaps he is revealing an affair. No one can see the 12-year-old boy in the rear seat. He has collapsed down on his belly with his head in his hands and is sobbing too. It seems I have wrecked everyone’s dreams in a moment.
So how can I explain what went wrong? A subject I love, and have taken into my soul, and have studied endlessly, was not able to be revealed to the two examiners seated beyond the table with the navy blue tablecloth. We are on the 21st floor of a Gold Coast Hotel. The sun is over the water and shining into the room. It should be a view to savour.
My brain becomes a series of ill-fitting cogs. It jams with a wooden block, allowing it neither forwards nor backwards movement when confronted by a question that no longer makes sense. The examiners continue to ask for the same information over and over again. Time warped. All I can do is repeat the question back to them – making no sense of the words, like a new arrival trying out a foreign language. There is a question on the welfare of circus dogs and despite my knowledge of canines and welfare I suspect I don’t give them the answers they want to hear. Why else are they repeating their interrogation? Haven’t I just answered that? Nightmarishly repetitive. They hammer away, driving the block deeper, with each successive repetition. There is a question on cockatoos invading a grain field and the way to control them, and despite knowing much about feral animal control, the picture of the swarm of birds lodges the block even further into the mechanism of retrieval of memory. Asked about the disadvantages of lethal methods it is as if the word lethal has never been heard before. Suddenly I have become a non-English speaker. When asked about drugs to help an old dog sleep I talk about benzos. They want more, and despite knowing other drugs, I give them nothing.
My hands are sweating and I am balling up tissues in my palms, as I try to get my brain to move forward out of the cog it is stuck in. I try joviality and humour. I mention my lucky shirt. I am dying on stage like a comedian with no jokes. Like turning the key in the ignition and hearing the dead sound of a car that won’t start. Still I keep trying. Repeating the questions seems to take the answer further out of reach. Answers flutter out through gaping holes never to be retrieved.
What is it about stress that sees it screw with my mind?
Having studied behaviour we all know that stress destroys the ability to remember. But I had never expected to become a blank page.
The tears come again, recalling what a dunce I must have appeared.
In the lead up to the exam my partner and child make up behaviour questions to test me. It is fun in the kitchen by the stove revealing my knowledge to them. Jasper asks me to tell them what I would do with an orca that is attacking the other orcas in his pool. In his eyes I am a behaviourist. Graham asks me for my treatment for a dog who is anxious travelling in the car. I practice to myself too. Nothing is the same as the way it is in the Hotel room.
One day after hearing the news of my failing the oral I am alone in the hut on a coffee plantation in the Byron hinterland. The boys have gone hiking. There is sun on the hillside and cattle in the distance. It is hard. I want the opposite feeling to what I am experiencing. I need not practice more resilience. I want to be making plans for my future as a behaviourist. Instead I am imagining being here again next year and again awaiting news of pass or fail. How can I change my brain to cope better under the stress next time?