The Not-So-Secret Reader

Twice in the last few months I have volunteered to be the Secret Reader for my daughter’s class: a mystery parent who shows up at 3pm on Friday to read a story to the class. Both times I found being Secret Reader a real treat, a lot of fun to sit down in front of 25 five- and six-year-olds and read some of my favourite books for children.

But I was surprised to find I was actually really nervous to be Secret Reader! I do my Viva Survivor session over fifty times per year, and the first time I was Secret Reader I had done Viva Survivor twice that week, but perhaps the novelty of the occasion and the very different audience made it a bit uncomfortable. I still get a little nervous before Viva Survivor, but nothing like how I felt about being Secret Reader. As with Viva Survivor, it’s important. I wanted it to go well, so my brain and body were a little anxious about it. There were so many things I didn’t know.

I didn’t know if they knew the book I was reading. I didn’t know what they were expecting. I didn’t know if they would like the story. I didn’t know if they would like me!

It felt like a bizarro-universe viva.

25 little examiners peering at me while I tried to give a good account of myself. Little eyes and ears looking and listening while I did funny voices, emphasised silly words and tried to impress upon them that this story was important. And once I got past my nerves, it was an absolute joy to do.

You are the Not-So-Secret Reader for your viva. Your examiners know who is coming, they know what you’re reading and they know that you wrote it! They may not know everything that you know, but they know (or believe) that you know it, and they want to ask you all about it. You can be nervous, and probably will be, because – like being Secret Reader – it matters.

It’s worth doing well.


One day in January, around 5pm, I noticed our house was getting cold.

I checked, and realised the boiler wasn’t on. I tried a few things and realised it wouldn’t come on. I called our boiler service people, they talked me through a few checks and realised there was nothing I could do: someone would have to come and see it.

“OK, we aim to get someone out within 24 hours; we’ll be in touch as soon as possible,” said the helpful person on the phone. This was around 5:30pm.

I started imagining…

Well. 24 hours. So the house is going to be cold all night. No showers. OK, kettles to fill a shallow bath. Hot drinks. Where’s our electric heaters? Hot water bottles for bedtime. Blankets, get all the blankets out. OK. OK… Don’t panic. It might not be fixed tomorrow. So what do we do? Stay with mum? Stay with sister? Maybe. OK. What about work? Nevermind work, what about money? The central heating is broke, BROKE, the boiler won’t fire… How much is a new boiler? How long will it take?? How long will I be paying for it on the credit card???

Ring-ring. It’s now 6pm. “Hi, this is the boiler guy! I should be with you by 7!”

So he’ll be here soon. But it’s going to be expensive. Well. OK, seriously, don’t panic. Don’t panic. Disrupted evening, late night, but I’m not out tomorrow. We’ll be fine, we can do this. We always find a way to make it work… But I suppose I’d best pack things up in the office, as the boiler is in there, and when they have to replace the boiler I’ll need to work somewhere else for at least a few days I think-

Knock-knock. It’s now 6:45pm. “Let’s take a look… Oh, did this happen? … Right, and let’s try this… OK, there’s the problem! All done! No problem, bye!”

It’s 7:10pm. All sorted. No fuss, no headache, no drama and no more cold as the radiators start pumping out heat again.

Sometimes, something goes wrong and before you know it, you’re imagining the outcome is going to be awful. It can feel impossible to put the brakes on the runaway train of catastrophes that lurch ahead in your brain. If you don’t know what the problem is, all you have are questions. If you don’t know the exact answer, all you can do sometimes is imagine it’s the worst possible option.

In your viva, it’s entirely possible that your examiners won’t like something, or won’t agree with you, or aren’t sure about a choice you’ve made. It’s natural for there to be typos, or paragraphs that don’t communicate what you want, or ideas that can be challenged. And none of them are necessarily catastrophic: in some cases, you won’t know what’s motivating the questions or resistance or different opinion. And in the absence of that information, your brain instantly jumps to catastrophe.

So: ask questions to get answers.

If your examiners say they found mistakes, don’t worry straight away: ask them where and ask them why. If they don’t agree with something, ask them why, so you know what you need to respond to. If they aren’t sure about something, ask what they would need to be convinced. You may need to do nothing to resolve the situation.

As with my boiler “catastrophe” you might realise there is nothing you can do but wait, listen and try not to obsess.