The story explores a static ritual: formal written exams, sat in silence, much like those my pensioner colleagues sat decades ago. It is our society’s main coming-of-age ritual for thousands of children.
I want to tell the story of how my colleagues see the candidates, and how they see us in turn - and how we all see the ever-changing exam regulations. The tale is built of short sketches showing the humorous imaginings the invigilators use to avoid being bored out of their minds, the children’s reaction the day after the Brexit vote, and the social division between the rural poor and the privileged children of local commuters.
It shows the imposition and normalisation of bureaucracy in education, contrasted with the humanity shown in personal conversations had with candidates after the exams - and their desperate notes to examiners on their A Level papers. And it shows the slow changes in my colleagues and I’s lives; a drama hidden from the silent candidates.
Also coming of age - me moving from idealistic youth to functioning, compromised adult.
Scene: An exam hall. At the back, empty space. At the midstage, a sea of desks, a regulation 1.5 metres apart from one another, labelled in columns from A to Y, and rows from 1 to 15. At the front, the LEAD INVIGILATOR’S DESK OF DOOM - a very plain folding table, but covered with stacks of different kinds of exam paper, trays of stationary, and boxes of tissues. [which will be slowly drained over the course of the season] It is impeccably neat. Behind it is a clean whiteboard, the exam name written on it, and above it is a basic white-plastic clock with a red second hand. The hour and minute hands do not reach midday at the same time.
Year 1, 2016
As you join us, Rob stands by the door, pedantically reminding you that you are allowed no phones, coats, bags or other prohibited items, that the only liquid allowed is water in a clear plastic bottle, to make sure you sit in the correct seat, and any day-specific announcements. Jane strides through the candidates, cross-checking whether you are seated in the right place against a list. She will occasionally ask for ID, and complain if it is not ‘college ID’. Ann stands behind the DESK OF DOOM, occasionally lashing out at anyone apparently staring or pointing at her, and otherwise talking on the radio to Janet. Once the you, our audience and candidate, have sat down,
I remember being accepted as an invigilator.
Re.: Register of External Invigilators.
Further to your recent interview, I am pleased to tell you that we are happy to include you on our register.
I am enclosing the following forms, which we require you to complete before… blah, blah, blah.
The nature of this work is obviously casual and intermittent… blahdeblah… there is no obligation on the part of Yarnham College to provide work for you or for you to accept any work so offered…
Training will be held on Tuesday 12th April 2016 from 10.30 to 3.00 pm. Lunch will be provided, please advise us if you have any dietary requirements.
At the time, I had none. I looked forward to the food.
We crowded into a classroom, clustered around children’s desks on too-small chairs. Ann - a lead invigilator who’d done it for a decade. Jane - a normal invigilator, almost as experienced as Ann. Rob, “very old, and I’ve been doing it for a very long time.” All led by Janet - never Jan - the head of exams at Yarnham College. All laughing about how Jane called them ‘normal’, for surely ‘no invigilator could be normal!’ they guffawed in their standard-issue fading cardigans and sensible flat shoes.
Exams would be in the sports hall, a small room for exams needing computers or extra space, and one-to-one, when someone was scribing, reading, or both - depending on access arrangements. We trained for four hours, covering emergency procedures, safeguarding, and exam regulations.
We were not allowed to cover windows and glass panels in doors, no matter how much the candidate nagged - for safeguarding reasons.
If during the exam they were saying they were going to “top myself”, let the exams team know. For safeguarding reasons. [Nervous laugh].
Just ask questions - “there’s no stupid questions.”
“If it gets too hot, can I open a fire door?” Fire exits can be propped open, fire doors cannot be. No matter what anyone tells you. For safety reasons.
“What if they fall asleep [the idle scum]?” “If their eyes are open, and they’re not dead, do nothing, super! Unless they have a P on their desk for Prompt. If they’re slumped on the desk, you can ask “are you alive?”
“Is there ever any influence of… drugs?” A titillating thought to the speaker. If someone’s under the influence, but not being disruptive, it’s fine. If they’re acting strange, tell the exams team and they’ll look at the candidate and make a decision.
“If I’m scribing for someone, do they have to write their own signature?” Not if they can’t write, no.
“Do wheelchairs count as unauthorised exam materials?” No.
“What about inappropriate clothing?” “I don’t know how we do it without sounding sexist, but some of the girls turn up in clothes as if they’re going-“ “To the beach” “The Red Light strip, I was going to say, and feel quite sorry for the lads who have to sit next to them!” Ah yes, we are all so goddam heterosexual here in Yarnham. Pie Jesu Domine. “I was actually thinking of slogans.” “We had one quite offensive one, oh yes…” There is nothing one can do, it appears, short of stripping somebody. Which is frowned upon - for safeguarding reasons.
If something goes wrong, don’t panic. Tell the exams team, and they’ll panic while you project calm to the students. The exams team are “good at panicking.” Main thing is to keep a detailed Incident Report Form so that, if a student complains to their mum after a bad exam that you were playing music and dancing, you have protection. After all, your unsoiled name, the austereness of your life…
Shoes! Jane always goes bare foot in the sports hall. As does Janet. Because Jane would glare at her otherwise.
Then training was done. You sit there, waiting for your exam. Half an hour before…
The first day. The day of reckoning. Waiting for assignments, waiting to deploy, as the other invigilators called it. They enjoy the military connotations of the word. They dread being sent to 61a, “The hole.”
It is a beautiful day. The exams may still be done in time for a harvest that few of the students will work on. And they will no longer be invigilated by teachers they know and trust to glance favourably at them, but by us, a professional cadre of amateurs.
The assignments come in - as we go into the office and look to the whiteboard, one asks Janet whether they are holding Janet’s coloured paper. Janet is busy. But probably, yes. I am in the Sports Hall, under Ann’s command. Ron is in The Hole.
With the imperious authority of an evil Overlord, she grips the handles of The Trolley. It is a battered plastic dinner trolley with three layers, all covered with exam scripts and answer sheets. As she lays out her materials on the Desk of Doom, we lay out the scripts, column by column, in accordance with the prescribed seating plan. Column A for those with extra time, Columns B-X for normals, Column Y for the special ones. We rarely get beyond Column P.
I am a normal invigilator. Jane seems most keen to take the Extra Time column under her purview.
There is the Reading Of The Exam Announcement. Or, more accurately, The Playing Of The Recording From An MP3 Player That Has Janet Reading The Exam Announcement Once We Get The MP3 Player To Work, Specifically When I, Eleanor, Have Been Asked If I Understand Such Things, And Eventually Establish That Yes, I Do.
Our Overlord sits behind the desk, a spider at the centre of a web of information and tidings. A colleague wonders what to do - a candidate has asked for a ruler. It is a ruler emergency, I am told. But we do not have a spare ruler. They ask me, fellow rookie, whether they should go to check. They go. They return. “We’re doing the right thing.” The candidate should have brought their own ruler. It is not an emergency. It may imperil the candidate’s future success, but it is not an emergency. They should have brought their own ruler.
There is a noise outside. Janet told us in training that she’ll “take their names, and when it’s their turn I’ll get someone to shout outside their room.” We do not do so. I am sent outside to look at them so they go. I am a scarecrow; a scareloudstudents.
We stand in silence. I imagine… I imagine a vampire at the door. Ann radios Janet. Can we evacuate the exam hall? We must check the ICE regulations guide. We cannot keep them at bay with the cacophonous Catholic liturgy. But crosses are acceptable.
A vampire is not acceptable. A vampire is an individual. A vampire does not fit within our system of rows and columns. They are not invited in.
That evening, I write to my beloved. I write the news of the day; of the boredom and the responsibility, of the terrible tedium and the questionable morality of the task. I ask after their day. I go to sleep.
Another day, we sit waiting to deploy. As they drawl though their lives, I hear a stately gavotte play beneath their tales of “he’s a good chap,” the other’s friend owning a “few hairs of the tail of the horse.” The sneer of “If I’d been asked ‘do you wash at Yarnham College at the weekend, I’d have been embarrassed.’” The clashing morals of tradition and modernity - is he worried about his mother, or about his business failing?
Today is psychology and maths. The others do not expect much in the way of overlap between candidates. Psychology is for girls who want to understand others. Maths is for boys because “they’ll want to be engineers.”
The exams, I am told, are too short. We remember the days gone by. Should three-hour exams be forgot And never brought to mind? You’ll sit a three-hour paper yet, For auld lang syne. For glorious endurance and mem’rised facts, We’ll make you sit three hours, But the ink you use must still be black For auld lang syne…
A 90-minute exam is, I am told, an inferior exam. We are the sacred guardians of a coming of age ritual. Some cultures have National Service. Others have marriage, or strange rites in steam-filled tents, or the killing of a lion. And we… our brave young adults come of age in row on row on row.
Why? To assess AO1, AO2, and QWC within an hour, in total silence, with no external resources and a stranger watching you. Truly, the skills they will need in life.
We walk past the candidates as we enter the Hall. “I feel like I should read the book.” “Yeah, but the book just seems boring. At least with A Picture of Dorian Grey I enjoy it.” I despair, and note their candidate numbers.
We lay out the papers. I linger over each table, remarking at their graffiti. Some are signed, as with the prolific Rob ’98 - a rare named artist from almost a decade ago. His - I presume - masterpieces include such works as:
“Sex is evil, Evil is sin Sins are forgiven, So get stuck in!”
On this one, a later commentator changes the name to “Rob 1984,” in an elegant example of the metatextual referencing common in much of the graffiti. Similar concern with ethics, sexuality, and relationships include the bon mots
“Phone sex gives you hearing AIDs”
- on an otherwise-blank desk, conferring upon it an unusual dignity - and, in response to a writer stating that they “hate this place”:
“LOVE IS HATE HATE IS LOVE.”
with its interesting use of contrast and dialectic. A scatological tone is evident in many works, such as the epigram “Yarnham College is shit,” “This place is shit” and “Shit.” Other anonymous contributors collectively created the triptych “BUM! POO!! WEE!!!” and the poll “Dick OO | BALLS OO | FAN OOOOO” with its curious coincidence between the results, which themselves indicate a prevalence of fans of fan (of those surveyed who were willing to answer).
There is a general blurring between the popular art of graffiti and the more academic concerns of the exam hall, in such works as “I HATE TUDOR HISTORY” and “I need to know T / I need to go pee,” the latter clause added in a later hand. Others reflect upon the mental stresses of the exam - “Anon 1: Why am I doing this? Anon 2: Kill yourself - life isn’t worth it.”
- and of creating graffiti itself - “Anon 1: How do you write on the desk without getting caught? Anon 2: I don’t know. FUCK…”
with its paradoxical opening sentence.
There are song lyrics, some of which I have been singing in my head. Elegant fractal diagrams, drawings of popular figures. Confessions of love. Swastikas with meeting details for local right-wing groups. Numerous hairy penises. What unites all of them is the apparent death of the authors - free of their original arrangement in that year’s format of desks, and of the previous generations of students, some of whom are by now older than me, and doubtless have lives and families. It is a curious collection of the concerns of those long gone, and offers an insight into the commonalities and differences.
Argh, I am called upon to get more tissues for a sniffling student, and a ‘round thingy’ for a candidate. I retrieve a protractor. The candidate takes it. Within ten minutes, they are asleep.
You learn the real game when you’re on the job. In basic training, you don’t learn the hand signs - the thumb-jerk for ‘shall I go deal with them?’, the chain-pull for ‘toilet’, the air-writing for ‘pen’, and the nose-blowing for ‘tissue.’ Or the vacant, regulation 1.5-metre stare for ‘this is ridiculous, what am I doing here?’
We stand like meerkats, waiting to help, snapping our heads to any raised hand, to the clock slowly scratching through the hours.
We hear the construction outside. We do nothing to silence it.
I go home. I write to my beloved of my bored and unhappy tidings, and ask how they are.
Another day, I am deployed to The Hole, Room 61a, in my first one-to-one assignment. I half-strangle myself trying to get my radio earpiece on. I do everything properly while other exam readers can be heard droning in nearby rooms. I try to resolve the numerous computer issues. I stare at the cardboard vomit bowl, dreaming of doing a solo tapdance with it as a hat. ‘twould be a singular sensation.
The candidate does not show their working in the maths exam. Is it right to help them, even if it breaks the law? It is a deep moral conundrum. It is easily resolved by the ICE regulations:
I walk into town to get pens. I walk past the worst primary school. They too will one day sit exams at Yarnham. Perhaps I will teach at that school, churning more fuel through the machine. The exams exist, and I don’t know what they assess well. But because they exist, they must be fuelled.
I cannot tell if the people in town are my colleagues or locals. They are certainly what my colleagues call “real people - proper, local people.” There is no stationer any more, so I cannot buy the pens. I walk back.
We are reading for a maths exam. Not everyone can read the Greek characters for algebra. We race our candidates like horses, taking pride in their speed, anger at their tardiness, calling out their names and candidate numbers with all the enthusiasm of punters on the final bend - or so it is in my mind, surviving the dismal drone of us drawing it out. We are paid by the hour, not by the exam.
I go home. I have received a little news from my beloved. They are not dead. I planned a letter to my beloved in The Pit. I have forgotten it, and much else, in The Pit. I write not very much to my beloved.
Another day. We wait to deploy. My ageing male colleagues flex and vex about their fitness regimes with the manly leg-spreading of a university rugby team, whether cycling, running, or Scottish dance. The others wobble and hobble and greedily suck at the aid, grabbing at my arms and calling me dear, complaining that the present isn’t the same as their past. All of them share a scorn for the rookie teachers doing a job we ourselves barely trained for, for today is a maths day and we need more hands on deck. All of them share an arrogant pride in not being dead yet, relishing the news of those who can no longer tell that news. And the same indefinable sense that they could make a sweet biscuit out of polystyrene packaging, an old curtain, and last week’s Sunday Telegraph.
Ann goes into the office to check what’s going on. The old men murmur about her fiery command of exam rooms and the ICE regulations. They exchange tales of how they crept ninja-like up on students, how swiftly they answer responses. I stay silent, having reached three students before Rob even stood up. In this company, I am The Flash.
The trolley emerges. We drive it through the throngs of students waiting for their exam. We lay out the papers. The students come in, and we clutch at their possessions like hungry zombies. Boredom transcends the endless message of ‘no phones,’ ‘no bag,’ ‘no bottles with a label on,’ and ‘no digital watches or similar’ into a strange patter-song rap. The students glance at me strangely.
A candidate puts up their hand. I race to them. Invigilator-sign for ‘toilet’. The others watch in envy as I get to leave.
Rob’s fly is open. A test of personality. Efficiency and speed, pragmatic turning to wall, cautious leaving of the exam hall, or exhibitionist leaving wide open? Option 4, it seems.
I have a specialism now - Column A, the extra timers. I have the compassion; I have the skills with the neurodiverse; I have the cunning to get there first and be paid for their extra time, waiting hours in 50% extra silence until lunch.
“Now, Eleanor, what’s a nice dame like you doin’ in a place like this?” “Waitin’ for jobs, same as you, Ragged Robby.” “Any idea what today’s business is?” “Same as the morning, guess-wise. Maths, lots of one-to-ones. You chicken?” “I don’t like ‘em. I don’t like ‘em. I always wanna help. I’m gettin’ soft, that’s my problem. And when you’re soft…”
We go to the one-to-ones. My candidate has just smoked, the choking aroma filling the room.
I used to want to help these students. Now I stare into the distance with a 1.5 metre exam regulation stare. Worn down. Used to rules, rules, rules. Apathetic.
Not blinking at them failing AQA GCSE Mathematics (LINEAR), Foundation 4365/1F 1 6/16. All just noises. Unimportant.
Multiple choice question. It writes in an answer “The line is a CIRCLE of the circle.” This was not an option.
Shape-drawing question, asking for a triangle with sides 6cm and 8cm. It draws a bar chart.
What is 7-4? 7-4 = 16-8 = -8. Avant-garde poetry in mathematics.
Answer for x. x2000. Not sure what that is. Sounds cool. Is wrong.
What is the size of the angle? “All angles are 180º.” Dogma enriches every part of this system; is it a surprise they expect one rule for all angle-situations?
Estimate future population changes based on this graph. “Cannot tell - because population changes all the time, so cannot estimate?”
Cannot answer other question “Again, because population changes.”
What is the volume of this tank. “Cannot tell, because I do not have a bottle of water in front of me.”
Who taught it? How did it end this way? It leaves for another cigarette.
I write to my lover. I look forward to their return.
Another day. So bored. We are not allowed to play the games the students suspect we play. They are a lost tradition from an old era, now just a myth in the breeze with as much relevance to reality as a pornographic fantasy. But perhaps we could play as icebergs, slowly drifting around the room, occasionally colliding, always melting into a sea of madness.
A screech outside. We do not know if it is a car or a person. We do not care. It has stopped now.
I hear a song in my head. It dissolves. V-I-V-I-V-I on endless repeat. Dull. Dreary. I watch us slowly drain away. I try to write tonight’s letter in my head. It drowns in the music. The music drains itself into the electric hum of the lights above, slowly rising into a high pitched whine.
The exam season ends.
Year 2, 2017
Later this year, there is shouting outside the exam hall. I am sent to silence it. By the time I arrive it is gone.
We return, a sacred order, in our bond of silence. Through our shared silence we know each other. Janet reads from the Yellow Book of ICE, the high priestess of JCQ within the College of Yarnham.
We reintroduce ourselves. Much the same. Some have gone. Some are new. Stan is new. Used to work in oil. Stan the Oil Man.
Janet speaks the first Chapter of the Training.
Greetings unto thee, and welcome to training.
Behold, the powerpoint. Gaze upon it, and I shall Read.
And lo, Janet read from the slides the precise words that were projected thereupon, and we were Bored.
Yet she deviated from the text, proclaiming “the transition between the slides is a bit whitey, is it not?” First, we shall speak of safeguarding. Thou shalt be surprised, for most years a safeguarding issue is raised. And when it is raised, thou shalt raise it with Myself, or those of my Team.
We shall speak of abuse, radicalisation, and criminality.
For abuse is not only physical or sexual abuse, but also mental.
For radicalisation has its separate training, which thou canst find on the College Cloud. In summary, should thou thinkst they might be influenced or radicalised, thou shouldst report it as a safeguarding issue.
For criminality is also its own safeguarding rules. Students who show signs of cheating may also be engaged in other criminal activity.
And it was thought by I, Eleanor the evangelist of Janet, that this was a bit of a stretch.
And thou shalt know those requiring safeguarding by the Signs, which may include, but not be limited to, inappropriate language, visible physical symptoms, high emotions, visible distress, and sudden changes in behaviour.
And Janet spoke of her sympathy for the afflicted, and the challenges in identifying those thus afflicted, for all teenagers struggle to care for themselves, it was said by her. And furthermore, the aforementioned indicators may be a consequence of exam related stress, this being the context in which those spoken unto most regularly met candidates.
In sum, thou shouldst flag up anything that seems a bit off.
In further summation, students sometimes suddenly start talking in a one-to-one invigilation.
And yet further, if thou must make a disclosure, thou must inform the student, and take notes if they proceed with their disclosure.
And so ends the training of safeguarding.
Chapter 2, on the New Matters.
And Janet spoke more, divulging unto us the new revelations of ICE and JCQ on the proper conduct of examinations.
And lo, they revealed unto us the innovation of the Roaming Invigilator, who shall wander between the one-to-ones and monitor those monitoring the candidates, and thus deprive us of an extra pair of hands on busy days.
And more, there were new non-compulsory word processor cover sheets to bring unto the people who Heard.
And beyond this, the students’ cards included their preferred names.
And Janet explained further, that this might mean a Fiona wished to be called Fi, or a Janet wished to be called Jan.
And Janet digressed to issue a strict prohibition on referring to her as Jan.
And Janet continued, that in these modern times of, and here hesitated
And one of the Invigilators spoke with a voice of weariness, Gender.
And I stayed silent, for I and many of my tribe had been sore afflicted with Gender, and knew that there were those here who would feel sore persecuted were I to divulge this, and thus persecute me and my choice-kin in turn.
And Janet said, Yes, some students have preferred names. They must not put this on their paper, but their legal name. Those we know of have been told this. But there are some we do not know of, and they must be watched for, that they do not use their chosen name.
Janet continued on other matters, reporting the substantial increase in the number and complexity of Access Arrangements.
For it was not that there were more individuals with them, but that each individual had more complex arrangements to come unto Janet with, some having more than five.
And so ended the Second Chapter of the Training, relating unto the New Matters.
Chapter 3, The Questions
And they spake unto Janet, and asked about the ever-developing technology and how to spot it, especially on those who wore headscarves.
And Janet said promptly that Thou Must Not ask a Muslim lady to remove her headscarf, but to inform her that a check is required.
And there were mutterings of dissent among those I stood amongst.
And I was silent, for I did not wish to divulge those of my blood-clan were of the headscarf wearing faction.
And Janet spoke of other spot checks for technology on girls with long hair.
And Jane laughed, and spoke of the need for them for boys with long hair, and there was much ribaldry among those who had sensible cardigans and shoes on.
And Janet spoke of a new log for the computers, that it could be presented unto High Management, for there had been financial issues with the upgrade.
In the meantime, it was said, we could invoke the intermediating spirit of LIAM from the IT Department.
And the appropriate clothing was spoken of, including radios that made one resemble Madonna, or a guard of the College’s security.
And a new prohibition was spoken of, declaring that the ICE was too lax on permitting those who wished to leave early to leave early.
For it ran the risk of compromising the national system across the realm unto Newcastle, though not unto Inverness, which was commanded by a different system.
Jane spoke unto Janet of the Shoes. And Janet praised Ann, for in ancient times, those feet walked about in squeaky shoes. She spoke, Bring me that Bag, with Silent Soles, and found it good. And thus ended the Training, with each Hearer being recorded photographically for identification, and a dire prophecy from Jane, who spoke of all problems on one day.
And I went home, and there was silence. Silence was how I saved you. Silence was how I failed you.
Another day. All days blur.
We wait to deploy. We have not spoken to anyone else all day, we will not speak to anyone else. Rob’s “just here for something to do. I’ve just retired, and it gets me out the house. I’ve never taken a day off work… my wife found the ad in the newspaper.”
Jane’s “getting too old for this.” “No you’re not; don’t say that.” “Yes I am - yesterday I went home, had lunch, and slept for two hours.” “I’ve been doing this longer than anybody.”
“I used to be an anthropologist - but I dropped it with the children.”
Stan used to be in the Grenadiers. A sergeant - and a captain. Then into oil. Now Janet says he’s coming with me to invigilate a small room and learn how to… do nothing, the oil-rancher turned into a rookie with an over-youthful cowboy.
Stan talks. Talks of PTSD from a training accident, friends hitting a live mine. Being greeted by POWs in the Gulf War who trained at Sandhurst. PTSD from oil accidents. His son’s physical skill. His annual drinks with army buddies, with his wife’s permission.
I stay silent. What can one say other than ‘I do not trust the army’? I build the pencils in our supplies into a small structure.
The students enter. Boredom. Excited by the rain outside swelling and subsiding. Hoping a candidate will cheat. Dragging out basic tasks to cling to sanity. Treasury tags were never distributed so slowly.
Back to base. Told of Column Y. “The one with all the weirdos.” Ann doubts how many of the special needs children need them. She doubts the test, she blames her doubt on how often they don’t use their access measures. She says “it’s not the real world, is it? Can you imagine that at Sainsbury’s?”
I am silent. I imagine an exam system designed around the supermarket. Advance barcode swiping, shelf-stacking, endurance before angry Christmas customers.
On Column Y, only one student is there. There are no candidates for a dozen columns ahead. I invigilate them alone in a strange solitary confinement. My prisoner seems content.
A candidate in Column E puts up a hand for a tissue. Rob strides forth. In his mind he is James Bond, Superman, the stuntman zipwiring through a wall. He has a purposeful stride; determination. The student looks at him. A vast, 1960s Doctor Who alien in a staring rubber suit with no life behind the eyes. The student is young. The student is free. The student is blowing its nose. I am reminded-
I love you. Come back.
Meat grinder. I used to care about by one-to-one candidates’ mistakes. Now I just apathetically push them through the pulsing blades. Outside Rob discretely reads his Daily Mail. His values and attitudes to the students are outdated, abhorrent, of another era. He is still alive. And so am I.
I am finding the rhythm again. I am getting better at putting on the radio. I am responsible. I am growing up.
So are the students. Dowlatshahi and Thomas are still here, and stare at me with the blankness of the memory-wiped. Why would they remember me? They remember their computers crashing. They remember Liam from IT saving the day.
I remember being in command, leading the secondary video room, three invigilators and a techie under my command. A rite of passage. I am an adult now. I am sloppy, not giving my team the papers until too late, starting the exam late, writing down the seating plan incorrectly three times as a Lynx Black advert is played on the screen behind me.
A student needs the spell checker activated. Liam strides in, young and dashing. The saviour on a white horse.
A candidate finishes and starts to sleep. On the radio, I hear a student having a nosebleed, their invigilator repulsed by the blood. Janet says they should sound more pleased to be here. “Sorry. I’m delighted.”
I learn to sit in silence, meditating to the sound of keyboards, avoiding madness in this slow, rattling water torture.
I fill out all the Word Processor cover sheets. Halfway through I start signing my name in the DATE section. My signature collapses, exhausted, into a wiggled line. I fill out the Incident Report form, no longer listing each time the phone on the desk beeps.
Deploy through airport security. There’s enough aluminium inside the team to build an aeroplane. Opening announcement “Please place all bags, phones, and unauthorised items in the overhead lockers. Candidates caught cheating will be subject to the full power of anti-terror legislation. We are here to watch you. And we are always watching. For your own good.”
We are not good airport guards. We are slow and corrupt. We go rogue, we are artists of invigilation, doing things in our own way. Ann likes to keep them at least 15 minutes after the end as we collect the papers. Sue prefers to get them in early. I like to get them in quickly so I can drift into my imagined worlds. We are maverick cops, more paranoid than prudent, ordered to rip off all watches because we don’t know what a digital watch is, competing to cleanse all wrists of bracelets and brocade. We will secure this dangerous hall.
We will teach them to fear authority; to know they are not trusted.
We will sit in silence, watching a mundane happening. We are the audience at the worst show on earth. “Meine Damen und Herren, please put all bags…” I dance behind the candidates; I dream of dancing on the tables. A candidate vomits in cardboard bowl. I still dream of our team of invigilators tapdancing with it, a singular sensation as it drips through our hair.
The children move out as quickly as they can, canoodling breeder-couples in the sunlight.
I will burn you, my love. I will be burned.
Stan talks. Talks of 14 million dollars from a US backer for an oil job, and more to clean up a Romanian oil trainline. The oil was burned. Talks of his lack of faith. His guilt and not-pride about his time in the Gulf and Iraq.
I write this part in my head. I would use paper, were Stan not watching me. This doesn’t make me corrupt. I am corrupt because I no longer care. I slip more easily into this dead place. Waste hours to earn money to do nothing. Were I an anarchist, I would walk away and be free. Were I a capitalist, I would take students’ bribes. Were I a liberal, I would sit here and wish it were more free. And how would the existentialist invigilate? Leave? Or remind the candidates to leave with me and live authentically?
I do not. I have grown up. I have responsibility. I do not have love. I invigilate this room alone. Janet walks away from her radio, and I am truly alone here. Just part of the machine, confusing a blackbird for the guard’s whistle of my train.
I learn to understand what I’m here for. The candidates do a STEP exam to learn if they might be able to pass 1st year mathematics, itself to test their ability to pass 2nd year, itself to test for 3rd year. It is a test of the ability to be tested to be tested to be tested. Tested^3. They learn how to do exams, not how to do mathematics.
And then a week’s break. We go to our homes. I wait. Nobody messages. Janet blows the horn of heroes to call us back to the adventure. We cannot scream when the dragon bites us - that would disrupt exam conditions. If its fire ripples through the hall, we must try to protect the exam papers and evacuate.
Then back to reality, waiting for our next postings. A retired magazine artist, now doing oils, portraits, landscapes, still lifes. The optimistic person ‘between jobs’. The growing snarls of “If that’s the future, God help the country” in their haggard Ladies’ Night outside the exams office. The complaints about students who have changed their appearance since having their ID card issued - especially if that makes their hair less gendered, more coloured. We must work together, we are told, but increasingly that means blind obedience to embittered Lead Invigilators. They complain about the candidates’ poor literacy as they write up the times for the PSYCOLOGY exam. I mark it as a half-hour longer than it truly is, then correct my mistake.
One candidate is freed to go and get a haircut, another for an unsupervised rest break. The exams team scramble to find them both and bring them back into control.
The dance and drama students enter, fey, flexible, and fashionable. The physicists follow in behind them, employable. A horde of zombies shuffle after. We are not allowed to use an axe - it is not on the list of authorised items. We safely shuffle the students out, as though they were braindead zombies.
We are not good people. Stan oversaw the weekly deaths of oil workers in Oman due to negligence, though he says he’d told them to check that valve. Blames their ‘inshallah’, it is God’s will, attitude. This exam system was written to train a standardised colonial administrator; it is good to see it serve that purpose.
I imagine an exam system designed around the students. Not merely a block of arts, then of sciences, meaning all the students choosing one or the other suffer. What if they were given so many hours of exam time, and then chose how to split it, as I might choose to set aside longer for my tax return than my writing?
Then the Authorities would suffer. JCQ issues orders from above, the God of the exams office. It is JCQ’s will that the candidates who say they do not wish to use their computer reader must have it available as an imposed liberty. It is JCQ’s will that, unless a candidate knows to decline their extra time, they must sit in silence until the end of the exam, the invigilator silently begging them to go - or stay, and guarantee the pay of a longer exam. It is JCQ’s will that they fill out cover sheets for written answer booklets, even when they type their entire exam on a computer. That I use the set wording “Please stop writing now” even when they have stopped writing long ago. That I cover myself, and not be vulnerable to complaints. That this is more important than helping the students. That I read out the prohibition on blotting paper neither I nor the students know how to use or find.
I mark history essays as the exams come to an end. I read that “Stalin was a strong and stable leader…,” “a good leader because he introduced strong and stable policies…,” “although Stalin killed his political rivals, this was good because it made the country strong and stable…,” “Stalin’s purges were very effective, because they made the country strong and stable…” Theresa May, strong and stable, wins the election.
Penultimate exam is music technology in a bunker-like basement. The computers don’t work. ABBA’s Under Attack blasts out of their headphones as they play with their hair. The radio doesn’t work, and I miss its company. Dullness slips into a braindead trance. A crow chokes outside, and I do nothing.
Let the 90 minutes slip away in silence, achieving nothing.
My darling love, you will not come back. I know you will not come back. And I hope, and am alone. And I know, and am growing up.
Last exam is Maria Helen-Spark. She arrives twenty minutes early to wait for ten minutes inside the room. Headscarf covering thin chemotherapied hair and scarred hands, a blue waist pack filled with medication. A strange manner. We talk.
E: Do you know how to use Read & Write? [Computer reader software]
E: Well, at least one of us does.
Maria smiles and enters the room.
E: And when do you want a prompt?
M: Well, sometimes I just drift off…
E: So, when you drift off?
M: If that’s alright - it’s not my fault! But I just…
E: No-one’s blaming you - if it was your fault you wouldn’t be here - you’re here because you need it.
M: Thanks… Did you know there’s a quiet garden over there, through the window?
M: Do you know why it’s there?
E: I think someone realised the students got really stressed, and gave some money so there was somewhere quiet to go.
M: It’s a memorial garden. Did you know student who died last term?
E: I didn’t, no? Did you?
M: I did, yeah.
E: I’m sorry to hear that.
M: It’s OK.
E: Dying’s one of those things that doesn’t ever get easier as you get older.
I am dead to you, my dear. Maybe you are dead, and I don’t yet know.
I am dead. The clock reaches the exam start time. Maria seems to want to talk more. I start the exam. It is as JCQ wills it.
After the exam, I go to the memorial garden. There is a plaque. Someone has left a poem there on a folded sheet of lined file paper. I unpeel it a little to read XOXOXO, and then the taboo kicks in, and I leave it for the dead.
Year 3, 2018
SERGEANT ELEANOR. REPRIMAND. WHY DID YOU NEED TO BE TELEPHONED TO REMIND YOU TO COME IN FOR THE EXAM?
I was waiting in the graveyard. I thought it started at 14:00, like shifts at my other two jobs, or classes for my MA. I thought me and my other invigilators were all here because we need the money.
I SET UP THE COMPUTER ROOM 313 IN RECORD TIME.
I felt no guilt or shame for being late. Nor for answering a text from my mother during the exam. Almost checked Facebook, or wrote. I am soft-sloppy-weak-willed. I dream of taking an hour to set up an exam.
I am the captain of the Starship 313, on a voyage of discovery. In silence. In space, no-one can hear…
I POSITION THE CANDIDATES CAREFULLY.
They face away from me so I can write on proper printing paper I swiped. I am a good worker, if you don’t mind the theft of paper to write these notes on. I put more effort into smuggling out these little scraps than I do to the exam.
READ THE ERRATUM NOTICE A Level Physics A H556/02 Exploring Physics (8/6/18, AM) © OCR 2018 Jun18/erratum/article number 8049971876. THERE WAS A LOUD YAWN OUTSIDE AT 13:40. NOBODY WENT TO THE TOILET.
Which was disappointing. This is purgatory, with enough irregular keyboard-clatter to stop coherent thought, watching an unchanging image that pretends to be alive, trying to understand why you’re being punished. A pigeon sits outside. Shits outside. The list of staff for an emergency is ten years old.
THE COMPUTERS SHUT DOWN THROUGHOUT THE EXAM.
Liam sweeps in to save me. “Hopefully, you won’t see me this season.” He has remembered my name.
14 CANDIDATES WITH DIFFERENT ACCESS ARRANGEMENTS. ONE IS RBr, WP, Anxiety [RBr (medical need to mobilise - special chair required) BLUE PAPER].
TWO IS Comp Rdr, WP [WP; AQUA], JCQ Not Maths, WP, JCQ Not Maths or computer coding: WP.
THREE IS ET SMV Aspergers related anxiety - LS have evidence; SMV; has previously fainted in exams due to anxiety, - Physics ET Rdr Scr - Ehters Danlos Syndrome - Communication difficulties and memory loss - GCSE English.
FOUR IS RBr; Pr; SCP Aspergers related anxiety - previously sat exams at home.
FIVE IS ET; ROL; Coloured Overlays; student will provide overlays.
SIX IS Rbr, Cystic Fibrosis, Back Pain.
SEVENTH IS JCQ, Rbr (medical), SMV; Me, chronic pain, CRS, athsma, and anxiety.
OTHER CANDIDATES HAVE MIX OF RBr, WP, Anxiety. ONE ET50% - I HAD THOUGHT THEM A DYING BREED.
Do we know too much about these strangers? I correctly predict which candidate will take a rest break first.
COMPUTER CRASH, 13:42
I am not the Captain of this starship. Our consoles are exploding, and I dream of mutiny. My mutiny will fail.
RADIO REPORT: A CANDIDATE MISSING FROM THE SPORTS HALL. REQUEST FOR SUPPORT IN EVENTUALITY THAT CANDIDATE REQUIRES MONITORED TOILET TRIP. REQUEST DENIED. COMMENDATIONS TO JCQ FOR SIMULATING MODERN OFFICE ENVIRONMENT TO FACILITATE CANDIDATE TRAINING. FIND SEATING PLAN ATTACHED.
The original was less… neat.
CANDIDATE DID NOT USE THEIR SPECIAL CHAIR. MADE COMPLAINTS RE. WALL COVERINGS, COMPUTER, AND BLINDS. ALL REQUESTS AGAINST REGULATIONS; NONE GRANTED.
Her annoyance is human. The candidates for the psychology exam do not seem well, with visible signs of anorexia and self-harm. All pale with makeup as contoured as a map.
Another boss calls me. I hang up on them.
MY BEHAVIOUR MAY BE MONITORED ON THE SECURITY CAMERA.
Installed since last year. It hasn’t even been an hour.
I ENGAGED IN THE REQUIRED AUSTERITIES. NO WATER, THAT I DO NOT NEED THE TOILET. NO RELATIONSHIPS, THAT I AM NOT CORRUPTED. NO POSSESSIONS IN THE HALL, THAT I AM NOT TEMPTED. ACCEPT THE MINIMUM WAGE.
Join for the glory, stay for the cash. Wish a candidate cheats for the sport of it. A bird fledges outside - chaffinch chick, down fluffed up as it hops down.
CANDIDATE AT DESK 14 SAT WRONG DESIGN PAPER. REALISED AT END. ALL CANDIDATES EXIT. MISSING SPORTS HALL CANDIDATE FOUND IN S1, NOT S12.
I am very bored, and hand in my paperwork.
I am given command of the hardest exam. Computer programming. Here, I outrank Ann and Jane and Stan before this horde of young pasty men. Ann tells me her house rules about going to the toilet. I obey her extra regulations, and read the erratum notice. I have that power.
The exam starts, and no computer can find the file they need. Liam returns, and teaches me the magical keystrokes to fix the problem - “Windows + R Visual Studio Start, fade, open, presight computer”, :windows+R; GPupdate” and “open ‘VisionQuest2013’ via start menu.” I am a sorcerer.
I am trialled by fire. There are 29 incident reports, and 11 end times. My neighbour’s son has 8 minutes’ worth of computer accident. It takes 32 minutes to print off all their digital scripts in the JCQ-approved format. It takes 27 minutes to get them into the right order. There is always a fire.
I learn to dread and relish command, and go to teach elsewhere. I no longer dream.
Late arrivals are strip-searched for cheating notes. Candidates have to swipe out of exam briefings to ensure they attend the whole thing. A rookie queries the system. I shut them down and stare at the twitchings of candidates, wondering if any will ask for support. One twitches, and three of us tackle them to the ground, providing all the help they need.
We wait to deploy like paras in a dropship, kept on our toes. Ann reads out my name and cries out “On me!” Our squad deploys “Like D-Day,” according to Jane, for it is maths day. We have drilled for this. Radio “NEP in SHALL for F676/01 over”, “P drop in T-minus-5 over and out.” 402 stops responding! Janet sends a runner, and all’s well thanks to that plucky little hero.
Our little army suffers many losses over the years, and swift promotions. We duck and dive around the desks, Ann panicking at the command centre of the Desk of Doom, Janet radioing in “this is your captain. Stay calm, and we’ll get through this.” The exam hall is compromised, and we neutralise the asset. We degrade ourselves in our cases for promotion to Ann, hoping to be assigned to the row with the most extra time, or in time to go home and catch a TV show.
There has been a terrible war crime. Once, the Sports Hall desks were a legacy of generations of students, their words preserved forever in the deep-carved messages to their future occupants. And over the winter, somebody sanded the desks clean, the most-used now worn smooth and plain by use, others still bearing the rugged stubble of the awful act. I am genuinely upset at the loss of so many flashes of insight into the students, and am glad I took photos al those years ago.
Since then, I deleted them by mistake, and the last record of those desks is in my memory and my words, where they may live forever.
M12’s occupant is surrounded at the end, under Janet’s orders. M12’s occupant is released at the end, under Janet’s orders - they have her bag, and will lure her into their trap.
We talk - the artist has a commission, cars are broken and new, and a colleague has lost the right to invigilate 313 through their failure to follow orders. Rob openly reads the Daily Mail now. Stan tries to offer me comforting advice about accepting my struggles. It helps until I leave the room. I am part of a team of crack specialists - Rob’s the best roamer, Jane has the ducklings, Ann gets excited about taking down signage, and I run the tech.
I should probably explain the ducklings - candidates who have an exams clash are kept in solitary confinement between morning and afternoon sessions to stop them learning what is in their other paper, which they will sit in the afternoon. When they follow the invigilator guarding them, it is like a row of ducklings. The ducklings don’t have names, just candidate numbers.
All of them just have a candidate number. We vaguely see the face, but most colleagues cannot tell the difference between Aisha and Vaneshi. And neither can they tell that I am half of their people, and I keep that hidden from my colleagues.
One candidate becomes so stressed her vision blurs and has to take a break. She returns within a regulation 10 minutes.
One candidate is very polite, shooting himself bit by bit. 8x2 is 14. 90º angle without measuring anything. Calculating a prism’s volume by adding height+height+length+length+width+width. “That’s the best I can do.”
Another has read Crime and Punishment for English literature. Is asked to write about a time he did something he shouldn’t, or a secret. You may use your own experience, or imagination. The candidate is visibly distressed as it writes about leaving a gate open, leading to its sister’s rabbit being eaten by a fox. I am distressed at the amount of PREVENT disclosures this question must cause. At the end, we talk. It liked Marvel movies, and thought Romeo and Juliet was good because of its sad ending, and wanted to know how to cheat in exams.
Another is asked to write a formal job application letter, ending with “If I don’t get it, that’s fine by me as well.” Tic-ridden, it flicks through the dictionary, eager to “do the exam and get out.”
Another turns up in a Sainsbury’s uniform, ready to get to its work after the exam.
Another has failed all previous GCSE English and Maths exams. In a counselled voice, it explains that it causes trouble to show it’s not frightened of anything. It writes that “under 16s can be said to have a number of responsibilities, such as being able to have sex, work, and join the army with parental consent.” It finishes the exam, and says that it is struggling to find a job, and blames foreigners. I am not silent. I tell it that my grandparents came from another country. “Oops.” it says. It says it’s fine, since my grandparents came ages ago, and Britain has “more Indian restaurants than India.” This seems unlikely. I try to persuade it to accept others with data and stories. It is less aggressive by the end.
A colleague speaks with gratuitous joy of their candidate having a panic attack in the room, another of their delight at ‘pillowgirl’ having her last exam. Stan is summoned to Aberdeen to look at some oil, and Ann sweeps in to snatch the extra work. We that remain are vultures. I am told to rip out any annotated pages from the English set text. I hate the order, and will obey it if needed.
A mariachi band plays outside. I lie. It is the sound of shouting, again.
I write a letter to my future self in an exam. I know two candidates from long experience, the third is new, and holds his cock for reassurance throughout the exam, except when he needs the hand for typing. I remember… when I started, you loved me, then I hoped to live in one of the other worlds where you still did love me, and now I know I have lost you. And my ethics. And the spark. I disappoint myself, in my indolence and sorrow and inadequate work.
And yet we have not died. We could have, and didn’t - there is a dread of something after death; of the shame of someone else cleaning your corpse. I do not say ‘love yourself’ - that is egotism. Be worthy of being loved, and open to being loved, and it will come. We are a social animal. I am loved, but not enough to fill the void.
I have known & lost perfect, total love. It was a fantasy. What follows will not be the same.
Yours(elf), Eleanor. P.S. Gunner’s now cock grabbing & sneezing into the other hand! Urgh.
The exam ends, and I wish them a good evening as they leave. One wishes me a “good evening too, sir,” and I feel as old as the Marschallin.
I leave, and wash my hands.
NO DREAMING. SELF-REVIEW: CAN NOW PUT ON RADIO SMOOTHLY. NO REPORTS OF POST-EXAMS DRINKS. WOULD HAVE ATTENDED. NOT ALIENATED FROM PRODUCT OF OWN LABOUR; PRODUCE NOTHING. AM A CAPITALIST STOOGE. BORED. DRAW DREAM THEATRE. WILL NOT HAVE IT.
CREATE GOOD FUTURE OFFICE DRONES. CANDIDATES HOTDESK ON PENIS-PERFUMED KEYBOARDS, UNABLE TO TALK OR SMILE. CANDIDATES GOOD FUTURE GAMESHOW CONTESTANTS. THE RULES DON’T MAKE SENSE, BUT THEY DO MATTER.
Dangerous individuality noted. One candidate repeatedly types own name in various swirling pink-hued fonts.
Dangerous mentality noted. I fail more people’s history exams this year. “Stalin had used Zimonev and Yimensk (sorry , I I don’t know how to spell write their names)” says 688660506. 688466343 disagrees, saying “he was able to make Kaminov and Zihaiev admit to treason despite them not fully doing so which clearly shows the dedication that they had to supporting him.” A further position is that of 688785784 “This can be reflected in the numourous political debates Trotsky was defeated in despite his arguments being valid and more better than Stalins.” I barely feel a twinge.
Dangerous immorality noted. I am not allowed to fail you for being a fascist. The framing of the questions emphases great men and events, not social and economic movements sweeping over the decades. Is it a surprise that the candidates learn to honour great men over the acts of the people, leave aside the world?
688735201 says “history shows that governments that don’t have control of its own military doesn’t really have any power.” There is no other form of power? 688452663 mentions that “many western historians argue that Stalin’s brutality was what caused people to vote for him as they were scared of him,” but inclines towards those who believe it is Stalin’s innate charisma. “It is evident that Stalin’s journey to power was enhanced by his natural ability to govern” says 688806234, praising the master race. Goes on to say that “Stalin demonstrated he had the qualities of a leader as he later eradicated Trotsky, along with any other political opposition he faced.” 689349410 is more explicit that “Trotsky’s greatest weekness comes from himself. He suffered from supreme self doubt due to his Jewish heritage bringing him shame and causing consistent criticism from himself making him a weak leader at times”
I only mark 57 papers this year. I drop all the work to try and find you when your clan call, fearing you’re dead. You are in good health. I would do the same thing again.
I served three years at Yarnham College. Surrounded by the piles of deforested exam papers, constrained by the bourgeois etiquette of the hall, I learned the music of those silent spaces, of pens and foot-taps, and socked feet pacing, the small rebellions against the imperial, all-consuming silence. And one day, when the students stop hoping for a Great Man to save them, they will rise from their desks in a glorious prison-break, constructing an exam that reflects their modernity, not a rose-tinted imperial age. They will learn of Marx, rejecting the bourgeois hegemony the exams are built to reflect, or of their radical freedom to eat the paper, or a postmodern liberty to bring all topics to their exam. They will learn of the freedom that comes from community and bonds of mutual love.
But for three years, I was one of the Small Men looming over them to maintain obedience. We taught them of order, watched them answer questions about the importance of economic growth and state control. How to be treated as a number, and a name and photo on a plastic card, alone in a regimented crowd. We taught them how to live in the modern world. Never how to be a free thinker.
Our squadron open the door. “Good morning everybody, would you like to come in?” They enter the room. We hold our cardboard vomit bowls, and put them on our heads as firm iron-rimmed helmets.
We sing the battle song of the Invigilators.
A little bit of social oppression Won’t leave a lasting impression, We just standardise And then give out a prize To the winner of the game. We’re just testing what you know In regimented row on row It may look like an army But you’d have to be barmy To think that we’re the same ‘cos it’s fine if you are fat It’s alright if you’re not white And it’s sweet if you are best At something we can’t test All we ask is that you feel shame.
We draw together, ready for the true hymn. ‘cos if you Haven’t Learnt To March In Formation With Ev’rybody In Our Once Imperial Nation You Will Fail & you’ll Fry But You’ll Succeed If You’ll Comply So sound off:
What will you study? The proscribed syllabus! What will you shun? Original viewpoints! What will you write down? Empiricist Evidence! And when are you done? When the regs say, sir! What views are legitimate? The proscribed paradigm! What views are wrong? Freaky ones with feelings! And who has fucked up? The failures and traitors Now to the top of the song!
Two students try to whisper a song of community; of working together to construct a team response to the great challenges they face. We silence them and force them to march.
What will you learn from? The proscribed broadcasters! What will you shun? Original viewpoints! What will you act on? Imperial Dogma! What must be done? What your law says, sir! What acts are legitimate? The acts you proscribe, sir! What acts are wrong? The acts of the freaks! And will you obey me? We already have boss! And so it goes on!
The Candidates rise, joining their Invigilators in JCQ’s march.
I: What past is useful? C: World War Two and victory! I: What past is wrong? C: Partition and poofs! I: What industry matters? C: Iron and explosions! I: What industry won’t? C: Slaughterhouse and society!
I: So you fail individually, And thrive all alone Society’s a fantasy As your exams have shown! So we’re not responsible [C: Sir yes sir] But you must obey [C: Sir yes sir] And you’ll spend your life marching, Because we say! [C: OK!]
I hear the end of the world over my exam radio. I maintain silence.
Could all candidates please put their pens down.