By Jesse McLean
There’s no other silence like the one that swallows a class before an exam. It’s quiet — like the countryside, with the chitter chitter of the worried crickets — but without all the goddamn pomp or fanfare. It’s quiet — but not the honest silence like a funeral, pews filled with dumb kids who know they shouldn’t worry and old dregs who just want death to come already.
It’s just quiet.
It was a cold Thursday when I walked into Prof. Wrong’s economics class for the second term test. I knew nothing about economics: nothing about discount bonds and surely nothing about liquidity effects. But I knew about exams. I knew all about the sweaty palms and the flash-card memories that filled the seats deep in the guts on Kerr Hall East.
And that’s why I took the exam. I knew the torment of grinding my brain. But here, I could step away — I could just watch the fools struggling over those 50 multiple-choice questions, like the teacher does when he stands so triumphantly at the front of the class.
Choosing my seat was hard. It’s a hard task normally; picking a seat that won’t show your teacher you’re unprepared, or reveal to your peers you know each tick on that damn scan sheet. Choosing my seat today was even harder because I couldn’t reveal that it was my first time being in this room.
So I sat in the back row beside a kid who was praying. A fat Chinese kid in a white turtleneck — the shirt added extra holiness, I guess. From my seat, I watch the class fill in like a receding shoreline. The front row fills in last.
Some asshole in the class prior had written a formula on my desk: MXU = PXY. I turn to the white slug beside me.
“Do you know what this means?”
He ignores me.
“Do you think I’ll get in trouble for this?”
He says nothing. Either he was lost in prayer, or a douchebag. I erase the formula. I don’t want to be caught cheating on a test I shouldn’t be writing.
My attention drifts to two guys in front of me. They mutter Hindi back and forth. The one on the right, his hair in a quasi-pompadour, like he tried too hard to put it up, has a laptop in front of him, and his friend is urging him to check a site.
I lean in closer, gripping my pen and note pad. What website do you check minutes before writing an exam?
The friend nudges again; by this time, the prof’s showed up, and he’s unpacking his things. Finally, Mr. Hair taps in the letters: cricket statistics come up. “Goddamn,” I think to myself. How prepared must you be to feel comfortable looking up cricket results? But the slug to my right interrupts my thoughts. With a sigh, he heaves onto left ass cheek, slips out his wallet. He slaps his student card on his desk.
How do you explain that you’re not on a prof’s attendance sheet 10 weeks into a course? “If any of you have one of these,” the professor says, waving a student card above his head, “you can put it back in your wallet. You wouldn’t be here unless you had to be.”
A student in the front, stammering, asks how long we have. The professor rolls his eyes. Like an old dog, chasing cars stops being fun after a few years. He stopped caring long ago.
“One hour, 31 minutes and 22 seconds,” he says. I write the time on my hand. He hands out the test, and we begin.
* * *
I don’t remember any of the answers I chose on the test. Mostly D, I think…
* * *
There’s a real contrived, pitter-patter way professors patrol exams. Each step is so decisive — so calculated. Still, this one pretends he’s wandering. I could ignore it if I was actually thinking about the goddamn economics exam.
We make eye contact. I circle a few more Ds and wait as he shuffles towards me. “Have you signed this?” I look at the sheet. “Do I need to?”
He doesn’t answer. He eyes the numbers written on my over my thumb: 1h 31m 22s. I grab the paper, scribble my name. He reads my name — nodding slowly, with a drawn out grunt of a mutt, pretending he recognizes me. “There’s a lot of pretending,” I think to myself.
As he moves to the next students, I lick my thumb and wipe the black ink from my hand.
* * *
There’s no sound more distinct in an exam room than cheating. The Hindi crackled just loud enough to hear, filling the awkward pauses between the fat slug’s foot tapping and nervous sighs. Mr. Hair leans over to his friend, pointing and prodding at his buddy’s paper with the enthusiasm of a barter. The prof’s head pops up, and they become silent.
I was shocked: I had never seen cheating done so openly. No wonder these bastards were comfortable checking cricket scores. Then the two girls beside them join the cheating.
I want to scream, to uncover their dishonesty. I stare at the teacher, trying to steal his attention from the wheels of his damn shoes. The slug’s sighs get louder; undoubtedly, the cheating, troubles him too. But who am I — who am I? — a man who lies to catch another.
I turn back to my test and circle the last few Ds. Mr. Hair stands up, swinging his laptop over his shoulder, with its damn bookmarks of cricket, and waltzing out of the class like a man who escaped death. So I follow him.
* * *
He sat on a chair in the hallway the way a cheater would sit. Confidently, but with a slouch. There he went, yammering away on his cell phone, so busy that he didn’t even see me walk up. “Cheater.”
His eyes narrowed as he registered my words. Then he kept talking. I walked away, straight out the door and into the cold Thursday night, in all its raining misery. Some damn English teacher might call this pathetic fallacy. He would be wrong.
It’s just pathetic.