exam space

7:25 AM.

I step in through the upper door and walk down the steps of the lecture hall. The metal door slams behind me to the dark morning, shuddering in the frame. Students are already assembled and still, counting down the last 300 seconds before they must tear off a cover sheet and plunge into cold, turbulent waters of their first midterm.

I host exams in the classroom and at the class’s ridiculously early assigned time because I have this belief that it’s to their advantage. Students should have every advantage we can give them, and one could be being surrounded by all the same associations that might give them one more hint or comfort. At least, this is what I tell them, and myself. Plus, I don’t trust myself as an exam writer, so even though we have the option to put exams in a testing center for students to take at designated times, I’m afraid that there could be some intractable problem because I forgot a minus sign or a coefficient of friction. It’s as though I’ve designed and built a sailing vessel, and yet I’m not sure that my design is perfectly sea worthy. I want to be ready to put my finger in some hole to plug a leak.

Those are my stock reasons, at least. I think that the real reason I give the exam in class is so that I can experience this firsthand.

This lecture hall hosts 4 exams in a row on this particular Friday, a quarter of the way into the semester. Mine is the first. By the afternoon hours, anxiety will condense and drip from the ceiling, accompanied by the smell of stress and grit of eraser shavings coating the floor. Chairs will be in disarray. Drips of coffee will breadcrumb the stairs back to the door.

Yet during a particular exam session, there’s peace and tranquility. There’s quiet and focus. On exam day you can hear the lulling flow of air through the vents, even as all of the bodies are in the room. There’s the click of calculator buttons. A distinct turning of the 8 1/2 by 11-inch piece of paper. Pencils scratch. There’s a clearing of a throat, but even this is muffled and temporary. A cough fades away and you never think of it again.

There are foam cups, travel mugs, last-minute breakfasts from 7-11. I associate the smell of breakfast burrito and coffee with that ether of stress and focus that’s filling the hall.

Gazes are down, mostly. A head brings the brain up for air only once in a while. Sometimes this is in the form of a stare up at the ceiling. Usually it’s an unfocused gaze just beyond the horizon of the desk, and you can see eyes scroll back and forth as gears turn within, recalling and re-creating. Then eyes turn back to the page.

Some stare into the calculator, as though it were a crystal ball that may or may not be revealing a true answer. Or, worse, it can make the answer more obscure. I can see when this happens, someone’s brow forming faults as they try to understand what just went wrong. It spits out a negative sign when you were expecting positive; a fraction when you knew the answer had to be something like a hundred.

They finish one at a time. The first turns in his exam before the halfway mark. He’s confident, more than he should be.

They turn in exams with a slow saunter to the front of the room. They step, slowly, as they keep a gaze on the pages they’re about to commit to the gradebook, wanting to be done but wanting to be sure they’ve done everything they could. They check for their name. They read over answers they’ve provided, not sure exactly what they might be looking for, but unwilling to let any moment go unused to check their answers. Each student places an exam onto the table, onto the pile, with a finality. They rest a hand on the paper for one extra moment, as if there’s a prayer, or at least some affirmation that they finished one more test. And then they leave, usually wondering about how they should have answered #4.

Some keep their head down on the way out, saying nothing. I let them go. Most, though, say “thank you” or “have a good weekend,” as though they hadn’t just suffered some trauma. I wish them the same, and marvel that they’ve signed up for this.