Today is the maths Prebac exam. There are only two problems with this: a) it’s dead early in the morning and everyone is still asleep and b) it’s maths.
Let me paint the scene. Every Year 7 student is standing outside the Salon de Actos, like pigs waiting for slaughter. It’s freezing outside, so cold that the sweat that you’ve secreted out of sheer nervousness is now frozen into ice crystals down your back. Everyone is waiting with open books, papers, notes for the consejeros, whose arrival will signal the horrible end for us all.
This is the last moment, those precious ultimate minutes where you can gain some knowledge from your friends before you go in, information that you haven’t thought about studying, or had completely forgotten about, or perhaps your friend who has obviously spent much more effort studying thinks is important to know. Just in case it might turn up in the exam. You surprise yourself at how much new stuff you can cram into your brain in just a few seconds.
“You’ll be fine!” That’s the reassurance we tell each other, like a grieving wife consoling herself at her partner’s funeral. Or like parents sending their young child to a war they know he won’t come back from. We say it to our friends, even though we know they’ll get a better mark than us. We say it to the students we know are going to fail. We say it because, what else is there to say?
They’re here. Like sheep, we flock in through the doors, dump our bags onto the floor and chairs, and take out our weapons: ruler, pencil, ten pens (just in case they run out of ink), rubber, snacks (it’s a really long exam), sharpener, water (I can always drown myself if it doesn’t work out), and my good old saviour and friend, the calculator.
“Móviles?” We are questioned by the authorities, like at the security checks at airports. Of course, I forgot my phone! How silly of me! I also forgot my notes, and while we’re at it, let me just go fetch my maths teacher, maybe he can help me with some of the questions.
I’m starting to believe that sarcasm is the only way teenagers can cope with stressful situations.
We navigate our way through the labyrinth of tables, each student looking for the desk that bears their name on a small little tag in the top right corner. I like to think of this as a graveyard, depressing and terrifying, with the desks being the graves that already have our names etched into them.
Well, this is just great. I’m right at the back, by the doors that lead to the exits as well as the toilets. I can give a proper send-off to anyone going for a wee. We put our calculators into test mode, and wait.
Oh, these agonising moments. You sit here, hoping that everything you’ve learnt doesn’t leak out of your brain. You watch as your classmates run across the enormous room, searching for the cleverest student, begging them to share one last bit of information.
“SENTAROS!” They disperse, each rushing to their own seats, as if God himself had spoken.
The supervising teachers line up at the front. The consejeros call out each section, each class one by one. The students put their hands up, I determine the number of victims volunteering to be executed, and the exams are given out.
This is the moment where you become religious, as everybody starts praying silently to themselves. As I wait for my section to be called, my brain starts to create a list of all the possible things that could go wrong so that I wouldn’t have to do the exam. Maybe a chunk of the ceiling will fall down, like they said it did in a previous Prebac exam. Maybe I’ll faint. I could definitely throw up. I could accidentally stab myself in the eye with my pencil.
I let out a sigh of relief when I see that the exam is only five pages long; I guess I was expecting more. Once we all I have the correct papers, the director says something, but I’m not paying any attention; his voice is drowned out by the distinct noise of drilling and hammering. Lots of people look confused and angry, so I know I’m not imagining it. It’s like there was an entire construction site building a skyscraper right next to us. I mean, I saw the workers and the ladders and the equipment earlier, but I didn’t even give them a second glance. I just assumed the school would have the decency not to commission a demolition during a Prebac. Guess I was wrong. It’s nice to be surprised every now and then, especially during an exam.
It’s nine o’clock. And it begins. Even the Hunger Games would be easier than this.
STAGE ONE- False Confidence
As I quickly survey the questions, deciding just how screwed I am, I come to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for me. I might actually be able to answer all of them. This false confidence grows as I dive into the first question, letting it fester as I move onto the second one. In the back of my mind I know, I just know, that soon I will come onto that one question that will snuff out this confidence and will completely destroy my self-esteem, but for now I let myself believe that I could actually get a good grade in this exam.
I’ve got this!
STAGE TWO- Panic and Rage
Oh no. This makes no sense.
And just like that, everything that I have studied simply vanishes from my head, this one question completely obliterating my knowledge out of existence. And if this wasn’t enough to make me panic, my brain picks this exact moment to start singing that very song that is totally not relevant or helpful, just annoying.
The exam has been going on for long enough that people are starting to go to the bathrooms. But wait, she doesn’t need her pens and calculator to take a wee— she finished? How? I’m only on page three and halfway through Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. I can only watch with my mouth gaping open as she walks towards me, smug smile plastered on her face, past me and out the exit, finally free.
Jealousy makes me angry, and I begin to rant in my head instead of trying to focus on my own exam. I stare down at my papers, willing them to spontaneously burst into flames under my glare. What does this even prove? That I’m a number? That I can be a manipulative, immoral, lazy-ass, lame excuse of a human being but as long as I get good grades, I am worthy to continue my studies?
Before I could work myself into a full-blown mega mental breakdown, the girl sitting to my right opens a packet of cookies really loudly, snapping me out of it. I force myself to finish the rest of the questions.
STAGE THREE- False Happiness
Checking over my now finished exam, I think I’ve actually got this!
By now I am pissing myself, but I won’t let myself take a toilet break. Nobody got time for that! I check the time. As if on cue, my stomach grumbles: a loud uproar, like thunder, loud enough to be heard ten aisles down from where I’m sitting. I look around, pretending it wasn’t me, checking who has heard it, when my eyes connect with one of my teachers whose exam I did just the previous day. It takes all of my self-control not to tackle him with questions about that exam. Has he seen it? How did I do?
My stomach grumbles again, reminding me of all the food back home and cursing myself for not bringing any with me. Now my older brother’s going to eat all of it. He’s probably still sleeping, while I’m stuck here. He’s been through all this already, passed all his exams, graduated, got into a good university, thank you very much. Now he’s on a two-month-long holiday, staying up late, playing video games and sleeping till noon. That’s my future!
STAGE FOUR- Total Mental Breakdown Resulting in Complete Indifference
Uncertainty creeps up behind me and squeezes my gut. I see my future crumble right in front of me. I’m probably going to fail this exam.
Whatever. I can always get a job at McDonald’s. As the great Mr Freddy Mercury sang: Nothing really matters, anyone can see//Nothing really matters//Nothing really matters to me.
STAGE FIVE- Numbness
“ÚLTIMOS DIEZ MINUTOS!” They shout from the front, giving me a heart attack after all the silence.
As I’m checking all my answers for the hundredth time, a supervising teacher decides to have a rest right beside my desk. Like an angry librarian. Like a jail guard. He’s watching me, his hands behind his back, peering over my shoulders at my papers. Whenever they do this, I can’t help imagining the teachers laughing evilly to themselves when they see an incorrect answer.
Go away, go away, just go away, I think and I have to stop myself from hugging the person who instantly puts her hand up in the very first row. The teacher is forced to run to her aid, as the other teachers are busy “whispering” to each other, and the consejeros are trying to set a world record as to how fast they can answer their phones before the ringing prompts one of the students to hurl their desk at them in frustration.
Before I know it, the ten minutes are up. The exams are snatched right out from underneath our fingertips by the teachers. We practically fly out of our chairs when they say we can go, eager to get out of here as quickly as possible. We’re exhausted, the will to live drained from our bodies, our brains sore from all the strain. But we pick ourselves up, like soldiers after one battle, not knowing whether we’ve won or not, going into the next fight, because tomorrow we get to do it all over again.