The Possum


In the middle of the room of testing students, a hand goes up. I approach. I know the guy from my Tuesday morning class. He’s is a friendly guy, but my brain rolls its eyes.

Two years ago, he took it upon himself to place himself in a higher level of English class. This would be fine is he was determined and hard working, but he’s not. So instead of studying in a class for intermediate students, which is the level he tested into, he demanded that he go to an advanced class. And for the last two years, he has mumbled a hybrid of proto-Swedish and Khuzdul into his phone screen.

When he forgoes this linguistic mix, we engage in a chess match of possum: he stares at me or the book, I wait. We do this until someone else gets bored enough to answer.

In tests is his time to come to life in the form of questions.

“Yes, hello,” I say to him.

“How long we have for the test?”

“What does it say on the board?” I point to the only 15 symbols in the middle of the board:

Test 15:30-16:30

Possum.

“Can you see?” I ask this genuinely.

Possum.

“How long did you have in the tests in the other three semesters?”

Possum.

“An hour. You have an hour.”

“Thank you.”

Every student has a testing strategy. For many this entails doing homework, studying, several days of review. Others try to cram the entire language into their hippocampus the night before the exam. Others try out their spy licks by trying to cheat their way through the exam. And some ask questions.

I don’t understand the strategy fully, but it seems halfway between trying to trick an invigilator into giving up an answer or trying to annoy them into giving up an answer. I do know that the strategy starts with an innocuous query, such as asking about the length of time for the test.

I am on alert.

The Possum is shaking his pen. Noticeably. It makes a loud shaking sound. Then he scratches it against his test paper several times. He gives me a concerned face and I approach.

“I don’t have a pen.”

My hand touches the one in my shirt pocket as his eyes go to it. I shake my head. My family treats pens as if they are wands in Harry Potter, we do not buy a pen, we buy an extension of ourselves and our souls. We do understand that sometimes other pens are needed, so as a Galeone, I almost always carry two pens (1 primary pen, 1 backup), but I haven’t had the forethought to bring a backup pen to the test. Because, you know, most students will bring a working pen to a written exam.

A girl nearby hands him her extra pen and grits her teeth. I nod to her. I understand. The Possum hesitates before going back to work. I have thwarted his attempts to take something from me. I walk away, celebrate my minor victory by writing a few words in my notebook and then slipping my beautiful soulmate back into my shirt pocket.

It’s in the waking throes of that revelry that I see the hand go back up. The Possum’s pointing to his test. He’s making an apologetic face, but we both know he is not apologizing.

“Do it matter what grammar I use in this one?”

“It’s a grammar activity.”

“But do it matter?”

“It is a test activity testing your grammar. What do you think?”

Possum.

“Yes it matters.”

He nods. I walk away. My eye twitches. He has now spoken more in the last 18 minutes of a test than he has in the entire semester.

As a teacher I welcome questions from students. As long as these questions are geared towards gaining a deeper understanding of critical thinking, English language, the world, Philadelphia baseball, or writing. I deeply abhor the ones meant to drill a hole into a teacher’s soul.

The possum has raised his hand and I crack all the knuckles in my feet at once. He has turned around. He’s pointing to an answer he’s written in the pen he borrowed from the girl. Its ink is purple.

“Is this right?”

“It’s a test, the point of a test is to test things.”

“Yes, but…it is correct?”

“I can’t tell you that. It’s a test.”

Possum.

“It’s a test.”

“Yes, but…if I give there this….word, is it…OK?”

“In other words: is it right?”

The Possum nods

“I am not telling you.”

The Possum sighs. His teacher walks to the other invigilator and tells him that he’s stepping out to the bathroom before he commits second degree murder. I use the toilet and then wash my face. I take more deep breaths than should be necessary to get through a test which I am not taking. I walk back into the testing room.

The Possum has obviously heard the door unclick, because his hand is meekly in the air as I come through the door. I put on a smile and stand next to his section of the table.

“I must put here my opinion?”

“You have to use the modifier to compare those two things.”

Possum.

“Those two…classical music and…rock and roll.”

Possum.

“Compare them using a modifier from the page.” I circle the bank of modifiers on the page in purple ink.

Possum.

Possum. (I stare at his test, make no sounds)

“I must put my opinion?”

“Yes. You must give your opinion. Yes. Yes. Your opinion. For example: I would far rather beat you to death to rock and roll music than to classical music.” I circle far in the phrase bank with a shaky purple cloud.

Possum.

I take my leave. I don’t know if the Possum has won or lost, but I know that my walk home will coincidentally go past a couple of pubs. If a waitress asks me any questions I am going to cry.

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