Testy Time

Do you have a pen?

Testing time at the university is a fascinating week. In the first place, as a teacher, you get to meet a whole new group of students you never knew. On each register there are names that are nothing more than curios, a couple of eastern or central European words whose attendance blocks are unsullied by a pen marking them present. During testing week these people climb out of the woodwork to introduce themselves and to offer explanations as to why they haven’t seen you in three months. Almost always there has been a visa problem, an illness, a dead relative. All of which, naturally, somehow denies them use of their fingers and the email on the phone they have attached to their hands 23 hours a day.

In the midst of this, you have to then administer the test. Now, one would think that when you are walking into a written examination you might have on your person a pen. However, you would be terribly incorrect in this assumption. I have searched my inner slouch to figure out why a student would walk into a (and this is a key word) written test without a pen. I have come up with the three possible answers. One, their dedication to English is such that they were going to tear open a finger and write in blood. Two, they were hoping that not having a pen would result in an automatic pass. Three, they are missing a chromosome.

In the test you deal with all sorts, especially if you are invigilating a group that isn’t made up of all your own students. This is about the questions you get as a teacher walking around a room of test-taking students. Some of these are checking on a typo and some are checking the instructions. Some, however, are a bit more surprising.

“Hello, can you tell me, is this right?”

“The answer you wrote?”


“Well isn’t that part of the test?”

“Oh yeah…so is it right?”

At times you need to explain something that seems like it might just be pretty clear. On Thursday a student took out a phone and I was on him like one of the miserable guards at the Vatican trying to quell awe.

“What are you doing? Put that away.”

“I only need to look up one word.”

“Are you kidding?”

Student, staring at me, unsure which way he should go with my question. “Yes?”

“OK. Good. Phone away now.”

Puts phone away. “Can I ask you something?”


“What does this mean?”

“I can’t…it’s a tes…it means you have given up all hope.”


The fact is, teachers during a test week all of a sudden become the most important people at the university. Students who for three months have ducked into toilets to avoid contact because they weren’t coming to your class, now follow you into a toilet to ask you if they had enough attendance to get extra points on the test. Students will approach you on the tram and they will not leave, they’ll sit there until it’s so uncomfortable that the only possibility is that there is an actual emergency that requires CPR and you’ll remove your earphones or close your book and say. “Yes?” And they’ll say, “Do you know how much I got on the test?”

And you’re funny. No matter what your answer or the depths of the horridness of your witless comment, they will laugh. Everyone around you who is a student will laugh. Nobody in history has ever been funnier than a teacher about to hand out a test or a police officer about to hand out a ticket. I think it’s a variant of the Stockholm Syndrome. Students who would normally kick you under a bus to be exempt from your class now think you are the world’s greatest comedian. And why? I suppose they think there’s still hope.

On the one hand, you’re getting what you wanted, you’re getting paid attention to. But it’s in an ironic end of the Twilight Zone kind of manner. You can almost hear a witch crow, “Oh youl’ll be noticed. You’ll be noticed by everyone! Wahahahhahahaha!” and then the close up of the teacher as the horror of what the horror of their granted wish actually entails. Or we can go the teen romantic comedy route. We’re finally visible, like at the end of a bad teen romantic comedy when the thoughtful female lead realizes that love has been beside her all along and it was her overlooked best friend Jerzy, who just happens to become a Hunkorama Rex when he takes off his glasses and reveals beautiful pectoral muscles when he strips off his oversized flannel shirt to save the thoughtful female lead from a pond into which she has thoughtlessly tripped.

It’s like that.

Every teacher was a student at some point, so I believe there is an empathy below the superficial aggravation. most of us know the stress that comes from not doing what you’re supposed to for three months and then the music being faced. We’ve probably been there at least once. And surely we didn’t understand why our teachers rolled their eyes at our hardship stories and our bullshit excuses.

“What a jerk,” I said about a Geology of the National Parks professor who rejected my proposal that he add three attendances to my name because I “really wanted to come, but got sick each time on my way to class.”

So I do empathize. I have been the student eking by with a D- on my third and final try to pass a class. I have been the student who showed up at the wrong room because I wasn’t in a class enough times to remember where it took place. I have met professors for the first time at the test.

But at least when I got there I had a pen.

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