Frank’s Last Invigilation
When anyone asked Frank whether he was counting the days to retirement he would answer not with a smile or a yes but with a number. No countdown had ever excited him more and each morning he gleefully crossed another day off the list he kept in his diary. It was with a similar satisfaction that he crossed things off another list that he kept in his diary – Things I Will Never Have To Do Again.
Today Frank was looking forward to crossing one thing in particular off this list. Invigilation. Never again would he walk up and down those aisles hoping his shoes didn’t squeak and that he didn’t let slip an accidental fart. Never again would he furnish exam candidates with extra paper or accompany them to the toilet. Never again would he place exam papers on desks or wait patiently at the end while a candidate fiddled with a treasury tag. Today was the day of Frank’s Last Invigilation.
“The time is 9.15,” boomed the exams officer, “and you may begin.”
Papers rustled, candidates coughed, and Frank sensed that tense silence, that adrenaline- filled hush, that heart-fluttering moment when anxious eyes scan newly revealed questions.
Could it be so long ago that Frank was doing exams himself? O Levels in 1974. A levels in the long hot drought summer of 1976. Finals in 1980. Could it be so long ago that he put the last full stop on his last Finals paper and rushed out of the hall to get very drunk and to kiss education goodbye for ever?
It seemed that it could. Time did not lie and, as retirement approached, Frank allowed himself to look back on the ironic tricks time had played on him over the years. The way, for example, that Frank, who had been so keen never to enter an exam hall again, should have spent so much of his working life walking up and down one. Or the way that Frank, who knew he would never have to do an exam again, was haunted by so many recurring dreams about them. Not being able to find his seat. Not being able to do any of the questions. Not having a pen. Not being able to write legibly. Being given a paper in the wrong subject or one written in an unrecognisable foreign language. And, most spectacularly, sitting an exam stark-bollock-naked.
Perhaps when he gave up teaching for good he would no longer have these ridiculous dreams. Frank smiled at the prospect as he walked down one of the aisles thinking of his list of Things I Will Never Have To Do Again. In forty five minutes it would all be over. No more mind games to make the time pass more quickly. No more furtive glances at smuggled-in crosswords. No more sneaking a look at his phone. No more pacing up and down wondering at the absurdity of it all. No more invigilation.
A hand shot up in front of him.
Frank looked at it and did what years of experience had taught him – he glanced around quickly to see if anyone else was heading towards it and, realising that no one was, pretended not to see it himself. It was always best to avoid any raised hand if you could.
He looked around the hall again. There was still no response from his co-invigilators. Couldn’t they see the arm? Why weren’t they moving towards it? What was going on here?
Still no-one moved towards the boy, whose eyes were now firmly fixed on Frank. He thought momentarily of bending down to tie up imaginary laces on his slip-on shoes or turning round to walk down the aisle in the opposite direction, but he knew that the boy had seen him. More than that, the boy was staring at him in a way that Frank found unnerving. There was something odd about him, something strange, something compelling, and Frank was unable to stop himself moving towards his desk.
As Frank drew closer to the boy he tried to place him. He seemed familiar, but he also looked as though, in some inexplicable way, he shouldn’t be there at all, as though he belonged somewhere else entirely. When Frank reached his desk and could see the boy’s face clearly he realised exactly why this was.
The boy was not one he had ever taught. Nor was he one he had ever come across in school. The boy in front of him was definitely not one who should be sitting English A Level on Tuesday the 13th June 2017.
The boy Frank was moving towards was himself. The boy Frank was moving towards was himself as an eighteen year old. The boy who sat at the desk with his arm raised was Frank as he was in the Upper Sixth in 1976.
His skin glowed with youth. His hair was long and dark. His face, like his body, was thin and angular and his eyes were bright, burning with inquisitiveness and a desire to know, a desire to have questions, and one question in particular, answered.
“Yes?” said Frank as he arrived at the boy’s desk.
Young Frank held up his exam paper. “There seems to be a problem,” he said. “I think I’ve got the wrong paper.”
“What should it be?” said Frank.
“It should be English,” said the boy, holding the question paper towards Frank, “but it’s not.”
Frank took the paper from the boy and looked at the front.
At the top of the paper was the name of the Examination Board – The Board of Very Big Questions.
Underneath this was the date – 13th June, 2017.
Underneath this was the length of the paper – 30-40 years
And below this was the name of the exam – ‘A Level Life’.
“ I can’t do this,” said the boy. “I haven’t studied it.”
“What do you mean you haven’t studied it?”
Frank looked at the boy. His younger self stared back at him, innocent, pleading.
“I mean, I’ve done a bit, but not very much. I haven’t studied Life. I couldn’t. It wasn’t an option.”
Frank shook his head. “You must have, otherwise you wouldn’t have been entered for it. You wouldn’t have been given a paper.”
“But no-one does Life here,” said the boy. “It’s not a proper subject.”
“I don’t see what I can do,” said Frank.
In all his years of invigilation he had never come across anything like this. And in all his years of teaching he had never come across anyone teaching, or studying, Life.
“There must be something you can do,” said the boy. “It’s not fair. This could ruin my prospects, ruin my …”
Frank opened the paper and scanned the questions
1. What is the point of exams?
In your answer consider the idea that exams are a passport to university and that university is a passport to employment and that employment is a passport to…
Frank couldn’t read the rest of the question. It turned into a mess of indecipherable letters as if something had gone very wrong with the printing.
2. If you knew that you would spend your future working life as a teacher would you jack it all in now?
3. ‘It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’. Consider this proposition.
4. How important is it in life to make a lot of money?
5. What criteria should be used in deciding whether or not anyone’s life can be described as ‘successful’?
6. Consider the idea that with age comes more wrinkles than wisdom.
7. ‘Who you are is more important than what you do or what you have.’ Do you agree?
8. You are coming to the end of your working life. Write a letter to your younger self giving him or her the advice you wish you’d been given when you were eighteen.
9. ‘What’s it all about, Alfie?’ Write Alfie’s response.
10. ‘Fuck off, Mr Chips!’ Consider the view that bad teachers have a more significant effect than good ones.
“It’s not fair,” said the boy. “I haven’t studied it. No-one has. I mean we’ve spoken about it a little but no one ever said we’d be examined on it!”
Frank looked around the exam hall, and raised his hand. He needed some help but the other invigilators were still walking around with their eyes fixed elsewhere. None of them had noticed the boy’s raised hand and none of them was now responding to his. It was as though neither he nor his younger self existed.
“What do I do?” said the boy. “What do I do?”
“It’s OK,” said Frank. “It will all be OK.” He leaned down towards the boy. “Don’t you know anything about life?” he whispered. “I mean couldn’t you give it a go?”
“Give it a go?” said the boy. “I’ve been revising Keats and Hamlet! I‘ve learned quotes and everything!”
“Can’t you just busk it?”
“Busk it? Life? ”
Frank looked towards the invigilators, his body trembling with anxiety.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m an invigilator. I can’t help you.”
“Please!” said the eighteen-year old Frank. “Please help me!”
“I can’t,” said Frank. “I’ll get in trouble. It’s my last invigilation and if I help you I’ll get into trouble. I’ll…”
And it was then that Frank realised it was too late for him to get into trouble. What could possibly happen? This was his Last Invigilation. They couldn’t get him now. His pension was sorted. He turned to the boy…
The radio woke Frank at six o’clock, as it had on every working day for as many years as he could remember. Another exam dream. The kind of thing he had told all his students over all those years never to write about. Just like he had told them never to wake up at the end of a story.
Frank reached for his diary.
Ten days to retirement.
And today was the Day of His Last Invigilation.