It’s 8:07. Eight minutes to exam time and the room is already uncomfortably warm. The two male students who are here so far try to hide in the front corner of the room, which makes them look suspicious. I realize that I assume that cheating will happen, or at least be attempted.
Stuart Scott’s death weighs on my mind and heart as the students continue to come into the classroom. It makes me miss the US. I want to listen to sports radio non-stop right now; instead I have two hours of nothing ahead of me (Note: I now am listening to ESPN Radio as I type this to soften the pain and share in the memories of his greatness as a sportscaster/host. R.I.P.). Two hours of watching students carefully, making them feel more self-conscious than is healthy. It’s not the intent of my close vigilance – or is it – but more the effect of an untrusting and suspect system and culture.
Three minutes until the math exam begins and six of the twenty students are still missing.
Eleven minutes into the exam and all but one are present; the last one strolled in four minutes later. As is typical, it’s the male students who come in late. One of them forgets his pen, and a classmate gives up his pencil to him, even though that particular writing implement is not permitted.
Finally, the whole group is assembled. At least I have no absences to contend with. The waiting and watching begin. I should have worn better shoes. At least I don’t make a sound, as I slowly pace up and down the aisles in my rubber soles. My counterpart and I are somewhat camouflaged in our roles; she roaming the female side in her abaya and me amongst the dishdashas in my white sweater.
One student holds his paper at a suspicious angle, visible to other students; then I realize he is left-handed. I can’t help but be wary of the student who constantly looks up and around while he’s thinking. I also eye the one who stares at his hands. Is he really using them to count, or is there something written on them? We make eye contact. Sometime later, I walk by; his palms are bare.
I consider how easy it would be for these young women to wear ear buds in their abayas, their head coverings easily hiding spoken formulae. A borrowed eraser alerts me for no reason. One student drops her pencil and asks me permission to retrieve it as I walk by. Most students don’t cheat, but enough do so I can’t relax and enjoy the quiet; I have heard the stories and the warnings. In their written assignments, I have personally caught three of my students using others’ papers, trying to pass them off as their own. I hate this mindset I have, searching for dishonesty. I take a deep breath and try to restore my faith in people.
The good feelings last until the student who keeps looking at his hands keeps looking at me. I wonder what he’s up to. My invigilation partner walks up to a male student, straightens out his paper with a stern face, and walks back to her station in the back of the room. She sits and stares at the male side of the room. I increase my alertness. I didn’t see his paper as being problematic, but perhaps I missed something. Or perhaps she is even less trusting than I am. I question whether that is possible.
The guy with the borrowed pencil had his wallet out – was it always in his lap? He puts it away as I watch him; he doesn’t notice me. I think it was all above-board, but I can’t be sure.
Two young men scribble math problems on their desks. It bothers me, but at first I don’t say anything. Is this a sign of their disrespect for the college or is it to set up the next round of students? I finally walk over and make them stop. I sit back down with soft shoulders and a proud back, though this time is hardly meditative.
Thirty minutes to go. One young man is finished, hands his exam over to me, and walks out of the room. I peek at his answers and see correct and incorrect responses. One tries to leave his exam on the desk – I make him go back and get it.
More students turn in their exams. As has been the case throughout this first semester, I’m dumbfounded by the fact that spelling doesn’t seem to matter very much to the students. This casual attitude even carries over to their names. I compare their English to Arabic interpretations to those on the official roster: Shadha writes her name as “Shata;” Tariq becomes “Toreg;” Mariam is “Maryan,” and; Najlaa is written “Nagla.” I have no idea which version is correct. As someone who has continually fought the incorrect displays of my name, I don’t think this is something I will get used to. I try to tell students the importance of having a consistent spelling for their names, but they just don’t get it. Arabic is based on oral tradition and the written forms carry very little weight.
With school supplies like these, I have no idea why students surprise me.
Ten minutes left and six remain: one male from seven, and five females from thirteen. Four minutes left and only four women are using all the time they have left. Two are checking over their work, and the other two are scribbling desperately. There’s eraser dust everywhere.
Time’s up. Papers are organized and turned over to those in charge. Forms are signed. Nothing out of the ordinary happened; in fact, the process went pretty smoothly this morning.
At times, I was able to enjoy the silence, even though I hate this form of assessment. Everyone seems so miserable. I question whether these results will reflect any knowledge gained – yet exams like this are used globally; they are easily standardized, easily marked, a part of the tradition of education.
One day down, five to go.