Eternal invigilation: my rise to power in exam-hall hell

Unexpectedly in charge of a room of students fretting over the colour of answer booklets, Emma Rees ponders the potential price in dog lives

June 25, 2015
Students taking an exam
Source: iStock

6.45am Alarm sounds. Press snooze button.

6.46am Begin middle-aged morning inventory. Husband – one – fast asleep; cats on bed – two; cats attacking human toes – two; knees – stiff; back – aching; sight – myopic; vanity – too great for varifocals; hours of invigilation ahead – three.

6.50am Alarm sounds. Hit snooze button.

6.55am Alarm sounds. Nurture dark thoughts about snooze button inventor.

7.00am Alarm sounds. Punch it in irritating, snoozy, insistent, stupid little face. Cats hurtle off bed. Husband gives me A Look. Goes back to sleep.

8.55am March into Sports Hall with as much authority as back and knees will allow. Rows of empty desks and chairs.

8.56am Remind self that am not taking exam. Anxiety allayed.

8.59am Set question paper and answer booklet on each desk.

9.11am Wait for students to be let in. Novelist Colleague, also invigilating, sits next to me. Reads me two pages of his new novel which is, he reports, brilliant.

9.19am Novelist Colleague asks if I think it’s reminiscent of Proust. Snorts unnecessarily loudly when I say that I have never finished anything by Proust.

9.22am Woman from Registry tells me am Chief Invigilator. Am seized with fit of smugness. Give Novelist Colleague fleeting yet meaningful look to say “Uneasy lies the head that wears the Chief Invigilator crown”.

9.23am Novelist Colleague surreptitiously picks nose.

9.24am Students begin to file in.

9.30am Exam starts.

9.40am Wander up and down aisles like keyless prison warder.

9.43am Wander down and up aisles.

9.50am Wonder as wandering.

10.13am Incontinence has apparently gripped students. Escort one after another out of hall. On third trip, left shoe starts to make comical “eekEEK” sound when I put weight on heel.

11.06am Student with hand up in Aisle C! Jump up, startling Novelist Colleague from resting eyes. Am up and eekEEKing way to student in authoritative manner, clutching treasury tag, biro and answer booklet. Student takes answer booklet. It is lilac; original ones are blue. “Does the colour matter?” hisses student. “No” (said in comforting-yet-commanding Chief voice). Student looks unsure; clearly oblivious to solemnities and power of role.

11.07am EekEEK back to desk. Remain vigilant. Thoughts course through Chiefly brain. What if booklet colour does matter? What if power has gone to head? Student would fail degree; would fall into inexorable spiral of destitution and gloom; parents, divided in opinion over offspring’s ruinous regret, would divorce. Mother, in heated confusion of family argument, would reverse car too quickly out of garage, running over Odette, beloved family spaniel. I would be culpable. Done for dogslaughter, I would suffer ignominy at hands of press; would lose job, home, cats, husband.

12.13pm Gear self up for penultimate announcement. Wonder how to deliver it. Sympathetic tone? Timbre calculated casually, yet assertively, to suggest: “This is serious”? In upbeat, jaunty manner?

12.14pm Pressure of occasion has made palms sweaty.

12.15pm “You have 15 minutes left.”

12.16pm Am impressed by what was packed into those bland words: authority, yes, but authority subtly tempered by echoes of empathy and solace. Congratulate self on Job Well Done.

12.30pm Exam ends; students file out. Am no longer Chief Invigilator. Am no longer The Law.

12.36pm Invigilators busily sort scripts into piles. Look at my pile. From Invigilation Hell, have stepped, with nary an eekEEK, into Marking Hell.

2.08pm Husband asks how day went. Recall dogslaughter. “Could’ve been worse.”

2.12pm Sit in study to begin marking scripts. Notice how grubby window is. Refuse to be distracted from first script.

2.14pm Cleaning windows with miniature yellow and black vacuum cleaner.

2.39pm Start marking again. Notice mark on pane. Focus on answer booklet.

2.41pm Another mark! Stubbornly continue correcting first essay on Woolf and Perkins Gilman.

2.42pm Marks on window start to evolve into diminutive existential portents. Are they inside, or out? Rub inside of window gently with little cloth from glasses case. Mark is on outside. Have created new smudge.

2.45pm Marks have made marking into long, dark tea break of soul.

2.46pm Yearn to transcend such mundanities but, alas, have no wife. And, for as long as marking season lasts, I also, apparently, will have no life.

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester.


Article originally published as: Eternal invigilation (25 June 2015)

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