“Alright everyone – you have your papers – the time is 1 o’clock. You can begin.”
This was the culmination of days – no, weeks – of revision and preparation. These words were an epiphany and a climax. This announcement was the pinnacle of my course on rhetoric – the denouement, if you will, of all my studies and struggles since the course’s inception.
This was the perfect time for a fire alarm.
And sure enough, within moments of hearing those words, another sound filled the room: the electronic death-throes of an evidently under-nourished chicken. It sounded as if the miserable, flightless bird was being slaughtered – its neck most violently wrung. It sounded neither hale nor hearty.
Moments later we were all outside, braving the blustery winds, shivering away, exam booklets gripped tightly in hand, wondering I suppose, “well, now what do we do?”
I looked around. There was no smoke billowing from the building. I looked up – way up – and saw no one threatening to jump from the roof (which was good). There were students standing in the window of an adjacent structure, pointing at us and laughing.
These were all indications that there was no real problem with the building.
Security arrived about five minutes after we hit the pavement, which fact suggested that they were as flummoxed as we were. They were not “in on it”. They walked, slowly, into the building and did who knows what.
The fire department arrived in the ladder truck about five minutes after that. They walked – no, not “they”, he – he walked slowly into the building, and did who knows what.
Of course, we exam-curdled kids started talking. At first there were only nervous glances, chatter, jokes and japes. Silly talk of making it a “take-home exam” (alright, I admit it – I started that one), even of cancelling it altogether (not started by me) – all a nervous response to the unknown – silly witticisms bandied about like five-dollar bills in a strip club – or so I would imagine.
An ethical quandary occurred to me since we had learned about them in the course. There we were, exam notebooks and question papers in one hand and study guides in the other. What on earth was to stop us from using the confusion to lay one out next to the other and so secure a perfect mark?
I suppose good taste and fear governed the day, for as I observed everyone stayed together and behaved perfectly well. This was reassuring and comforting in ways that are hard to explain. Cheating does happen, of that you can be sure, but on this particular day – as far I could tell, at least – it didn’t.
After about thirty-five minutes standing in the cold we were finally given an update. “We don’t know what’s going on and we don’t know how long it’s going to be.” I heard Fearless Leader briefly contemplating the possibility of re-scheduling, but as it turned out this was not necessary.
We were moved inside a nearby building for a while, and then whoever it was that was strangling the chicken apparently finally finished the job, for the halls went quiet.
We were allowed into our classroom once more, and thus did the end of one slaughter give rise to the beginning of another.
I wrote the exam.