Five years of preparation, of learning, of revising had come to its end. He entered the hall clinging to his clear pencil case, avoiding glances from the surrounding invigilators as he hurried to his seat. Emptying out his pencil case, he checked off his list: biro pen – half bent lid, ink fading down its cartridge; foldable ruler – snapped and smeared with glue from his attempt to put it back together; and pencil – blunt and scratched with nervous bite marks. Biro pen, foldable ruler, pencil. He hadn’t forgotten anything amidst the chaos in the cloakroom, from which erupted a hoard of students clambering into the hall; invigilators hushed them into their seats, quietening them in an instant.
Outside, rays of sunlight leaked through the grey clouds from the previous night’s storm. Birds sang harmoniously, nature’s sound resonating through the fern trees just across for the exam hall. In the distance, he could hear faint sounds of laughter from children in the neighbouring park: something Caleb could hardly remember now. Warmth and sunshine peppered the air, yet his eyes were fixated on the clouds: dense, massing to form a stain across the sky and tinged with grey.
Beads of sweat trickled down the side of his forehead, dampening the collar of his white shirt. The heat seemed to suffocate him as he loosened his tie and removed his blazer. His eyes darted left and right to the other students: all waiting, like him. Some tapped their feet, whilst others coughed and sneezed. Some rustled through their pencil cases, whilst others clicked their pens. The clock ticked on the wall, whilst birds tweeted inconsiderately outside.
“3, 2, 1.”
The invigilator counted down as papers were flung open, pens furiously scribbling across the flicking pages. Caleb opened the paper, whispering a silent prayer. It was pass or fail. Looking down, a look of dread formed; ‘Speciation. Great!’ he thought, as the sea of words merged into one big meaningless blur. They all disappeared into what seemed like a splodge of ink, leaking across the page. Desperately, he tried to differentiate the words, squinting with little success as he scrawled whatever came to mind. Drooping his head low, he thought back to the night before: biology revision.
“Caleb! Either come down now or no dinner!” shrieked his mum, her voice fighting with the sound of the extractor fan, to be heard.
“I’m going to eat your dinner if you don’t come down,” taunted his little sister.
“Son! Where is the remote? The premier finals are on!” called his father.
His mum, his sister, his dad. They all had one thing in common; they were not victims of the mountain of revision Caleb had to pile through. He cranked up the volume of his music, slamming the door shut to drown out all the noise. Their voices echoed as he tried to focus, staring blankly at the explosions of flashcards and posters sprawled across the floor.
“Pens down,” announced the invigilator. “End of test.”
Caleb sat there shaking, every tiny movement rocking his squeaky table as he anxiously waited for his row to be called.
Grabbing his pencil case, he dashed out of his seat, scurrying to the cloakroom. He stuffed his things into his bag, swung it over his shoulder and bolted out the door.
His cap rested on his head, neatly tucking away his mousy curls as he walked down the school drive, darting towards the gate. His head hung low, avoiding glances with the teachers, avoiding the interrogation that would inevitably follow. The school bell rang as students flooded out of classrooms.
‘Three more steps and I’m safe,’ he thought. But then he heard it.
“Caleb! How’d the exam go?” called Mr Fisher, his biology teacher.
He looked up to see his teacher, waiting for an answer with a plastic smile painted across his face. His voice seemed to fail him. His fingers fumbled in his pockets. His eyes froze, focused on Mr Fisher’s. He had done all he could. He had crammed as much as he could. He had tried his best. It was pass or fail.