The Exam

By James DiGiovanna

Children flood the halls and hide under desks, crawl along the floor and touch themselves in the closet. It's test day. Bells start to ring--and they ring and ring, some sounding like telephones, some like electric buzzers, others like chain saws, and some play canticles and canons. School is starting and all the leaves fall off the trees as the windows are laced with patterns of frost and snow covers the walkways and school buses. Charley is the first to notice the snow, and he sends himself to the principal's office for staring out the window during class.

A tremendous, wet stomping noise is heard down the hall. The children shudder and Jenny wets her pants. It is teacher. She is coming in a polyester pants suit striped with deadly green and red. Earrings in the shape of babies' skulls hang at her neck, and her breath reaches the room before her, turning the air a noxious odor. She weighs at least a thousand and forty-four pounds, and she oozes through the door slowly and with great difficulty. The walls and floor are wet where she passes. An odor of white-out and hair spray and pencils and bleach surrounds her. The floor shakes as she takes her seat.

"Chiiiildren!" she says, in her best sing-song voice, "Do you know what day today is?"

"It is test day, teacher, test day," they respond in fearful unison. "It is test day today."

"Yeeesssssss!" sings teacher, "and what must we do on test day?"

"We must move our desks apart, we must avert our eyes, we must concentrate, we must cheat in secrecy, we must fear, we must hate, we must write with a Number 2 pencil."

"Yeeesssss! Yes! Yes! Yes!"

Teacher pulls a stack of small blue exam books out of her purse. She pulls out a stack of scan-tron sheets. She pulls out a stack of Number 2 pencils, a stack of questionnaires, a stack of adhesive gold stars, and a pack of cigarettes. She pulls out thirty small lizards and sends them scurrying along the floor. She pulls out a photo of her mother and weeps for a moment. From out of her sleeve she pulls a used Kleenex that is at least forty feet long, shredded and wadded and crusted with snot.

She flings the questionnaires, the blue books, the scan-tron sheets, and the Number 2 pencils into the air and they settle one apiece on each desk like perfect place-settings at a family dinner.

"Write!" she screams with a venom unimagined in her normally chirping voice. "Write you little maggots! An 'F' will get you a sleeping place on a hot air vent in mid-town! A 'D' will get you a television, an apartment full of roaches, a spouse you despise, children who take drugs, a president you didn't vote for, a brain slowly dying from beer and bitterness! A 'C' will get you a broken heart, a life of envy and slow death in a small cubicle in a small office building in a small town in northern New Jersey from where you will watch your friends and family rise higher than you and pass you in the street without nodding, only a small look of embarrassment betraying their recognition! A 'B' will move you to the suburbs, paint a fence around your house, install a stereo system in your living room, make your daughters more beautiful and your sons more athletic, fetch your slippers and rub your back and leave you only the faintest sense that everything you do is somehow devoid of meaning, that your existence is determined by a mistake you made so far in the past that you could never pinpoint its time nor understand its place! An 'A' will bring you sexual satisfaction the likes of which your young minds cannot imagine! It will raise you to the height of fame, place you at the pinnacle of success, surround you with mindless groupies, drooling sycophants and low-rent swindlers, who will lie to you and eventually ruin your art and your work and turn you into a laughing stock, but prevent you from ever knowing just how little people think of you! Write! Write! Write!"

Timmy begins making moire' patterns by filling out squares on the scan-tron sheet. Mary twists her hair and chews her pencil and tries to read the blank blue book. Leon produces a short novel about the loss of innocence in war-time Great Britain. Melissa discovers an inner resource of strength and learns to cope with childhood sexual abuse. Ferdinand pulls out a small handgun and shoots himself in the head, but a flag that says "Bang!" is all that comes out of the barrel. Nonetheless he succeeds in poking out his eye, which rolls on the floor like a marble until it is snapped up by one of the hungry lizards. Ferdinand shrugs and goes back to the test. Two of the children leave their desks, squat in the corner, and make love to ward off the terror of the exam. Another tries to cheat, but doesn't know how. One bites her fingernails and swallows them until a hand grows in her stomach. Others laugh or moan or cry.

"Time's up!" yells teacher after only five minutes. "Pencils down! Papers over! Eyes forward! Backs straight! Abortion illegal! Drugs mandatory! Capital gains tax cut imminent! Stop! Stop! Stop!"

Pencils drop to the floor in a thunderous rain that blocks out all the sounds of despair and sorrow blasting from the mouths of the children. A puddle of tears forms on the floor, drowning the lizards, and ruining the linoleum, running through the cracks and down to the boiler room where it shorts out the lights and plunges the room into mid-day darkness that accurately reflects the mood of the assembly. Anxiety invades the hearts of the children, which beat faster and more irregularly, causing them to clutch their breasts and make gasping noises in the sharp and soulless rhythm of a Prussian march.

Teacher pries herself out from behind her desk and forces her girth down the aisles, her stomach squeegeeing the floor dry as she walks. She collects the papers, the crib sheets, the notes and pencils and scan-trons and blue books. She collects the hopes of the children into a messy bundle, paper fraying and flying loose from the edges, stains from her sweat coloring the pages, bits of correct answers mingling with errors in a mass of pulpy post-consumer waste.

As soon as she reaches the back of the room teacher re-appears at the front, as though the last desk hid a portal to the black board. She plops the exams on her table and smiles at them. Opening her mouth wide and wider, her face contorting as she unlatches her jaw, her cheeks stretching like a snake eating a mouse, she devours the tests as her false teeth rattle to the floor and break into at thousand glittering jewels. The students stare blank-eyed as she consumes their work, as she savors each sentence and equation, each guess and calculation, each interpretation and memorization. They stare unmoving until a squeak, and then a squeal of joy comes from them all at once. They stand on their desks and whoop and jump in the air. Forming cheerleading teams they spin each other about and flip and toss the lighter and then the heavier students, even whirling poor fat Aaron high above their heads, giving him for the first time in his life the feeling of weightlessness.

But suddenly a hiss comes from teacher's middle, and her girdle bursts, spilling her girth out onto the floor. The children jump up on their desks, and all the girls start to menstruate, and the boy's voices crack as they ejaculate spontaneously, filling the room with a river of blood and semen. Teacher's flopping belly splashes the children with their own bodily fluids, which cling to them and instantly dry in a crust. Flowers burst through the children's coating, and spring blooms outside and inside the classroom. Teacher decomposes into fertilizer, and all the children crack out of their semen-and-blood coats and run across her on their way outside to play, as the heat of summer wilts the blossoms that fall off their backs.

But they are too late--they've forgotten all the games, and can't even remember the classroom correctly. Dead leaves drop from the trees and form reclining chairs which catch the children as they fall backwards in exhaustion. They watch as the school itself melts into the ground and contaminates the soil for a thousand years to come.

James DiGiovanna is the Pop Culture Expert Editor at, for which he writes five reviews monthly and a newsletter. His writing, which appears regularly in the Tucson Weekly, includes an article in High Noon On The Electronic Frontier (MIT Press) and a story in 20 X 18 (Cooper Union Press).

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