A single bead of sweat rolled down the middle of his forehead and made its lonely journey along the bridge of his nose, finally settling at the tip. It hung there precariously for what seemed a lifetime before dropping downward. It landed squarely on the question paper nestling between the number 25 and the beginning of the actual question. He seemed completely oblivious of it or the other beads of sweat that were pouring copiously from his head. Some even stung his eyes painfully but he made no attempt to wipe them away let alone close his eyes.
The room was not particularly hot nor was he running a fever, though he wished he’d been sick on this particular day. It would have given him a good excuse not to take the test. Maybe I can feign illness, he thought, God knows I look the part. He quickly dismissed the idea; it would never work because he had used that excuse too many a time. Besides, more than half the scheduled time for the exam had elapsed and it would be pointless at this point.
He looked down again at his empty answer sheet and the severity of his situation really sunk in. More sweat poured down his head as a mild panic attack set in. He silently cursed himself for not studying the previous night. The football game in the field outside his house was way too enticing and he had bowed to peer pressure like a cheap umbrella in a storm. In retrospect, studying last night would have had little effect on the outcome today. It was not like this was a pop quiz or a midterm exam that sprung on him and he had not time to read. He had had a full eight years to prepare for this exam.
Everyone knew that the whole point of a primary school education was to pass THIS exam and get into a good secondary school. It had been drummed into all and sundry from the get go that this was a make-or-break 3 days.
The whole concept of someone’s future being pegged on a summarised and condensed 5 paper exam always seemed ridiculous to him. But it was the system that had been established and he was now part of it, just like millions before him and many more to come. And here he was completely unprepared, staring at a bleak future with the same despondent shock as a deer caught in a car’s headlights.
In one fluid motion, he looked around the room masking his desperation with a casual yawn and stretch. His closest colleagues were at least a metre away in either direction. None of his fellow examinees seemed troubled. They all had their eyes fixed squarely on their question papers, concentrating like their lives literally depended on it, before turning their attention to the answer sheet and shading away. He had never felt more alone in his whole life.
A break in this almost choreographed ‘dance’ of read then write caught his eye. He noticed that Vera, the girl to his immediate left, was not reading her question paper. Instead, she was surreptitiously lifting her school dress and reading off her thigh! He should have been outraged but instead he cursed himself for not thinking of that.
He looked up at her totally impressed then down at his shorts and mentally pictured himself writing down information he would have needed in the exam room. Again he cursed himself almost audibly this time. He recalled his friend Paul mentioning something about being privy to the exam.
Apparently, his mother knew someone in KNEC who had sold her copies of all the exam papers a week earlier. Paul had been dismissed by many who had seen such ‘leakage’ before that had not panned out. He did not care enough to even try and verify the authenticity of this ‘leakage’. They say hindsight is 20/20 and at that moment his was as clear as it would ever be. If only he had taken even a peek…if only… He looked over at Paul seated in front of him ruefully.
Paul was hunched over as if he was picking up his pencil. That was when he noticed the bright green Bata slippers Paul was wearing. He would not have paid them much attention had he not remembered playing football with Paul minutes before the exam started. Therefore, the slippers made no sense at all (the only thing that made less sense than this, and of course the exam questions, was the Elastoplast wrapped neatly around Paul’s largest toe of his right foot). His unasked questions were answered when Paul sat up straight with his pencil in hand and one slipper missing from his foot. As though he sensed eyes on him, Paul turned and winked at him and he understood instantly.
Five minutes later, Paul bent over again and this time slid the missing slipper backwards towards him. Relying purely on instinct, he stopped the slipper from sliding past him with his left foot. As he bent over to subtly pick it up, he could hear his heart beating in his ears. His trepidation heightened when he saw the slipper had answers written on it. Excitement set in, mixing seamlessly with the dread he felt. On one side he saw salvation from the demon that was this exam and an almost certain gloomy future.
On the other hand he could not imagine what would happen if he was caught cheating. The mere thought terrified him to the point of causing his saliva to taste like saw dust in his mouth. He could see it now in his mind: the disapproving look from his teachers, the disappointment from his parents, the school headmaster being forced to call the police, the dark interrogation room and finally breaking down and selling Paul out as his source. The thought snapped him back to reality. I can’t go through this!
Just as he was about to drop the slipper and slide it back, he heard the booming voice of the chief invigilator ‘Wewe! Kijana!! What do you have in your hand there!?