The church bells ring out the hour from the cathedral across the street from my school. A few of the kids sway their heads along with the chimes. I count the rings, and wonder what it would be like if this way our only way of telling the time. The sun is no indication. It’s the third day of rain.
Time passes strangely when you’re staring at a clock for five hours. As a teacher, I usually feel like the time is slipping away from me. I usually look at the clock and proclaim, “only ten minutes left?!” wondering how I am supposed to asses what the children have learned (most current teaching standards would rate you as a failure if you neglect to do this) as well as gracefully close the lesson and make sure everyone copies down the homework.
But this week there is no teaching. Just proctoring the dreaded state tests. These exams used to be administered in ninety-minute sessions, three days in a row. Now, the three-day sessions are “untimed.” We start at 9:00 a.m. and lunch is at 1:00 p.m. Most students work until at least noon. There are always a couple who stay behind after the others leave for the cafeteria, and a lunch is brought up to them as they scratch away with their number two pencils.
Untimed is good because my seventh graders who read at a third grade level get to read and re-read. Untimed is good because you can write a better essay when you have unlimited time to plan and brainstorm. Untimed also means four hours of silence. As a proctor, my phone is off. I am not allowed to have a paper or a pencil. I’m technically not allowed to sit down, but I break this rule every so often. I resist the urge to read compulsively over the students’ shoulders, because I don’t want to induce more nerves.
Mostly, I pace. While I pace, I think about what I’ll make for dinner. I think about the fact that I’ll have time to make dinner because we test again tomorrow so that means no lesson planning.
I look at every kid’s shoes. I notice which ones look old and which ones are new. I tally up brands.
I sharpen pencils with a tiny metal hand sharpener I bought on Amazon because it is more durable and quieter than the electric ones. My fingers feel the ridges carved into the magnesium alloy. Soon, my fingertips are covered in smudged graphite.
I slowly fold twenty paper towels in half and place two donut holes on each one. I distribute the donut holes and notice who says thank you. I notice who devours them immediately and who savors them, taking tiny bites as tiny rewards for composing another paragraph. I collect the folded paper towels when only crumbs remain. This helps to pass the time.
I re-read the directions for administering the test because of course I’m not allowed to read a book. While doing so, I find myself thinking about all of the authors that have given us directions for living a life. I notice that many of these come in three phrases. Mary Oliver said, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Gary Snyder said, “Stay together. Learn the flowers. Go light.” Ellen Bass said, “Wash your dishes. Call your mother. Drink wine.” I decide like the last one the most. It’s the most specific.
I pace and think about last weekend, when I had the opportunity to see Rachel Held Evans speak and it was well worth the trip back to the suburbs. Her words reminded me that I can identify as a Christian and still doubt the existence of God, scoff at all the bullshit Christianity has come to represent, and believe my LGBTQ friends should be welcomed as much as anyone else and not asked to change or refrain from expressing their identity. I individually believe all of these things and have for a long time, but hearing someone else say it in front of a church full of people was so comforting that it brought me to tears.
At some point, I remember there are also three-phrase instructions in the Bible:
Be joyful always
In everything, give thanks.
So I pray while I proctor. I pray for each student individually, making my way up and down the rows in my mind, occasionally interrupted by the pencil that needs sharpening. I turn the pencil in the sharpener and think about who lives with their grandparents, who’s in foster care, and who has two parents at home. I pray for the kids who gets bullied and the kid who does the bullying. I pray for the kid who does everything I assign without complaint and the kid who tried to light a fire in a desk last week.
For someone who doesn’t spend a lot of alone time just thinking about life and humanity and existence, these four hours of silence can take you to weird places. The clock ticks and I think about infinity. An untimed test is in some ways terrifying because it seems to never end. In the same way, eternal life sounds terrifying to me. Should it? Oh, another pencil needs to be sharpened.
Caroline Higgins (’11) lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she spends the vast majority of her time teaching English Language Arts. You may also find her at barre exercise classes or playing (and losing) at bar trivia. She continues to be inspired by the energy and diversity of New York City and the beauty of that certain slant of light.