First Published on Chaleuria
099 – What is going on with the students in this exam room?
“The exam starts now. You have 120 minutes.”
“Students, please take note. You cannot have tools not relevant to the current exam with you…”
The invigilating teacher paced slowly around the classroom to the sound of the announcement.
Xie Yu wrote his name and glanced through the paper.
He had thought that the exam would be about as difficult as the monthly exams, but now he noticed two new question types.
Then he noticed the box containing the paper-setters’ names included several names of teachers not from Erzhong.
Erzhong took this exam quite seriously. Four schools had banded together to create this exam and how their students did would directly correlate to how each school looked in the eyes of others. …Although Erzhong did not have much of a reputation to begin with and their average refused to increase no matter what.
Even on the final subject-specific grade sheets, not many students were able to break formation and move up to a higher row.¹
“So?” After Xie Yu finished a few questions, He Zhao poked him in the back with his pencil. “How many points are you getting?”
“As many as I want.”
Xie Yu calmly leaned backwards in his chair. “Worried? Beg me and I’ll give you a two-point head start.”
Many people were playing little tricks in the exam. Someone’s paper wad didn’t land right and fell into the space between the desks.
He Zhao held his pen in his left hand, and tapped lightly on the back of Xie Yu’s head. “…You’re very arrogant, little friend. Beg me and I’ll give you a 20-point head start.”
The students in the last exam room were all busy passing answers and had no idea what the two bottom-of-the-year students were saying in the corner. It was an insane conversation that would make men go silent and women cry.
This lot only ever wrote their names and class designations without an issue. After that, they would begin to chew on their pen caps and stare at the questions, unable to absorb a single word.
Very quickly, they discovered that a certain bottom-of-the-year student, who was usually right there complaining with them about the difficulty of the questions, was being very quiet.
With one less complainer, they felt like the exam was missing something. The student at the side slept for a while, then woke up and saw He Zhao still answering questions. He asked uncertainly, “Zhao-ge, you seem to be in pretty good form today…?”
He Zhao flipped a page on his exam paper and said, “Yeah, quite good. Erzhong will be proud to have a student like me.”
The invigilating teacher had intended to turn a blind eye and not bother with this exam room, but the students were getting rowdier and rowdier. He put down the book in his hand and coughed. “Everyone, quiet down.”
The student swallowed back his words of complaint.
Looking at He Zhao, he really couldn’t understand his blind self-confidence.
Xie Yu answered each question succinctly and to the point. When he was done, he checked the paper from beginning to end, then turned to look at the clock on the wall. He estimated he could still sleep for half an hour or so.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that He Zhao was still writing the essay portion and was currently finishing the conclusion.
He Zhao usually didn’t answer the question properly and his handwriting would float off the ruled lines. Everything he wrote made people think he was bullshitting. This time, he had reined in all his casualness and his eyes were lowered as he wrote seriously.
After the invigilating teacher’s warning, the exam room was quiet for a few minutes before the students who needed to pass answers began passing them again. “Give me the answers and my life will be yours from now on. Bro, I beg of you, do a good deed…”
“Don’t cut in line. Don’t snatch. In this exam room, we need to copy in order—no, wait, bro, I’ve never seen you before. Are you new?”
Xie Yu had not paid close attention to what He Zhao had written for his essay, but when he put his head on his hands and closed his eyes, he heard the neighboring row chatting and he suddenly remembered He Zhao’s essay, Silhouette, from last semester.
They’d passed answers in this exam room.
They’d racked their brains for how to write a perfect zero-point essay that stayed as far from the essay prompt as possible.
They’d also held hands.
It was like a wondrous yet absurd dream.
Xie Yu fell asleep while thinking. He faintly heard Dean Jiang announce over the intercom, “Fifteen minutes left till the end of the exam. Students, watch the time.”
The answers that needed to be passed had all been passed. The 120 minutes they spent in this exam room dragged on. In the poor students’ gathering grounds, everyone gradually quieted down and tossed down their pens, leaving their fates to the heavens as most of them fell asleep.
The invigilating teacher shook his head at this incredible sight.
The midterms were much more difficult than the questions they usually did in school.
After the exams were over, everyone was despondent and exhausted. They had no idea how they would do.
“We’re done for. This time, we’re really done for.” The bell rang after the last exam and papers were collected. Liu Cunhao turned his paper in and walked out of the exam room with one hand braced against the wall. He returned to Class 3 with great difficulty and immediately called out, “Brothers in arms, come and report the war situation.”
Luo Wenqiang said, “I was forced into a corner with nowhere to go.”
Xu Qingqing said, “I couldn’t fight destiny and I couldn’t change my fate.”
Wan Da said, “I died in battle.”
Out of the whole class, only Xie Yu and He Zhao looked unperturbed.
He Zhao was moving his desk back to its spot when he heard Liu Cunhao, and he raised a hand too. He leaned against the desk, supporting his weight with one hand, and said, “Did better than usual!”
Liu Cunhao felt his heart, already shot through with a thousand wounds, thoroughly shatter.
Xie Yu half-sat on his desk, waiting for Wan Da to move his desk forward. It was blocking the way so he couldn’t move his. He reached out, caught hold of the back of He Zhao’s collar, and dragged him over. “Don’t you remember anything? If you keep talking, Hao-zi might jump off the balcony.”
All the subject teachers were also worried about how their students’ exam grades would be. Ater invigilating the various exam rooms, they expected the average might hit a historic low.
Several teachers gathered in the faculty office to discuss grades. “I’m quite worried. Before, we were just two or three points shy of the other schools. This time it might be five or six points.”
“Especially math. The questions this time were very difficult. We usually drill them on the foundations and they don’t usually do questions like these.”
Halfway through the conversation, the teachers seemed to remember something and called out, “Old Tang, aren’t you going to Shisizhong this weekend to grade papers?”
When the four schools set exams together, each school would send several teachers to the other schools to help grade papers.
This time, the second-year teachers’ group was sending Tang Sen and Wu Zheng to grade the papers. Old Tang had just packed up his things and was about to go to class. On hearing this, he said, “Yes, Mr. Wu and I.”
Grading was hard work and a full day of grading strained the eyes. No teacher wanted to grade on the weekends.
“It’s hard on you two.” The other teachers shook their heads, then exclaimed quietly, “I wonder how those two from your class did…”
‘Those two’ from Class 3 had been mentioned.
The faculty office sank into silence, then everyone sighed in unison.
Near dismissal time.
When Madam Gu called saying she was at the school gates, He Zhao was earning the ire of his classmates with the words ‘Did better than usual.’ Liu Cunhao and Luo Wenqiang had joined forces to chase him down and beat him up.
Seeing that class spirits were low, He Zhao very obligingly let them chase him around to lighten the mood.
After being chased for a while, He Zhao changed course mid-run and leaped out of the window, hands braced on the windowsill. His feet caught air. “—Is this how you treat a classmate? With violence?”
After He Zhao jumped out, he sidled up to Xie Yu. “Old Xie, save me.”
Luo Wenqiang stopped and asked Xie Yu’s opinion as he rolled up his sleeves. “Yu-ge, can I punch him?”
On the other end of the line, Madam Gu had said a lot but Xie Yu hadn’t paid close attention. He said, “Mm,” to appease her.
Luo Wenqiang said, “Thanks, Yu-ge! Then I’ll go all out!”
He Zhao: “……”
Xie Yu: “……”
Old Tang left the faculty office carrying a thick stack of homework. Seeing them causing a ruckus in the corridor, he heaved a sigh of relief. He was worried that these kids might have been in low spirits due to the exam, but to his surprise they all had strong psychological constitutions. “All right, everyone go back to class and sit down. Don’t run about like that.”
Liu Cunhao stopped in his tracks. “Sir, when will grades be out?”
“If nothing unexpected happens, we’ll finish grading the papers over the weekend.”
Old Tang thought for a while, then continued, “You’ll have to wait a few more days for grades to be out.”
Tang Sen left very early the next morning to catch the train to Shisizhong to grade papers. And he would never have thought that something unexpected would happen, just like that.
“Teachers, thank you for your hard work.” A bespectacled female teacher passed the exam papers out to the dozen or so teachers packed into a classroom. They fell silent and the only sound remaining in the classroom was that of turning pages.
Shisizhong was the premier school among A City’s public high schools.
Their graduation rate was not as good as the top-tier high schools, but it was solid.
Shisizhong had prepared several empty classrooms for the teachers to grade papers. Wu Zheng was next to Tang Sen.
Wu Zheng graded two papers, then took out his spectacles case and put on his glasses. He looked down and continued filling in points in the score boxes next to the questions.
The process of grading was tedious, but sometimes the teachers would come across some wrong answers that left them unsure whether to laugh or cry, and they would discuss it. “This student draws very creative solid geometry figures. All in all… let me count. He drew 13 of them?”
The teachers bowed their heads and graded the exams.
One among the 14 of them was a very respected math teacher. He had taught for several decades and was one of the question setters for the combined exam. He finished grading a stack, then took another stack from the side.
But grading this new stack made him frown deeply.
“Mr. Wang, what’s the matter?“
”What is going on with the students in this exam room?”
Mr. Wang flipped over another sheet. He was even more certain now that in this stack of exam papers, the answers were all copied from each other. Even the mistakes they made were identical. He was left speechless by these shenanigans. “They’re quite united. In sharing answers and cheating as a team.”
They weren’t just united. Their teamwork was beyond imagination.
Mr. Wang had run out of patience and quickly graded more than half the papers.
There were two papers remaining. He flipped them over with zero care, wanting only to leave this ‘united’ exam room as soon as he could. But when he saw the writing on the answer sheet his hand froze.
The tip of the red pen stopped in midair.
—It was a rather promising answer sheet.