Today I sat my first exam for many years. It was an infantalising experience.
We arrive at the imposing Van der Groot building on campus quite early. It’s a vast grey brutalist concrete structure. I like it. It’s imposing. it has a a rather fashionable retro aesthetic. It’s the building you see from the river, as you approach from the city centre. It’s on the prospectuses. The Erasmus signature logo looks down from the seventeenth concrete floor. This is a proud building – proud to be in Rotterdam, a city that increasingly defines itself by its buildings.
The interior is just as vast. This is the building with gigantic lecture halls that seat thousands. . It’s big enough to have staircases signposted ‘Oost’ and ‘West’. This is where exams happen. Most of the ground floor consists of one giant room filled with thousands of small desks separated by a meter of unfriendly space on each side. The desks are slightly dog eared from being relentlessly stacked and unstacked. No one loves them: Caretakers who move them, cleaners who sweep between them, students who sit at them. Empty, this hanger of a space looks like the visiting hall of state penitentiary waiting for boilersuited convicts and weeping wives.
We wait outside. Monitors tell you where to sit based on your student number. Block 18 for me. We are allowed in. I find my allotted place. Just before 13:30, a disembodied voice tells us, first in Dutch, then in accented English the rules. Phones off and out of the way. Watches removed – use the clocks. The toilets are scanned for mobile signals. Standard dictionaries, the only aid permitted.
The memories of the school hall so many years past flood back. As I turn over the paper it takes me the first five minutes to tune into the printed words. The instructions on writing my name and student number feel baffling. The silence isn’t silence: the scratching of other people’s pencils; the heels of the invigilator; the shuffling in seats and the deafening noise that the paper makes as someone turns a page.
Block 18’s two invigilators are like minor tragi-comic characters from a Dickensian novel. A man and woman in their mid sixties. She is in charge. She sits at the front directing him from student to student in loud whispers and exaggerated arm waving. He wanders around, head and shoulders low, checking our student cards, responding unenthusiastically to requests. They don’t smile. At one point a tea trolley arrives for them with paper cups and Viennese whirls, soft enough not to crunch. She oversees proceedings and precisely peels and slices an apple while he checks and checks his lists.
We are watched but ignored. We are this afternoon’s cohort of lab rats. They are in charge – we are unimportant.
Once the words on the paper start to make sense I proceed with my multiple choices. D, C, A, B, B, B….. I start worrying if I see patterns in the answers and double check. Yes D, C, A, B, B, B….. It is hard to focus. I read the questions three or four times before I take them in. They are not in the order of the lectures or book chapters. The cunning examiner has mixed them all up to confuse us. We have three hours for 32 Multiple choice questions and three short open questions. The first of the open questions stalls me. I know I’ve read all about it – twice – but I’ve no idea what the examiner wants. I guess. The others are clearer. After fifty eight minutes the first candidate leaves. They are followed by a steady stream. at 15:00 I’ve done all I can so put up my hand. Mr invigilator comes and folds up my paper. He checks my student card again and walks away. As silently as possible I gather my pencils, sharpener and rubber and leave.
I have no idea how I’ve done. Being stalled by the first open question makes me feel that I must have failed but rationally it was worth three percent of the exam. It is highly unlikely of course but there is still the capacity for me to get 97%. I have to do it all over again on Friday.