Tick. Tick. Tick.
I glance up. That clock is so loud.
Footsteps, behind me. I hastily look back down at the blank, white sheet.
Step. Step. Step. Why do they always walk so slowly?
A shuffle as they pass by. The slight movement blows the paper, thick with black lines of print. I exhale.
Around me, there’s occasional fidgeting. The sound of paper against paper, chairs scraping against the floor. Other than that, silence: no one is speaking.
The sun is falling through the tall windows, landing onto my small desk. It spreads over the printed sheets of paper, illuminating the blank spaces which I’ve yet to fill in.
Above us, the ceiling fans rotate, old beams creak from their motion. The circulated air doesn’t even reach our heads, it feels tepid down in the trenches where we sit.
I shake my head and inhale slowly, exhaling even slower. I do this three more times. On my fourth breath I exhale too fast and choke on my own spit, letting out an involuntary cough. It reverberates in the silence. Some heads look up from their desks.
I cover my mouth with my hand, coughing into it, trying to muffle the sound. It’s over in a minute. I’m too stressed and exhausted to be embarrassed.
"Have you decided where you want to apply?"
"Aunty so-and-so's son goes to this university," my mother picks up the brochure and shoves it against my closed hands. I let it fall flat on the table in front of me.
“You should apply to this uni, beta. It has a good engineering and medicine programme,” my father flips through a pamphlet, squinting.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
You’re wasting time.
I pull the booklet towards me to resume writing, filling in the blanks where I can, leaving empty spaces where I need to jot down more. I pray I can come back to those later. I scribble for about ten minutes when I hear the scrape of a chair.
Down the line of many, many desks, at the very front of this big auditorium, a teacher stands up. They walk to the big, old-fashioned blackboard, pick up a piece of chalk and draw a neat line through a massive set of numbers.
Giant time stamps, one for every half hour. One for every tick of the clock.
“One hour left,” the teacher's voice booms loudly over us. Heads raise up in surprise, eyebrows raise up in alarm. Heart rates raise in shock, the production of sweat on my palms raises too.
I bite the end of my pen, already dented with impressions from my uneven teeth.
“We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into…” I scan the first line of the letter with bated breath, warm happiness spreading over my cheeks, twisting my mouth into a smile.
“We’re happy for you, beta,” my parents are smiling. “Well done!” I believe them.
Around me some stretching happens, arms up and around. Legs spreading out long under tables and chairs. Necks stretching left, right, up and down.
Behind me, someone cracks their knuckles. The sound grates me, I have to crack my own to find balance. Minutes pass, as the silence resumes, everyone looks down at their desks once more. The unsynchronised break dissipates like a quiet Mexican wave.
I’ve lost my focus again.
I bend my head, let my long hair fall around my ears to cover my face. I close my eyes, inhaling and exhaling slowly. Too bad no one is giving out marks for breathing exercises. I would have gotten a distinction by now.
“Did you fill out your subjects yet?”
“Don’t wait too long! They will think you’re not serious!”
“Do you need help? Let’s call Uncle so-and-so, his son Blah Blah
goes to university. He will know what to do.”
My stomach is in knots.
My eyes snap open, I raise my head.
The words are leaving my mind reluctantly, my pen is moving much slower than those in the hands around me. The ink stains the paper, letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs.
“You have to tell them, you know. They’re gonna find out,” my sister is hovering over me as I lie on the bed. I roll over to face the wall, turning away from her. My stuffed animal is squashed tightly against my chest.
She sighs irritably. “Just tell them what you applied for! Stop being such a baby for God’s sake and grow up already!” she snaps at me, stomping out the room, slamming the door. My father shouts at the disturbance, my mother complains about the non-existent damage.
In front of me, a girl with long braided hair leans back. The end of her plait lands on the edge of my desk.
I pause mid-sentence, pen hovering over the lined paper, to look up. She lifts the question booklet casually, flips through the pages until she gets to the last one. She places it back onto the desk in front of her, leans forward and continues writing. Her plait slides off the edge of my desk neatly.
She’s already on the last question.
I finger the pages of my own question booklet, groaning inwardly
in dismay as I realise that I still have two pages to go.
Tick Tick Tick. That damn clock. It's taunting me.
“You want to study what?”
“Communi-cation?” they’re not pleased.
“Maybe you can do some economics or maths courses, beta,” my mother and father are looking at me with concern. “Maybe do the communi-cation course later on? After you find a job?” hopeful, but not helpful.
I dig my heels in. I’ve already applied.
The scrawl on the pages lengthen. I’m spewing words out, pressing hard. I search the recesses of my brain, hoping to access some hidden knowledge, some nugget of learning that I might have subconsciously absorbed or crammed the night before.
“...and so, the interest rate for this is 20%, for this year, next year that might change, understand? If you fail a course, you’ll still have to pay back whatever you owe, there’s more information about that in the FAQs…”
I’m nodding at the Student Loan Officer, speaking of consequences that I’ll only understand much later.
I shake my head like a child, to get rid of the noise.
In front of me, Long Braided Hair leans back and sits up. She collects all the papers scattered around the small desk, lifts them and stacks them neatly into a pile. Then she pages back to the beginning of the booklet, places it back down and begins checking her answers.
She’s finished already.
My hand is cramping, I clench and unclench quickly, breathing in and out as I do.
“So, a Bachelor of Arts eh?”
“What are you going to do after you graduate?”
“Are there any jobs for what you’re studying? Our economy needs more doctors and engineers.”
“How’s the studying going by the way?”
“Did you apply for that thing I told you about?”
Questions I never knew the answers to. Some of my friends had those answers. Some of them could answer those questions for 100 marks. I, meanwhile, was currently struggling to fill in the space for question 10.1.2.
I grind my teeth, dotting an “I” too hard. It leaves a hole in the paper. I pause to scan over what I’ve written.
Does it make sense? Yes.
Is it worth 100 marks? I can settle for 50. I hope my professors agree.
I flip over to the final question.
You made it.
There’s a lot more shuffling around me now, I’m pulled out of the zone, back into reality. Long Braided Hair has her hand up high, waving slightly. The teacher walks towards her quickly, clumsily.
He leans in, too closely, to whisper loudly, “Done?”
She pulls back automatically pushing the crumpled but closed question booklet towards him, nodding fervently. He attempts a reassuring smile, before he takes the answer-filled exam from her hand and nods to the exit.
“You can go,” he says, not whispering at all now. She didn’t need to be told, she already started packing her things into her pencil case as soon as the paper left her hands. He straightens and turns away, walking back up to the front in the same clumsy manner.
Long Braided Hair stands abruptly, hurriedly, her chair hitting my desk. She turns around to give me an apologetic grimace before bending to grab her backpack, throwing it over her shoulders and gliding past.
The seat in front of me is empty.
Around me, many others are doing the same thing.
“You have 30 minutes,” the teacher says suddenly, loudly over the shuffle of those exiting. As the doors swing open momentarily, the hum of students can be heard outside.
They’ve crossed out the last time marker.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The hands of the clock are speeding up. The music of an impending time limit in a video game starts playing in my mind. A heightened tension, a quiet desperation emanates from those of us still seated.
No need to stress, I think bravely. Fully aware of the sweat dripping down my back, down my front. My long t-shirt is sticking to my armpits from the salty panic, a dark patch of anxiety giving me away.
I breathe in and out. What was it that Margaret Atwood said about desperation being the mother of invention?
"You want to move where? But you'll be so far away from us!" my mother's face is pained. As though I’ve told her that I’m dying. As though I’ve told her that I’m killing her.
"You can't live on your own. It's not safe for a young girl in the city," my father warns me. "In fact, Uncle so-and-so told us this story the other day of Aunty so-and-so's daughter, she lives alone and she got sick-"
"Had nobody to help her! She had a 37 degree fever! She doesn't even know her neighbours!"
"Worst part is she can't drive! She had to take a You-ber to the hospital!"
They stare back at me blankly. I sigh. They say the worst thing that can happen when you speak your truth is that the answer will be no.
But that’s a lie. The worst thing that can happen isn’t rejection, it’s guilt. And nobody has the answer for what to do with that.
I run my fingers through my hair, tapping the pen on the page. The gradual emptying of the auditorium reminds me of the empty dorm room I’ll be heading back to after this.
“So...you’re studying communications? Like journalism?”
I nod. The cute boy in front of me is becoming more and more attractive as I sip from the plastic cup filled with vodka, juice and God knows what else.
“So like, where are you gonna work afterwards?”
I open my mouth to speak, then close it. I hope I look shy and cute. I know I look dumb and confused instead.
“You’re studying journalism? Wow, my parents would’ve never let me do that!” My sister’s friend, much older, much more experienced, has entered the chat. She has long legs, long eyelashes and long hair.
“Yeah well, our parents weren’t too happy about it either,” my sister throws her arm around me. It looks affectionate. It feels constricting. I am choking inside, the whole interaction is making me sweat.
“Wow, you’re like so cool lol,” Long legs is giggling. Cute boy is staring at her, shifting his white sneakers closer.
“So you’re gonna work at a newspaper? Or like at a radio station? Or, omg like maybe T.V.?”
So many questions. So little time to figure it out. So much alcohol at that party.
I stare at the words printed neatly on the last page of the booklet. This question is worth 150 marks:
“Compare the contributions of artists to society with the contributions of scientists to society. Which type of contribution do you think is valued more by your society? Give specific reasons to support your answer.”
I blink a few times. Laughter and tears sit precariously close to my frontal lobe. I want to scream hysterically.
Time stands still inside my brain now. Lungs, heart and veins operate at reduced capacity. Sweat slows down production.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
“You didn’t get it? You didn’t get it again?”
“How many places did you apply to?”
“Let me call Uncle so-and-so, I’m sure he can get you a job where his son works-”
“His son works in a bank, she can’t work there! Beta, don’t your teachers know about jobs?”
“Just bring your professors some food from your mother, and ask them to give you- why are you crying?”
“Why are you getting upset? We’re trying to help you!”
“Let’s call your sister! She’ll know what to do.”
I pick up my pen with one hand, press the page down with the other. Glancing up at the clock for the last time, I look back down and begin to write:
The study of the arts has often been overlooked in modern society, perhaps due to a misunderstanding of the role this field plays in the world as it exists today. While science continues to show visible progress in vital sectors, I will examine and argue in defence of the arts, by laying out it’s numerous contributions over the centuries, it’s role in the formation of the foundations of society and the need for its practice in these contemporary, turbulent times.
At last, my mind is quiet. This is the only question that matters.