The students enter, but we only care about one. First day or college, signed up for classes that they only know about by name, the content hidden behind a thin veil labelled ‘curriculum’ or ‘content’. The cohort used to lesson plans and seating arrangements are confused when first entering the room, they’ve been given too much choice, a curious tale that when given the chance to do anything, so many are left doing nothing.
The class a mix of sociology meets criminology meets psychology. There’s two tutors sat in the top right of the front of the classroom, a female and male tutor. World weary but not the focus of this tale. No, we only really care for the one student in this class of 20, but this class will not remain one of 20, this first class is a test. The tutors are too old and too bored, granted tenure and only wanting to teach the ones that have the ability, they’ve devised this first lesson as a way of whittling out the weak.
Our student, the one we care for, has sat, two seats away from the windows that line the right of the room. The weather is inconsequential but I’ll let you know, it’s a fair day, a light breeze and warming sun. The female tutor takes the lead, the room is hushed, knowing that only a select few will make it through this hour. The students are nervous, but exhilarated, if they make it through, the male tutor can teach them everything they ever wanted to know about the human condition and how to use that information.
The students are instructed to take out a pen and the graph paper they were instructed to bring, to draw a rough spreadsheet. In the first column they write the names of their peers, they must rank their peers over the course of an hour, out of ten. Ten is, of course the best, but our students aren’t told what the best is. Our student is dutiful and completes this, casting a furtive glance around the room. Some students have not completed this task, there have been rumours that completing requests can ensure exclusion from this test.
The students our asked to score the cohort from 1-10, and our student, they do this, being far too kind. The tutors watch, and once each student is finished (or hasn’t even started), three are asked to leave already. The room is full of anxious vibrating. The rules, it appears, are arbitrary, this is a game for the tutors. The students are asked for their dates of birth, their ages, another two are asked to leave the room and the students are asked again to score their peers from 1-10.
Our student can feel the sunlight on their hand through the window, it’s warm and inviting. This is folly, to take this course, or so it seems, a risk worth taking maybe, and if our student doesn’t win a place after this hour, then they are unsure of what they’ll do next. The students are tasked to stand up, where they are sat, and to discuss a philosophy, there are no other parameters set, and the students from the closest to the door stand and one after another begin their three-minute speech. Our student is listening, some ideas they recognise, some they don't, one or two of the cohort refuse to speak, they spend their three-minutes staring ahead, unmoving.
It is coming up to our students turn, they’ve stopped listening to the others and are instead trying, furtively, to come up with something, anything to say. Camus, Derrida, Kant flash through our student’s mind and before they realise, it is time for them to speak. Our student stands and halting explains how maybe, none of us are real, and that maybe this is all a preparation, that maybe, some of us have never lived before, and some of us are empty shells. Our student mentions about dying to wake up, and internally admonishes themselves; a cheap idea from a film, but if you ask them, they’ll provide evidence of this view point before that film was ever realised.
Our student finishes their speech and makes eye contact with the female tutor, who is sat to the front and right of our student, the power play of the student speaking down to the tutor emboldens our student, and the tutor, she smiles. Our student doesn’t listen to the last two or three speeches, feeling that now, they can do this and they will do this and they will make the final cohort to be taught by the male tutor, who sits quietly watching and taking the whole scene in.
Five more students are asked to leave, and the remaining students are asked to score their peers again. The female tutors stands, reads out the names of the ten students left, each with a number, with no other instruction or clarification. Our student, who tried not to listen once the tutor started, can hear the number six ringing in their mind. Is six good? Is six ok? Is six really bad? What meaning does this number have? Our student hasn’t got the fucking foggiest.
A projector is switched on, and students are faced with the video of the room behind them, the back of their heads, and, curiously, two static tv screens at the back of the room. These screens are at opposite ends of the room and face each other, the students are instructed to not look back, two already have and are asked to leave immediately. Our student does the maths, there are seven other students left.
The students are told that they are not allowed to look behind them, the female tutor makes a crude joke that if they do they may be turned to salt. If the student feels a hand on their left shoulder they are to stand and go to view one of the tv screens showing the static. The students will rotate with one replacing another until they are told to stop.
Our student is listening and watching the video of the room behind, our student watches as the peers, one at a time stand up to go and watch the televisions, some unseen pressure on their shoulders telling them “it’s your turn”. Our student is concerned, their shoulder bereft of any pressure. Fellow students watch one of the two televisions once, twice, three times, the static vibrating across the screen.
One of the other students watching the static, they kick the screen, they grab their bag and leave the room slamming the door. Throughout this our student is repeating the mantra “Don’t look back, don’t look back”, eyes glued to the projector screen playing this out. The tutors are unperturbed. Has this happened before, were they expecting it?
And then our student feels pressure on their left shoulder, they rush to the back of the room to watch one of the screens, there is another student watching the one that wasn’t kicked, and our student is searching for the kicked screen, aware that all eyes are on them. The screen, our student notices, has been kicked under a table, it surely can’t still be working, but it is. Our student tries to reach it, to be completing the task. The other students are rotating through themselves still, choosing the other screen rather than the one our student is vainly struggling to get too.
As quickly as the task seemed to start, it is over, and the television screens and projector turn off. Our student is still under the table, fighting back tears. They’re called by name to come back to the table. Three other students are asked to leave, and now there are only four in the room, including our student who has sweaty palms. The remaining students are given numbers, and our student remains six, and then our student has the realisation that they may be leaving, the hour is nearly up, and whatever the test was, our student feels like they’ve failed.
The moment our student has dreaded happens, they and one other is asked to leave. Our student can barely see for the tears welling. And our student, our student stands up and shouts “No, no I will not go, I played by your arbitrary rules and I deserve a place, whatever it is, I am worthy”.
The male tutor, who has sat through this last hour looking like he’d prefer to have been at lunch, he smiles, and in a tone that lets you know his voice is law, a voice that resonates with all the lives this man has lived, he says, and he says clearly “You, I will teach you”. Our student, shocked to the core collapses in their chair, and stares at the male tutor as the other students leave the room, shooting backward glances.
It is in that moment our student glances up at the clock, and what should have been an hour, has only been five minutes, and our student looks to the tutor, and he smiles.