To me, the most important part of the test is the final task: turning it in to the provost. You have to look confident, almost dismissive, but not too much or they'll think you're fronting. I don't know if they actually have a hidden score sheet somewhere grading my "attitude," but it's not really about the points at that moment. It's a sense of propriety--an affirmation of what you are and what you stand for. It's a test of who you are as a person: too arrogant and you're a bully; too timid and you're a coward, unfit for your position.
And here I am talking like it has anything to do with me or the provost, instead of the 14-year-old double-checking her work seven desks away from the desk I just coolly evacuated. With my peripheral vision I can see her looking at me with her peripheral vision--looking for any tell, any indication that she needs to triple-check her work. I try to give her every reason to believe she should. I know how many mistakes I've made by correcting others--I'm trying to take luck out of the equation.
But either she's playing the same game or she has a great shot at winning. She looks just as cool as me; her body language is almost enough to convince me she's only concentrating on the exam papers in front of her--in a couple years, she'll be perfect at it.
Ah yes, it usually is at this point--about two-thirds of the way to the provost's desk at the front of the class room, when he's just beginning to raise his eyes toward me as if he didn't hear me coming the whole way down from my desk--it's at this point I start to really scrutinize my decision to take the exam. Maybe it's because I know I like the challenge too much, or maybe it's because I've never lost--but there's always a bolt of the darkest doubt that runs through me right before I make eye contact with my boss; right before he gives me that reassuring grin of his, as if to say, "Hey, it'll happen one day, and it'll be okay if today's the day."
I've talked with the other teachers about game strategy, and while I'm mildly interested in some of the things they do, some of it just feels downright unsportsmanlike to me. They've got the numbers crunched: converting probability scores into grade values and letting the math make the decision for them. I call one of my buddies Belichick because I think the only reason he teaches is to humiliate students--he's got the game worked out to a science and he is merciless. Probably my second-most important test is suppressing the terrible smile when I'm looking at a student walk out of the exam room with tears in his eyes and Belichick walking stone-faced behind him: another notch in the belt, the bastard.
I don't play the game like that: I like to think I'm more honest. Take the case at hand: she wanted an A and I was set on giving her a low-B. Like a solid low-B. If she wanted a high-B, I probably would have given it to her, but she wouldn't back down from A. Well, them's fighting words in my corner of academia, and I hadn't taken an exam all year, anyway. (See, now in retrospect I begin to wonder if she knew I was rarin' for a fight--now that the provost is looking dead at me, about two lightyears away from the moment I could have just given her an A and been done with it.)
And even though I should have expected it, I get off-stride just a little bit--just enough for me to imagine her raising an eyebrow behind me. Well, let her get cocky, I say. I'm teaching Grade 21, so I've got a long way to go before I'm a student again. Going back to Grade 20 wouldn't be so bad, especially coming in with a B in Grade 21. A low-B. Dammit!
Just like the best of rituals, from the darkest place I travel into a clearing. I recalled all the studying I did before the test, all the mistakes I'd been making throughout the year that I corrected, the new knowledge I don't think I ever learned before. Yeah, I know that's the whole point to why we play the game, but now--in this moment--all I worry about was whether or not I played the game well.
My secret is that I don't play the game at all. Whether the student wants a low C or a high A, I do the best I can on every test, so there's no question which is mine. A lot of other teachers bite their nails because they're playing the points, but I'm resting easy. I'm confident in my work, because I respected my opponent. I trained hard and I used every trick I have.
I guess all this to say, if the provost comes back and tells us hers was the A exam, I'll take my B exam and go happily home, knowing that I'm a Grade 20 Language Arts teacher who has a low-B in Grade 21, and at the end of the day, that's not so bad. I'll also be the first one to know that we're getting a new Grade 21 teacher next term, and who she is.
And, when I'm ready, I'll get a rematch.