(Image by Kitsu on Flickr)
Bladders relieved, we head into the lecture hall where the written and listening exams will take place and start to set up the room. There’s a feeling of lightness about today, which probably has a lot to do with exhausted delirium, but is enjoyable anyway. The teacher from the Vieste school who is co-ordinating today’s exams looks like a Chuckle Brother, but less tastefully dressed. He’s wearing a maroon tracksuit (at least it’s not a shell suit, which are terrifyingly ubiquitous down here), and has a black canvas manbag slung across his torso. The strap is tightened too far, and, due to his stoop, it seems to be folding him in two. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
The students congregate outside the double glass doors to the hall, smoking and posturing for all they’re worth. We let them in one at a time. Each has to be seated at a particular desk, and their ID checked to make sure that they’re not a ringer. Worryingly, when I ask one boy (dubbed MetalKid, due to his leather jacket and greasy hair) for his ID, he doesn’t understand the question. I repeat it, slowly and carefully. On the third time of asking he tells me in halting English that his teacher has it. Chuckle Brother, however, dismisses the need for said card with a flippant wave of his hand. “No, he OK. Va bene?” Hmm. Well, I’m not going to get into an argument about potential corruption at this point. Besides, if MetalKid’s the ringer, then the poor sap he’s replacing is really grasping at straws. I let it slide.
The pile of garish coats and bags grows at the side of the hall, along with a small collection of mobile phones. The only things they are allowed to take to their seats are pencils, rubbers, sharpeners, ID and themselves. Everything else must be deposited with us for safekeeping. This is to minimise the chances of cheating, although I’m sure some bright spark will find a way of tattooing notes on the inside of their eyelids or something. Alex has a student known as WonderBoy, due to his semi-genius tendencies. This is a man who is more than capable of passing by fair means, probably while standing on his head and performing a faultless rendition of Handel’s Messiah via the medium of Mongolian throat singing. However, in his final lesson before the exam, he asked if he could look at other students’ papers if he didn’t know the answer. About to start laughing, Alex looked at WonderBoy’s face and realised that he was (a) deadly serious and (b) quite surprised that it wasn’t allowed. Here’s a radical idea, kids: how about you learn the subject properly, rather than thinking up ever more elaborate methods of cheating? No? Oh well.
The Boss explains exam procedure in Italian, the main thrust of the argument being ‘no cheating.’ Ha. If they drop something on the floor, they have to put their hand up and summon one of us to pick it up for them, to avoid any accusations of foul play. This, of course, means that we are kept very busy. I have a sneaking suspicion that quite a few of the boys are hoping to get a peek down Buxom Female Colleague’s top, as they seem more than disappointed if I answer their call. Some questions are genuine, and almost heartbreaking. One boy asks, with a desperate look in his eye, if I can tell him the meanings of words that he doesn’t know. Half the kids don’t sign their papers, despite that bit having been explained in Italian by The Boss in his pre-exam speech. I wonder if their teachers have told them anything at all about the exam, or whether they’ve just been dumped in cold. I suspect the latter, poor sods.
The reading and writing exam takes 90 minutes, during which time we have a look through the paper to answer it ourselves. Actually, we spend most of our time giggling and trying to hide the fact from the students. Unfortunately for us, we are seated on the dais in a lecture hall, and are clearly visible to the 50-odd teenagers ranged in front of us. A kid at the back, known to us as VestBoy due to his vile knitted waistcoat, is the most unsubtle cheat in the history of the world. I glare at him, but he’s completely unabashed. He does give up on the rubbernecking, but only in order to fall asleep. I try to point him out to Alex, but find myself incapacitated by laughter. I slide, slowly and carefully, down behind the desk and cry with hysteria.
The written papers over and done with, it’s time for the speaking exams. We work in pairs for this: one examiner speaking to the students, and the other marking them. Alex goes first as the interlocutor (the grand name for the person with the script), and I sit back and enjoy the sun on my neck. The first few students in are dismal. One boy doesn’t even manage to reach the minimum fail mark, and all we can do is give him a zero. None of them seem to understand the word ‘bought’. There are a good few comedy gold moments, though. When asked to talk about things they could do when on a camping trip, one student says (totally seriously), “We can go for strip in forest.” Er – yeah. After Alex and I have swapped roles, a pair of boys come in. I describe a situation to them, which they then have to discuss. A young man is leaving home and his parents want him to decide which of his things to keep, and which to throw away. The (theoretically) stronger student tries to help his mate by rewording the situation I’ve just outlined. Except that he gets it back to front. “Do you know Kate? Well, she is leaving home! What should she take with her to university?” Utter, chaotic confusion ensues. Brilliant.
It’s nearly 5pm and still a beautiful afternoon. All the students have made it through the exam room and out the other side. Alex and I hang out of the window of the classroom, watching tiny, neon-orange bugs pootle across the stone windowsill. We hold a lazy basket competition, trying and failing to throw a screwed-up piece of paper into the bin across the room. Alex finally pots it, but only after a good 15 attempts and much derisory laughter. It’s all in the wrist, apparently. “Andiamo, ragazzi?” The Boss chivvies us, grumbling, out of our sunny spot and into the back of the car. Bye, Vieste. It’s been a blast.