Don’t Talk

Don’t Talk

Passing examinations ought to be easy

“Don’t talk!” the examiner said as he set the timer for the examination. Sarah thought it hardly needed saying: why would you speak, when you had to give a written account of yourself? Talking to someone else would constitute a kind of cheating.

The examinees all sat in neat rows. Fortunately she was right at the back, which made her feel more secure, as there was less surveillance. Suddenly she had a crawling sensation down her arm, and she saw a little mound (about the size of a mouse) traversing from her shoulder to her wrist. Then she heard a piping voice: “don’t start the paragraph like that!”

It was a very small rat, two inches long (not counting the tail). It tumbled out of her sleeve, stood upright on her examination paper and started to speak. Now Sarah did not like people giving advice or interfering with her work (even if they were rodents), so she hissed: “rats can’t talk! Shut up!! We have been told to keep quiet!” The rat replied: ” I am the Chairman of the Board of Correct Answers, and I have been deputed to help you to pass the examination.” “Well” whispered Sarah “Do you think I won’t pass without your help? Wouldn’t that be cheating? And won’t someone hear us and throw us out of the hall?” He considered this: “OK. I will perch right by your ear, so that I look like a large ear-ring, and I will dictate the correct answers in a very quiet voice.”

Sarah was forced to agree, as people were starting to look round at her. The tiny Chairman crawled back up her sleeve to her collar (it tickled) and sat by her left earlobe. She began the first examination question. Now Sarah’s habitual cast of mind was one of ambivalence: she would always perambulate round an issue several times, and she liked to give statements that were open-ended. So she began in her usual manner, but the Rat Chairman would have none of it: “No! Go straight for the jugular! Be incisive! None of your usual pussy-footing about!” She was forced to acquiesce in order to shut him up, and so she just copied down the statements which he hissed into her ear. The answers were orderly, logical, displayed their reading in a scholarly way, and had little truck with speculation. Sarah said; “what about imaginative riffs? I like those”. This met with a sharp riposte: “humbug!” Answers Two and Three were dictated in a similar summary fashion. Sarah laid down her pen and sighed. The examination ended, and she walked out of the room with the chairman swinging from her ear. He had made himself look like a plastic cat (that must have been his little joke), so as to evade suspicion.

Sarah awaited the examination results with dread. She needn’t have worried. She got the highest mark of the whole cohort, and a congratulatory letter arrived from the examination board. But she felt depressed and abashed. She had, through the ministrations of her tiny helper, learned to play the institutional game and to harness her galloping thoughts. The authorities were pleased, but the discourse had not been her own. She had been forced to realise that success in the official world did not always come from following your star. It seemed that rats knew best after all. Alas.