"Tomorrow's Test," Miss Fry told the class, "is the culmination of ten years' study. Questions can come from any of this year's subjects, as well as anything you have studied in previous years."
Only Barry Jones groaned at that, woefully underprepared for the Test in spite of all the money his parents spent on outside tuition. The rest of her class were fifteen and battle-hardened, Test veterans, the whingers and whiners whittled out in previous years. Their quiet self-assurance spoke of hours of revision and preparation at home. She just wished she could share their confidence.
"The Test determines your future," she continued. "You must meet the target minimum mark in order to secure entry to your next year of state-funded education. Failure to achieve that mark means that the state is no longer obliged to provide you with a free education. If you wish to continue you will need to pay for it yourselves, at a private institution. Failure to access education independently will lead to mandatory participation in unpaid training programmes until the age of twenty-one."
She paused to let that sink in. "The Mass Observation Teaching and Homeroom Educational Recorder, or MOTHER, will be in operation throughout the Test, just as it is in operation during all of your classroom activities." Several students looked up to where MOTHER's smoked-glass dome clung to the ceiling, watching, listening, recording everything. Its red light flashed, as if it was pleased. "Plagiarism, accessing electronic communications during the Test, and any other assessment offences will lead to immediate failure and potential criminal prosecution." Some of her students looked nervous; mostly they just looked bored. "Use your eScreens to show that you have understood."
Miss Fry looked up to MOTHER again. Look at me, she wanted to shout, look how hard I'm trying. Look how seriously the students are taking this. Please, don't take my job away.
She didn't say a word, though. It would have shown weakness. When she had been training she had debated whether or not someone watched the recordings with the other trainees; she had been convinced they didn't, that it was all for show, until she had been called into the Head's office one evening after class. It was their first meeting, and she had been surprised to find a bland little middle-aged man in a blue suit behind the desk. He looked like a supermarket manager.
"I've reviewed your lessons," he had told her, "and you're being too nice." The thought of him watching her without her knowing made her skin crawl. "You need to toughen up. Don't worry about being harsh. The world is harsh. These kids need to learn that, fast. It is the greatest lesson we can ever give them."
Sadly, he was right. "Any questions?" she asked her students.
Barry, her solitary groaner, ranked twenty-first of twenty-one, raised his hand and grinned. "Did you pass the Test?"
"Of course she did!" Rachel Heron, first of twenty-one, was half out of her seat, outraged on Miss Fry's behalf. "She wouldn't be allowed to teach us if she didn't."
"I bet Studebaker didn't." Barry smirked. The rest of the class was silent, learning nothing.
"You shouldn't talk about teachers like that," Rachel said. "Mr. Studebaker did his best."
"You shouldn't talk about teachers like that," Barry echoed, high-pitched and mocking. "You don't get any extra marks on the Test for sucking up."
"It's a shame there's no marks for manners, you'd have failed ages ago."
"Why are you sticking up for her? It's like you fancy her or something."
"That's enough." Miss Fry's voice cracked like a whip. "Remember, MOTHER is listening." Barry shut up, and there were no more questions.
Barry was rude, but he was right. Studebaker was a PE teacher before the Test came in, so was too old to have taken it himself. Last year he had guided this very class to the bottom of the school's league table and had thus automatically lost his job. Miss Fry had been second from bottom, reprieved by Studebaker's greater failure, and knew she had been given this class either as punishment or a final shove towards the exit. Barry's constant interruptions, irrelevant questions and terrible attitude had most likely played a large part in Studebaker's downfall, and were now dragging her down as well.
Complaining about his behaviour got her nowhere — the Head saw poor behaviour as the fault of the teacher, not the student, and Barry had special protection: his father was high up in the arms company that sponsored the school, and his mother sat on the board of governors. The part that made Miss Fry want to scream was that the family could obviously afford to pay for private but didn't, and so Barry's disruption cost other kids precious classroom time they could ill afford to lose, while his family compensated for him by providing private, after-hours tuition.
She worked them hard, spending the rest of the day in her sternest and most disciplinarian mode, drilling them like soldiers about to be shipped out to a combat zone. Her mum, an English teacher for forty years, had said the rule with a new class was not to smile before Christmas; now the rule was not to smile before the Test was done. After the Test they had a single day to celebrate before the summer holiday — it would be wasteful to keep them at school any longer without a Test to study for. Miss Fry looked forward to that day more than any other.
This year they might study a poem.
The day's final lesson was a mock Test. The results were poor, and Miss Fry tried to soothe nerves and not throw up.
Rachel Heron hung back, a picture of despondency in ragged hand-me-downs.
"Are you okay?" Miss Fry asked her when the other students were gone. "Your score was down today. It's not like you."
"Great." Her expression said it was anything but.
"You'll be fine." Miss Fry wasn't just going through the motions, like she would for a learner like Barry. Students like Rachel Heron, disadvantaged yet gifted, bursting with potential, were why she had become a teacher in the first place. "I've got high hopes for you, you know."
"You shouldn't." Rachel made expectations sound like a curse. "I'll just let you down."
"Let me down?"
Rachel shrugged. Above her MOTHER's light continued to flash, recording everything.
"You can talk to me, if you need to," Miss Fry said.
Rachel clutched her tatty old bag tight to her chest. "It's okay. Everyone has problems, right? So you can't complain."
Miss Fry's heart ached. "Just because we all feel bad sometimes doesn't mean that you're not allowed to."
"I suppose." Rachel sighed. "It doesn't help that people at school know."
"Know what?" Rachel just shrugged. "Has someone been spreading rumours?"
"Yeah. Someone." The last word was heavy with implication. "No points for guessing who."
"Between you and me, I doubt 'someone' will be coming back next year." Rachel's expression remained abject. "We have an anti-bullying policy. Let me know what happened and …"
"Would it count if what they were saying was true?" For a second Rachel looked on the verge of unburdening herself. "Test tomorrow, that's what counts," Rachel said instead, and the moment collapsed. "See you later, miss," she said, and left.
Every year, Miss Fry wondered if the Test was more nerve-wracking for her than it was for her students. Yes, the Test was high-pressure and the results life-changing, but at least the students were masters and mistresses of their own destinies. She was powerless.
The examiner was late, turning the students' nerves into mischief. The classroom collapsed into chaos, everyone chatting, two students climbing onto desks to open the high windows, Barry and Rachel arguing over Rachel's missing bag. The examiner winced at the cacophony when he finally marched in, escorted by the Head, whose scowl silenced the room in an instant. The Head turned the scowl on Miss Fry as if she was the one to blame.
"Good luck," Miss Fry said to the students as she left.
"Luck?" The inspector looked up from signing into Miss Fry's eScreen. "You will be judged on hard work and application, children. Luck has nothing to do with it." MOTHER's light flashed in time with his incredulous laugh.
Miss Fry scurried out.
The staff room was packed but silent, full of anxious teachers and the stink of fear. Miss Fry hadn't been in here since last year's Test — it was never a good idea to fraternise with the competition. She found a seat and blew the dust off the ancient, out-of-date eScreen. The Head had sent his customary pre-Test email warning of the consequences for poor Test results, and there were a bunch of adverts for summer-break training sessions from various private providers. She browsed the 'net and fretted about her job, hoping one of her silent, sweating colleagues would be this year's sacrificial lamb. She was back outside her classroom ten minutes before the Test finished, pacing.
She smiled as her students filed out, and asked them how it had gone. A few grunts, a few nods, more than a few shrugs. Teenagers.
"You only care because you're worried about your job," Barry told her, like a punch in the gut. He gave her a sly smile and strolled off down the corridor.
Last out was Rachel, rescued bag held in front of her like a shield. She walked past without saying a word, trailing a cloud of misery.
"How did they do?" Miss Fry asked the examiner.
He glowered at her. "You'll see," he said, and pushed past.
An empty classroom was always sad but it was especially so just after the Test. MOTHER's light was still flashing, recording nothing, as she sat down at her eScreen.
How odd. The examiner was still logged in.
Miss Fry looked up at MOTHER, then back at the screen.
The joys of multiple-choice questions and a curriculum focussing on rote memorisation meant that the Tests could be marked almost instantaneously. Across the country, families and teachers were sat by their eScreens and mobiles, waiting for their results. It wouldn't be cheating, not if the results were available in a few hours anyway. And who would be dull enough to check MOTHER to see what she got up to after hours?
Unable to wait, desperate to ease the agony of uncertainty, she opened the examiner's applications. The eScreen displayed a seating plan with a picture showing where each student had sat, candidate numbers and Test scores listed beneath, green for pass, red for fail. A quick scan showed a single, solitary red.
Only one! She grabbed the edge of the eScreen and fell forward, laughing as relief surged through her — no-one had ever been removed from their position with such good results. She might even get a bonus. She wanted to climb on the desk and shout her triumph right into MOTHER. The only way the day could get any better was if it was Barry who had failed.
It wasn't Barry. It was Rachel.
Impossible. Rachel Heron had come first for the last five consecutive Tests. Her results had been down yesterday but there was no way that she had fallen so far so quickly. Yet there it was, the failing score scarlet beneath Rachel's picture, like a wound.
Appealing was pointless. Parents had to have faith in the Test, as any suspicion that students' lives were being ruined by faulty results would have been political suicide. There was an appeals process, but heavy political pressure had created a regulator that admitted no mistakes. It wasn't chance that drove the percentage of successful appeals down year-on-year.
Perhaps Rachel could go private next year. The student database told Miss Fry that Rachel lived in the roughest part of town. There would be no private schooling; Rachel would be on an unpaid training scheme by Monday. Successive governments had campaigned on promises of tougher sanctions and tougher work for Test failures, and they were uniformly awful.
Miss Fry wanted to vomit.
Even Barry had passed. Barry, now ranked twenty of twenty-one. Hours of private tuition had compensated for hours of disruption and once again he'd passed by a single mark. Rachel, sat next to him, was one mark below the pass grade, twenty-one of twenty-one.
Miss Fry was suddenly angry, angry at Barry for treating Rachel so badly, angry at the school for bowing so readily to outside pressure and vested interest, angry at the whole stupid system that reduced a kid's worth to a single two-hour exam.
Angry at herself for being part of it.
She pressed down on Rachel's face, watched as it popped and detached from its desk. A quick swipe dropped Rachel's picture over Barry's sneering photo, and the two swapped places. The test scores stayed the same, anchored to the desk, not the student.
Rachel Heron, twenty of twenty-one.
Barry Jone, twenty-one of twenty-one.
Miss Fry fled.
At home Miss Fry was Dominique, or at least tried to be. That night she couldn't separate the two halves of herself as she waited for confirmation from the Head. When it came it placed her second in the school's league table, liable for a hefty bonus she no longer wanted. She prepared her poems, Blake's dual incarnations of The Chimney Sweeper, and went to bed.
When sleep finally swallowed her she found herself a student again, back at school, desperate to pee, running an interactive anatomy resource on her eScreen. No matter how well she assembled the parts, creating lifeless bodies from jigsawed offcuts, the teacher (her own mother) wouldn't let her take a toilet break. "You'll come last if you stop, Miss Fry," her mother told her, her eyes flashing red as if she were the devil, recording every move she made. Dominique worked until she wet herself, and all the other students laughed.
She was back in her classroom early. She'd found some dusty old poetry books locked away in a cupboard in what had once been the library, and put them out on the desks. She doubted half the students had seen a book before, and they might make an interesting discussion point.
At nine o'clock she opened the classroom door, a big smile already on her face, ready to greet those students that had survived the Test. None of her students were waiting. MOTHER'S red light blinked above her, recording more nothing.
Shaking, she sat back at her eScreen and checked her emails. There was one from the Head, marked as urgent. She lifted a trembling hand to open it.
“You have failed the Test,” it read.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Brian Ennis (Twitter / Website) is an an ex-teacher, writer, gamer, and geek from Peterborough, England who now works in the higher education sector. His fiction has been published in magazines such as The Colored Lens, Niteblade Magazine, and Theme of Absence; and in the anthologies Commute: Short Bursts of Terror (Sanitarium Magazine) and What Haunts The Heart (Mantle Lane Press). He also wrote non-fiction for the British Fantasy Society, Dirge Magazine, and Grimdark Magazine.