The Unchangeable Character by Samuel Barber
We’re taking a test today, as we have every day this week, as we have every day of every week this month, as we have every day of every week of every month of this year. Perhaps every day of every week of every month of several years, but I cannot recall with any certainty. A nervous chatter runs through the aisles, but my voice does not participate. Established practice dictates that my peers grumble and fret regarding the day’s impending test while I sigh, semi-theatrically, signaling the ease with which I crush them, my classmates, in our rigorous curriculum. This is to say that typically, my classmates are susceptible to unregulated nerves though any such instability is foreign to my person. Still, today deviates from customary routine. The class procedures have been unilaterally altered in our absence overnight, and a sort of martial law has been imposed, as far as the governing structure of the class goes, requiring our absolute attention for the foreseeable future, for the rest of the day. I had been planing on making a Valentine’s Day card for Gretchen, who is my best friend this morning, but now the card will have to wait I note, eyes falling upon the yellow plastic tub of Elmer’s glue resting at the front of the room, by the red plastic tub of rulers and the blue plastic tub of scotch tape and the red plastic tub of crayons. My classmates are anxious at the prospect of the impending test though I am merely annoyed, for I cannot fulfill the duties expected of me, as Gretchen’s current best friend.
They have not prepared as I have, they never do, and it is undoubtedly this lack of foresight that contributes to the hysteria and paranoia running rampant throughout the class, if the idle speculation making its way through the aisles is to be believed. For instance, Jorge has been hectically scribbling notes on his arms and legs in the boy’s lavatory out in the hall. Unfortunately for Jorge, his cunning is outmatched by his initiative. The poor guy seems unwilling to limit himself to those areas of his body obfuscated by articles of clothing, instead covering every writable surface with abbreviations, definitions, aphorisms attesting to the validity of cheating if the system is rigged. I sit next to Jorge in class and can clearly identify familiar phrases on his wrists and neck and cheeks, though many are misspelt or otherwise imperfect approximations of the real thing, of the material we are expected to memorize for the tests. I also know because Jorge has winked at me and I am choosing to believe he did so out of a sense of the conspiratorial, or perhaps because he is willing to allow me to cheat off of him, and not, as I fear, because he is attempting to signal some sort of emotional or carnal desire of his that he wishes to make clear I may fulfill were I so inclined.
Jorge does not know, of course, how well prepared I am for the tests, nor does anyone else save for Señora O’Shaughnessy. It is not the sort of thing I would have seen fit to share. Naturally, it is in my best interest to remain mum on the subject of test difficulty, though I cannot say I shall do so in respect to the handling of today’s. I have weathered Principles of Biochemistry, Behavioral Economics, Electrical Circuits and Signals, and many others of similar vigor without distress or complaint, but today’s test troubles me greatly. And this admission comes from the sole member of the class able to correctly identify Goldman Sachs as the entity whose control of 27 Detroit industrial warehouses allowed them to continuously, maddeningly transport 90% of their millions of tons of aluminum from one location to another as average wait times for delivery increased from six weeks to 16 months, cynically manipulating availability of the product and creating a sort of “merry-go-round of metal” as the New York Times put it (as did I in the fill-in-the-blank extra credit question also answered correctly) in order to artificially inflate the price of the commodity and wring extra profit from consumers whose mere existence as tax-paying individuals can be pinpointed as the sole reason for the bank’s continued existence following its equally morally-bankrupt treatment of the derivatives market years ago. You can thank Bill Clinton for that helpful deregulation of the commodities market, I added at the bottom of the page. Señora O’Shaughnessy loves when I editorialize.
It seems fair to characterize the entire class as displeased with the series of events which have culminated in our taking this particular test, today. We feel ill-equipped to handle such an advanced topic, at our present social development, at our present ages, at this present time. There have been many tests before this one it is true, and so I can anticipate the sort of skepticism which would seek to blame us for our plight, arguing that had we rebuffed attempts to implement the institutionalization of the tests with ardor, we would not find ourselves impotent in seeking to halt the process, now. It must be challenging for my peers to accept that the circumstances afflicting our homeroom were made at the behest of powers whose vested interests very probably differ from our own, to say nothing of the shock that will come when they hear that the Harvey E. Butt Independent School District seems ready to announce its findings to the public. The Harvey E. Butt Independent School District being eager to share what maintains the outward appearance of a remarkable trajectory from speculative theory to laboratory trial to landmark discovery, seeking to frame the matter in such a way as to focus upon alleged benefits in socialization and education while blurring the ramifications inherent to any process such as the one to which we Harvey E. Butt Independent School District students have been subjected. Our parents and the other members of this community are ill-prepared for the sorts of revelations attending the announcement. I’ve long known that leaving topics of such a corporeal nature unarticulated is most sensible, but those who preside over us seem unfamiliar with this sort of discretion.
This is all to say we did not understand what was happening, at first. That it is unfair to expect a bunch of children our age to possess the predictive capacity to foresee the various implications of a project only reluctantly explained to us, and even then in the most general of terms. We would enter the classroom at the school day’s beginning, dispensing our possessions throughout the room: backpacks in the appropriate closets, lunches in the appropriate cubbies, coats on the appropriate hooks by the appropriate door. We would carefully remove the chairs from our desks so as to minimize the accumulation of dust and other detritus which inevitably accumulates on the bottoms of the sliced tennis balls which cushion the metallic chair legs from the tile floor, reducing the ear strain emblematic to schoolrooms by a not insignificant degree. And we would take the tests, one after another, another after one, one after another.
But today is no ordinary day and today’s test is no ordinary test. Its subject matter is wholly unknown to us and its format remains undisclosed as well. We are familiar with multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, short responses, and essays, of course. But we have been told that today’s test is of a different nature entirely, something for which preparation is unproductive. So one might see why I have been shaken from my stupor, only now that my results are not guaranteed to be satisfactory.
I notice Selena stuff a binder underneath her halter top. I can only guess at its contents, that the binder contains material relevant to today’s test, that Selena is joining Jorge’s lead in ineffectively disguising a covert attempt to rebel against this system of testing. I ask Selena if she has undergone recent trauma which might plausibly account for her recent weight gain, as Selena has a naturally-thin frame and so the binder can be clearly identified as an appendage alien to her default physical state. Her reply observes that having recently lost a beloved hamster to the unstoppable forces ceaselessly raging on the periphery of self-reflection, she was tasked with burying the scrawny corpse in the front yard. Her parents apparently wishing to rob grief of potency through sensory experiences of the banal sort. Here Selena’s statement comes to a close as she concludes by insisting that events of such a traumatic nature credibly explain the peculiar shape of her person, the sudden consumption of inordinately more calories than her body’s metabolism can efficiently regulate. I smile at Selena and give her a wink of affirmation, so impressed am I with her response.
We’re taking a test today, as we have every day this week, as we have every day of every week this month, as we have every day of every week of every month of this year the strange men who have been entering the room for minutes now announce in unison as they continue filing in one after another, walking with determination without sacrificing precision, so smooth is their shared path to the chalkboard at the front of the room. It gives the impression of mechanization. I am not yet ready for this test, I say. I do not wish to take this test for quite some time, if ever I say. I make eyes at Gretchen so that we might join forces to evade these interlopers, but she does not heed my raised eyebrows, instead tittering away with Sheila, who I gravely fear is usurping my position as Gretchen’s current best friend. I decide to dispose of Gretchen as my own current best friend with all haste, perhaps inviting Chelsea to sit with me in the cafeteria during our impending lunch hour, but before I can develop my plan any further, I am reminded by a sort of dawning knowledge of the project and its repercussions, reminded of the task at hand. I plead with Señora O’Shaughnessy that I am still a child, that perhaps I might be due some sort of waiver that officially excludes my participation from the proceedings, but to no avail. I tell the strange men that I am unprepared for today’s lesson while I desperately squeeze between bodies, shuddering at the contact as I search for the door.
But as they begin drawing unintelligible figures and unfamiliar objects and other indiscernible things on the chalkboard, I cannot help but return to my seat and follow instruction despite my terror. Still, I overt my gaze, careful to cover my line of sight with hands equipped to hold number two pencils and bubble circles of the corresponding letter and insert a particular word in an appropriate blank and even organize a coherent system of thought into a cogent five paragraph rumination. But I am most certainly not prepared for this, not prepared for what is drawn on the chalkboard: the beast with what appears to be two backs, the figures in various stages of undress, the equally blank expressions of the figures and of the creators of those figures.
Samuel Rafael Barber teaches English composition and creative writing at the University of Arizona, where he is an MFA candidate in fiction. According to life expectancy tables, he will live another 53.6 years.