So one would expect students alike to be pissing in their pants during the A-levels.
It was perhaps the most unsurmountable national examination to date – especially for retakers like myself, PQ & NZ.
However, what greeted us beyond the gates of ACJC was truly beyond the realms of imagination.
First of all, the security guard barely paid us a glance (despite the fact we weren’t actually their students) but smiled at us all the way, much like the Grim Reaper at the Gates of Hell.
After that unsettling greeting, we were half-amused to find ourselves the only ones in home clothes whilst other students were in their uniforms.
Comfortable as it may seem, it definitely attracted the stares of on-lookers. It felt like we were delinquents trampling onto the grounds of a holy institution.
Then of course, we had other concerns. Very basal ones, in fact. Something along the lines of: Where in the world is our test venue…?
Navigating around the school was no easy feat, but it helped once we realised not to follow the crowd. After much deduction, we found ourselves heading past the back of the canteen to a pretty (albeit awkwardly situated) building with a glass upper deck.
Upon climbing the flight of stairs, we saw a whiteboard with our classroom and seating arrangements plastered.
It was highly disconcerting – since all 3 of us came from the same elite jc, with this huge student body and lavish auditoriums filled with 20+ examiners and a chief examiner (and his reputable microphone)
Private candidates will never understand, nor have to go through the unspeakable torture that comes from taking exams as a school candidate. The choking tension, the mechanistic flipping of papers, the frenetically-paced instructions…I would advise anyone against such agony.
Instead, what they will experience is much sweeter.
Three solitary classrooms, all within the same floor. A toilet conveniently on the floor below, with a resting area bathed in sunlight. Peace, tranquility and quiet. #shamelesspromotion
All of us were given a personalised entry slip, which I stashed into my pencil case my mother helped me pack (she asked me to buy 3 new pens – the pink and yellow have lasted till now: I still remember me & PQ shopping for cheaper alternatives at the Popular bookshop beside NLB, Bugis heh).
Having witnessed our ex schoolmates throughly scolded for being a millisecond late in 2014, we scrambled 15 minutes earlier into the classroom.
This was only for NZ (the first unsuspecting victim amongst us) to be chased out.
She later told us that the examiner himself hasn’t dished out the exam papers and that he got all shocked when she barrelled in like a wrecking ball. That was perhaps the first telling sign that things worked completely different for private candidates.
When we finally got called in one by one (we had to wait for the examiner to give the thumbs up), I was surprised to find only 1-2 examiners in a classroom.
Moreover, when students gathered around him to look at the seating plan, he quickly dropped the paper like it was hot.. and scrambled away.
I have no idea who they deploy, but they are as uncanny as they can be.
Abruptly realising that he was supposed to be the guiding light in the stormy sea of students, he whipped the plan from the table and tried to help.
‘Tried‘, being the word here. In essence, he arranged us all the opposite way (he hadn’t realised the whiteboard/front of the classroom was the other way around) so we had to re-arrange ourselves.
After that fiesta, he quickly blurted out the standard instructions and told us to reset our GC and place our IC + entry proof on the right hand corner of the table.
Being rather frisky on that day, it was only then I realised the dynamics of the private candidates.
There were so many different kinds of people. I shall class them simply into 5 categories: Stoners, Food-Addicts, Toilet-Worshippers, Elderlies and Firecrackers.
Understandably, I was under the last category – these people being those who were probably from JCs before; sucked ass like I did and came back ready to kill anyone in their path for the grades.
You could practically feel the waves of murder rolling off them, the blazing fire in their eyes and the itchiness to begin mutilating their papers.
Moreover, they were clearly the most experienced.
They had everything settled from the get-go: from the arrangement of their stationary, to the GCs, down to the sweaters and practical hairdos (a trick only JC students would know – your hair does have to behave for long hours).
They were also usually the youngest-looking. This brings me to the Elderlies.
I was fortunate enough to have one in my Math exam (6 hr, broken into 2 papers). One may suspect they might be frail and eliminate them from the competition, but I later discovered they were usually very experienced Math tutors or school teachers, wanting to prove their skills.
So there went any capacity for sympathy I had for them – thanks for ruining the bell curve hahahaa
PQ had a true Elderly in her class though; and she later told me the poor man had a fit right outside the classroom. Everyone could hear him wheezing and hacking lethargically, lamenting the long hours of the paper.
Given that there was only one young, female teacher in her class, she had no choice but to attend to him and left everyone else unattended for almost 20 minutes.
PQ could actually hear people behind scrambling with their friends; and as hilarious as that was, it was also worrisome for the Elderly (who eventually didn’t finish his paper).
*NOTE: DO NOT ATTEMPT THE A-LEVELS UNLESS IN THE PINK OF HEALTH*
Moreover, she was also ‘lucky’ enough to have a Food-Addict in her class (a privilege I would have paid to witness). This particular fella actually smuggled a tin of biscuits, along with a thermos flask and milo powder.
I am not joking.
And while the examiner was rambling off the instructions, everyone could hear him snacking and his spoon clinking off his flask.
I can’t even fathom how he managed to sneak such a big tin in, but he definitely had no qualms about expressing the importance of a good breakfast.
The situation quickly spiralled out of control when the examiner forced him to stash his food away and he refused.
Then, suspecting that he had smuggled notes inside his biscuit tin, he forced him to open the lid and pried around for cheat sheets – to which he found none.
As blasphemous as this sight might have been, it became an ironic reality when you’re a private candidate.
The good thing is that nobody can rattle you (not unlike the mugger feels one gets while sitting in an auditorium with a thousand other school candidates).
But reverting back to the Toilet-Worshippers…this particular class of candidates were aplenty in my venue. From the very moment the exam begins, they pass out on the table. Some give a modicum of their time to mull over the questions and attempt to bludgeon through the exams, but eventually give up.
After an extended period of time, Mother Nature starts to call and they will proceed to file out of the class to queue for the toilet.
Almost as if on cue, many hands will raise at once right smack in the middle on the exams (while other candidates are furtively scrambling for time) – and they will only return a good half an hour later, just in time for them to catch up on sleep cycle pt 2.
It confounds me till today as to how they manage to sleep through one of the most stress-inducing exams. Perhaps what’s even more baffling is why they even bother to be present for the exams when they’re just going to nap.
Either way, it must be such a sight to witness (half of us scrambling for time, barely able to catch our breath and the other half cruising by with little care).
Now that I’ve given a preview of the different kinds of people; let’s boil down to my personal experience.
It is in my opinion that although the class size is really scaled down, one should prepare to alert the examiner at least 5 minutes before your paper runs out (especially in Math exams) since they like to doze off or get acquainted with their handphones.
Moreover, there might be the occasional train wreckers who start realising halfway through the exam that they are missing components of their paper, or start panicking when they have no idea what it’s for.
A stellar example would be a duo in the H1 Geography exams – the pair realised a minute into the exam that the world map was stashed in between their paper, and started freaking out thinking that it meant something important.
Not only did they whisper furtively to each other, they also interrogated the examiner into bestowing them with higher answers when she said it was ‘up to them to use if they needed it’.
Notwithstanding, being in the same class as these people can either be frustrating or amusing to you – but when you’re battling with ridiculous questions (i.e. describe liquefaction, what kind of indigenous rock type is formed during metamorphosis…) it can be enough to give you a mental breakdown.
I’d like to quote here -that Chem and I have clearly never gotten along, and probably never will.
On the day of Chem P3…not only did the elements of the weather start to act up for no reason; but so did my footwear.
Quick flashback – the first time I took this blasted paper, I was afflicted with a high temperature of 39.sth; which was later discovered to be an infection. Safe to say, I couldn’t even remember what the questions were much less my answers.
The second time wasn’t much better, but at least I was cogent.
However, the moment I ended up at Buona Vista…a literal (not figurative) windstorm ensued. It was like a mini hurricane, coupled with strong winds and heavy rain that flooded the pavements.
As I was searching for my umbrella, there came the icing on the cake.
My sandal snapped for no obvious reason other than to antagonise me even further, bleeding red all over my foot.
I don’t know what came over me, but somehow amidst this battle, I caught sight of a fellow competitor (i.e. an ACJC male student) whose face was crumbling.
It seemed to me that he was staring sadly in the distance, lamenting his fate (as I was) so I strode up to him and my mouth ran itself. It was only upon realising that I had offered to share my umbrella with a guy with a good 20cm on me, armed with my sandals in one hand and rivalling the tumultuous rain…did I realise how preposterous I was.
Nonetheless, I was in a candid mood and it seemed as if Chem had it coming for me, year after year and so I rambled off like a shotgun to the young, unassuming gentleman.
It was a really pleasant conversation, and he was nice and courteous. He even held the strap of my bag up when I was whipped in the face with a branch.
With a parting farewell, he bid me all the best and though I was soaked to the bone and looked like something out of a bad horror sitcom, it was all good.
I towelled myself off with toilet paper, stood under the ever-amazing invention (cough: hair dryer) and marched up to the venue; where NZ’s eyes almost popped out of the sockets.
Truth be told, that was probably the most eventful day (once again) which spared me from getting the stares of onlookers alike. Being the strange exhibit for that day, I finally understood the allure of being a private candidate.
Essentially, you could be all forms of strange and no one would question otherwise. It was just; a widely accepted phenomenon.
Even as I stepped in with my hoodie up, looking like I just got hit by a meteor shower and without footwear..the examiner let it pass.
On a final note, I’d like to pay special consideration to the peoples I met at the exam venues too. For finality, I shall just coin them the Bio dude and Math dude.
Bio dude was seated beside me (to the left) for all the papers. He actually looked like someone armed for battle – a rare species, as you have gathered. As we scrawled on our exam scripts, I noticed him stealing furtive glances (not the leering kind you might imagine..) but the ones where he’s questioning his abilities.
Coming from someone who got bested by Bio, I was hardly someone he should view as a viable competitor. However, something on my face, or the way I was going at it – spoke to him or something.
Everytime I flipped a page, he would follow suit and glance over (not-very-subtly) to compare the lengths of our answers.
It seemed that he was just competing in terms of who’s the most long-winded (but hey, who am I to judge). Given that I mugged all the way for Bio, but struggled with answering ‘to-the-point’, he was clearly embarking on a journey of twists and turns with me. Oh well.
Leaving the best for last, I had a soft spot for this messy (somewhat poodle-looking) fella with the best brown loafer-boots ever. He appeared in my GP & Math venues. I barely noticed him in GP – always the first paper, and the one I seem to work with; rather against me;. Every single time.
However, during Math paper, the Samaritan in me saw that he was unaware of how to reset his GC and so in my limited capacity, I offered to do it for him.
I won myself a supporter.
Although he was one of the ‘Sleep-Worshippers’, he quickly spent whatever time he was not sleeping to silently cheer me on.
I remember vividly during one of the Math papers, that he was staring worriedly at me as I tried not to snap my GC in half as the time dwindled.
It was heartwarming, yet mildly unsettling.
When the final day came to a close, (I think Chem MCQ was the last?)…I was assured of my performance.
I knew I had done well enough to qualify for a local uni – and the experience was truly eye opening.
At this current moment, having gotten a place in all 3 unis…I wish I had spent more time relishing the days I retook.
It passed by in a fleeting year…and though it was painful, it was worth every living moment. Truth be told, I actually wish I could sign up for this year’s As (but it coincides with NUS exams schedule).
Nonetheless, it’s a memory I will forever cherish:)