Monday, February 21, 2011

A, B, C, or D

Thomas sat down at a desk in the testing center in preparation to take his Certificate of Risk Licensing (CRL) exam. The computer screen stared back at him blankly as the testing attendant logged in on the keyboard. Thomas was nervous, but prepared. He had been studying for months, and the 100 question CRL exam would help further his career at the insurance firm he worked for.

“You’re all set; any questions?” the woman quietly asked.

“No,” Thomas responded. “Thank you.”

After the woman left, he went through the introductory questions, the tutorial, and then clicked “Begin exam.”

Here we go, he thought. His heart beat anxiously as the first question appeared.

This one’s easy, he thought. I’ve seen this before. He selected option ‘c’ and clicked ‘next.’

Thomas got through the next ten questions fairly easily and was feeling confident about how the exam was going until he came to question 12.

He had to read the question a few times in order to understand what was being asked. As he contemplated the answers, Thomas looked down at the keyboard and noticed that the letter ‘c’ was highlighted. Must be a glitch in the keyboard, he thought. He read through the answer options again and selected ‘c.’

The next five questions were answered in a matter of minutes and Thomas was still feeling good about the exam. All the questions he had answered thus far were basic review questions, with a few case study examples. I knew I was ready for this; this is much easier than I expected. I’ll pass for sure, Thomas thought. He then clicked the ‘next’ button and stared at the screen.

This question was a bit tougher, and Thomas tried to rule out obvious wrong answers. He looked down at the keyboard again to process his thoughts and noticed that ‘c’ was no longer highlighted. Instead, the letter ‘d’ glowed with a dim, orange light. Thomas’ brow furrowed, and he wondered what was wrong with the keyboard. He quickly clicked ‘previous question’ until he got back to question number two. He looked at his answer on the screen, marked as answer ‘c,’ and then down at the keyboard where ‘c’ was highlighted. Thomas looked over his shoulder at the testing officiator on the other side of the glass wall to see if she had noticed. He knew he was being videotaped and was unsure whether or not this was a practical joke. Thomas clicked forward in the exam to his current question, checking every answer against what key was highlighted on the keyboard; ‘a,’ ‘b,’ ‘c,’ or ‘d.’ He was certain of his answers thus far in the exam, and so far everything he had marked matched up with what the keyboard highlighted.

This keyboard knows the exam; it’s giving me the answers, Thomas realized.

He read through the next question and, sure enough, the keyboard was giving him the correct answer. He clicked the ‘next’ button after confirming with the keyboard and answering the question, and continued the exam. He looked over his shoulder, then back at the keyboard, and thought about what was happening.

I’m not doing anything wrong, he thought. I came prepared for this test. I just so happened to sit at the desk with the cheating keyboard. He paused. Will I be caught? Could they catch me? Thomas noticed that he was sweating as he tried to justify his actions.

I won’t look at the keyboard, he considered. I’ll decide on the answer, then look at the keyboard for confirmation. I’m prepared anyways. Maybe this is just someone’s way of making sure I pass. He thought again about what he had decided, and then nodded to himself. Okay, let’s do this.

Thomas continued the exam, following his outlined plan, confirming with the keyboard after every question. He felt confident until he got to the third and final portion of the test, where he saw an exact question from his practice exams.

It was a basic question, taken from the first chapter of his study book. He had answered this question dozens of times, but the keyboard was giving him a different answer than what he knew was right. This is ridiculous, he thought. I know the answer is ‘a’ but this stupid keyboard is telling me ‘d.’ He clicked the ‘previous’ button, then went back to the question to make sure that the keyboard wasn’t stuck. The ‘d’ key glowed when the ‘a’ key should have been lit up. Agh! he thought. What is going on?

He selected ‘a’ and clicked the ‘next’ button, but couldn’t focus enough to read the next question. He went back to the previous question and stared at the screen, then the keyboard. It has given me the right answers every time; why is it doing this now? Thomas thought.

He considered raising his hand so the testing attendant would come to his computer, but realized what a fool he would look like. His mind started to spin and his eyes glassed over, and he tried to shake off the feeling of stupor. He looked back at the screen.

Maybe I shouldn’t be doubting the keyboard, he considered. Maybe I’m confusing what I thought. But this is such a basic question.

He changed his answer to ‘d’ and clicked ‘next.’ Thomas went through the final part of the exam, second guessing himself and everything he thought he knew. He became more and more frustrated with himself and the keyboard for disagreeing, but he decided to side with what the keyboard told him. When he had finished all 100 questions, he looked at the clock in the top right hand corner of the screen and noticed that he still had thirty minutes left.

I have enough time to review all the questions again, he thought.

Thomas when back to the beginning of the exam and, while reviewing his initial answers, realized that the keyboard was giving different answers now. Thomas frantically clicked the ‘next’ button, glancing from the keyboard to the screen as he reviewed each answer. Terror gripped his mind. He let go of the mouse and his hands shot to cover his face.

What is happening?

He looked back over his shoulder but nothing had changed. The room was deadly silent, but he was screaming inside. He wanted to smash the keyboard, to throw it against the wall. He looked back at the clock, noticing that only eighteen minutes remained.

I have to calm down, he thought. Just go through the questions again, and do what feels right. Don’t look at the keyboard. Forget the keyboard.

As Thomas clicked through the questions, he became more confused and unsure of his answers. He couldn’t help but look at the keyboard for what he thought was right. He wondering if the keyboard had been lying all along, but couldn't bring himself to go against it. He began changing answers based upon what the keyboard was now illuminating, even thought it meant going against what he had initially known. He had five minutes to go as he sped through the last few questions, feeling ever more uncomfortable about his answers.

With one minute remaining, he completed the last question, and a screen popped up with the option to ‘end exam.’ Thomas knew that this was either a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ test, and that he had to get at least an eighty percent to pass and receive his CRL. He looked down at the keyboard and noticed that neither ‘a,’ ‘b,’ ‘c,’ or ‘d’ were illuminated. Only one key was bright, with that cheating orange glow: the ‘escape’ key. He looked back and forth from the ‘escape’ key to the ‘end exam’ button, and wondered if he could ‘escape’ after hitting the ‘end exam’ button. Something in him knew he could not. His left index finger hovered over the ‘escape’ button while his right index finger rested on the mouse.

Where would this escape key take me? Is this some kind of magical keyboard? I’m pretty sure I failed this test, but I did what the keyboard said, so maybe I passed? He felt a small glimmer of hope, but it wavered.

He hit the ‘escape’ key at the same time the screen flashed a message saying ‘time expired.’ The screen went white, then black, then faded to a muted gray. With a slight popping noise, the computer shut off. Thomas looked from left to right in bewilderment but nothing changed. After a moment, the woman testing attendant came in the room with a troubled look on her face. She leaned over to whisper in Thomas’ ear.

“I’m so sorry, your exam didn’t save. The computer malfunctioned and we have no way of collecting your answers. You’ll have to come back and take the exam again.”


  1. Phew!!! I thought at the end he was going to learn the moral of the story was to not cheat and fail the exam! Haha.

    I love this story. It's just a little bit creepy; maybe reminds me of a nightmare you can't wake up from-- it starts innocently enough, mostly checking your answers with the keyboard, but then it gets out of control and you've changed them all and there's no time left, and you don't remember your original answers and there's no turning back, no second chances!! Well-written and very enjoyable.

    I was telling Camilla that I'm so glad I don't have to take tests like these. Man, you must be a smarty pants to know what the questions are even talking about.

    (Although, if you passed the exam that you've recently taken, I'm going to wonder if you had a little "help" if you know what I mean. Just sayin'.)

  2. Awesome story! I think this is my favorite one you've written so far. I just love the screen shot test questions too; they add such a feeling of panic for me (not having a clue what the real answer is).

    A couple of things:
    I love the part where he says "I'll just ignore the keyboard, not look down," but then finds himself unable to look away. It reminds me of times I've watched something I knew I shouldn't because I just wanted to see how it would end and I'd say "I'll just look away, or shut off my ears when it's something that makes me uncomfortable;" but that really doesn't work, does it? By the end, I inevitably just wish I hadn't watched it to start with.
    Also, I love how the story ends with the attendant's comment, not Thomas' thoughts. Thomas isn't the greatest guy, obviously, and your choice of ending words shows that the story is more interested in it's point that what Thomas has to say. I love the ending, love it.
    And lastly, CONGRATS again on passing your real test (the ARM, part 2) the other day. You really are a smarty pants (just echoing what Adele said up there). Love ya!

  3. The story brings out the ambivalence of turning over ever greater portions of our lives to computers and machines. And I'm not sure I want to be too hard on poor doubtful Thomas; he was in a vulnerable position and gradually and craftily was led away from trusting his own mind, with the keyboard filling the role of the supernatural (actually, the tempter)--again, our machines growing to swallow another role. Yes, he began "cheating," but if the rules of reality are destabilizing, the idea of following ironclad rules at all becomes less clear.

    I like how the story reminds me of how I can't trust my own mind too much--like when I go back and check again whether I locked the door or set my alarm (sometimes more than once)even though I remember doing it (or do I?). It is also interesting, the juxtoposition of the ultra-rational-business well prepared test-taker and the inner human-self-doubter. Maybe it took this episode to discover this truth. I wonder if I would trust someone who is all ultra-rational and no self-doubt--to be human, that is.

    The final question: Is the only way out of these dilemmas the escape key?

    Also, I enjoyed your humor and how it carried the story forward.

    Very interesting, Ryan.

  4. This story made me wonder if you wrote down a nightmare you had before you took your real test. Also, were those samples of the questions; ones you really had to answer on your recent test? If so, I'd flunk for sure. I found myself trying to guess the answers on the test in the story and I got them wrong every time.(or didn't I?) You had me hooked from the beginning. I was quite relieved by the ending. Even if he was cheating, I didn't want him to flunk. After all he was prepared. Preparation should be rewarded. Or at least not punished in this case. What a great story. *sigh* I have such a talented son.

  5. Wow Ryan, what a great story. I really enjoyed it.

    I don't know why, but I started to make spiritual comparisons while reading the story. I thought of how the adversary will at first tell you things that are true, but he will tell you those things in a different way.

    Then using that new channel that you assume brings truth (aka the highlighted keyboard as opposed to your own studying efforts) he begins to tell you lies. These lies then change what you originally thought to be true. This leads to confusion. That confusion causes you to hesitate when you shouldn't and then all is lost.

    You probably weren't thinking any of that, but I enjoyed making the comparison. Again, great story!

  6. Merrily - I think the point in Thomas not failing was that he had to re-do the test, and go through all the stress, prep, etc and think about what he did. And it does sound like a nightmare, especially to a valedictorian like you. :) And no, I didn't cheat on my exam, though I did think of this story while taking my last exam.

    Camilla - good point about the not being able to look away. It applies to media as well; tv, movies, music, etc. Thanks!

    Dad - Good points all around. The escape key option at the end should have been an obvious lie to Thomas, but for some reason he chose it after all. And that part of our brain that doubts what we know can be so frustrating. There have been several times where I feel very prepared for a test and then freak out in the test (heart pounding, sweaty, second guessing myself). I have to calm myself down, pray, and use reasoning to get through it. It's that part of human thinking where you want to expect the worst, so you don't disappoint yourself (rather, be pleasantly surprised if you pass). Agh.

    Mother - thanks, yes, those were practice questions I used to prepare. And trust me, if I can pass it, anyone can. I just used those questions and reviewed a lot. And I didn't want Thomas to cheat either, but taking the test again (and not getting a grade) almost seems a worse punishment to me.

    Josh - that is actually spot on with what I thought as I wrote the story. We're the same; wrist stitches and all.