She took her seat and sat among the hundred other pupils who had their faces buried in their books in an optimistic but futile attempt at developing eidetic memory. It was almost half past eight in the morning and Jane’s eyelids were as heavy as they could get. She opened a can of Mr. Brown dark coffee and chugged it down instantly hoping the caffeine would keep her alert. Minutes later, the question booklets were passed. Everyone in the room raced to turn the first page and read the questions whose answers would determine their lives, their fates. Jane did too. She traced her finger across the first question and read aloud the words in her head:
“Explain the notion of ‘free will’ and discuss how individuals exercise their free will in their daily lives.”
“Easy,” she thought.
She picked out one of the blue ball-point pens Mrs. Davis had asked everyone to bring and spun it around her fingers. She liked the feeling of having it in her grasp, moving around the way she wanted it to. But she felt a tinge of uneasiness.
Jane read the question again, and again.
“Free will is the power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate,” she repeated to herself.
She had studied the textbook religiously and would have been a fool to not know what it is, but she still couldn’t explain how people exercise their free will. She thought harder, but to no avail. She let go of her pen and watched it bounce before it fell flat on her desk. The clock was ticking. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. And then it hit her.
She sat up straight and looked around the room quizzically. Everyone else had their heads tilted down and eyes fixated on their papers. They looked like robots hardwired into doing the same thing, writing the same words. She let out a laugh.
“How could I have been so stupid?” she exclaimed.
One of the invigilators gestured her to be silent, but she took no notice. It was so clear to her now. There was no such thing as free will.
Then everything came rushing back – the hours she had spent doing projects and writing papers, the extra tuitions, the sleepless nights, the ballet classes, this exam she was sitting, and the other things she had to do. She had nodded to the demands of her parents and teachers thinking it was a choice she was making when in fact, she had simply been following through on the decisions they made for her. She was only deluded into thinking she had a choice, into thinking she had free will. But now, everything was so crystal clear.
It had hardly been fifteen minutes into the exam when Jane got up and left the hall. Her paper lay on her desk, untouched by the nip of the blue ball-point pen that inked all the other papers.