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High School Exam by Jessica Barksdale

Please choose only one answer per question. It is possible all selections are incorrect. No do-overs or make-ups. When you are done, you must leave.

How did you give up your virginity?

A) To a stranger, the week before graduation at a huge pool party hosted by the craziest girl in your high school. It’s a bloody mess on the front seat of your station wagon. Carnage. You end up at the hospital, and you half expect the doctor will tell your mother. Maybe you wish he would. You go home with a pad the size of a brick between your legs.

B) You won’t, at least not in high school, but you will get mostly naked with a boy weekend after weekend and keep saying no when you should have said yes. Poor, guy. He breaks up with you after three months, and you don’t blame him.

C) Willingly! And then all bets are off, sex without thought. All those cute boys. All those runners, swimmers, poets.

How did you stay sane?

A) You won’t, though you manage to hide your depression, banking on your mother’s own depression to shield you, not that she noticed anything.

B) You join every single club, even 4H. You ride your bike twenty miles each weekend day. You eat a lot of salads and grapefruit. It’s possible you have an eating disorder, so sanity really isn’t in this answer. You read a book a week, do all your homework, and study abroad your senior year and never return to the United States.

C) You pretend as though nothing happened. You do the same amount of nothing you did before your father died. You laugh during conversations near your locker. You slip funny notes to your friends during passing times. You pretend to care about things: who will be homecoming king, who said what about Sandy’s low-cut blouse, who made out with Andy behind the auto shop. You wish the world would be swallowed by fire. No, wait a minute. Ice.

What did you do after high school?

A) You will skulk out of there, diploma in hand, surprised they passed you through. Good riddance to bad rubbish, you the rubbish. You lifeguard that summer, enroll in community college, flunk out. Somehow, you end up living with a boy with a facial twitch in a house in the hills. You smoke pot, gain weight, and by chance, apply for a college you get into. You follow a crooked path but end up much better than you imagined you could. For one, you never were arrested.

B) Defying all your mother’s and teacher’s expectations, you turn your grades around, hang onto a B average, and get into a state school. Your freshman year in college, you decide to never be who you were, and you listen, take notes, show up for tests. You meet a very ordinary but good-looking boy you never break up with. You both graduate, get a few more degrees, and live a happy life doing smart things in a good town. Your children are exemplary.

C) You stay exactly the same. You are nothing special, nothing bad. You do finally get a haircut. You stay your course and go to a local four-year college and get a teaching degree you don’t want to use. You use it anyway. Forty years later, you retire. Someone bakes you a cake. There are balloons. Your husband has left you, and your children don’t care much anymore, if they ever did. You travel to Italy and disappear into a tiny Tuscan town. Something good happens, but no one knows what because that is the last anyone hears from you. Ciao, Bella.


Jessica Barksdale’s second poetry collection Grim Honey and her fifteenth novel The Play’s the Thing were published in spring 2021. She teaches novel writing online for UCLA Extension and in the online MFA program for Southern New Hampshire University and lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband. Twitter: @jessicainclan

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