The first rays of dawn hit the sky, the day’s advent bringing with it a soft illumination just as my alarm blared off.
I’d been awake already, lying motionless in bed, thoughts of the day’s events running through my head. I sat up, glancing at the time before going through the rote motions of my daily ablutions, constantly checking and re-checking my plans for the slightest of flaws.
You see, today was the day of my college interview. All eighteen years of my life had been building up to this moment, and the years to come would be similarly influenced as well.
For much of my school life, starting from the early years of middle school, I’d always been ostracized. At first, it was because of my background – the son of a janitor would never be welcome to most conversations – but later on it was just because I was different. When the others were playing outside during recess, I was poring over a textbook in some quiet corner. In high school, when everyone was having a blast at parties, I was at home. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go have fun, mind you. My reasons for eschewing the favorite foibles of teenage life… well, it’s complicated.
I suppose it’s more due to my background than anything else. My parents had a fairy tale marriage. A janitor with nothing to his name and a respected, rising teacher who met only because my dad was in charge of cleaning the classroom my mom used to teach in. But of course, like all good things, it didn’t last. When I was fourteen, my mom left my dad. To this day, I haven’t found out where she went. My father drowned his sorrows in alcohol, eventually getting fired by the time I was sixteen. Ever since then, I’d been eking out a living doing odd jobs at odd houses – practically anything that didn’t clash with school – to pay the rent for the tiny apartment I lived in with my drunkard father. His perpetual inebriation wasn’t much help, although even now I have no idea how he actually afforded the sheer amount he drank.
I paid for my textbooks and notebooks by helping others with their homework, and there was this one time when a bunch of kids from my class came to the café I worked at. Suffice to say that it wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences. But now… now I could turn everything around.
I got dressed quickly, clenching my teeth as I passed by my father snoring on the couch, clutching an empty bottle in his hands. I headed for the metro, glancing at my watch. 6:15 am.
My interview was only at 11, but I had other endeavors in mind.
The looming skyscraper seemed to do just that – extend endlessly upward, piercing through the roiling eddies of scudding clouds. Oh, how I envied it. How I wished to pierce through the clouds myself. My hands balled into fists, the nails almost drawing blood as they dug into my skin. I heaved a sigh of relief, calming myself. Even with the hour-long commute, I had reached in time for what I had in mind. I headed for the elevator, pressing the button for the floor just above the one where the interview was scheduled.
It was a dark, dreary place. With the ongoing construction, the convoluted mass of wooden scaffolding lent the whole place a musty air. I headed for a small, tucked away corner with an electricity socket, slipping the security guard a little something – well, the sum total of my earnings for the last three weeks – as I passed him by.
My heart was in my mouth, and it was no help that I had to maintain a nonchalant air about myself.
You see, the college whose interview I was giving was renowned as the top college in the nation, and even reputed to be one of the best in the world. But it had its peculiarities – while it managed admission like any other university, with your grades and your extracurriculars and your SATs, it gave scholarships – any form of financial aid, actually – predicated solely on the interview. Seeing as I had absolutely no chance of affording the fees, this short half-hour would basically determine the course of my life.
There was very little known about the pattern of the questions they asked in these interviews – there was a different set every season and the equally mutable interviewers prepared a different set for each day.
I pulled my second-hand laptop out of my bag, connecting it to a few portals. A few minutes later, the screen was lit up by the hazy figures of five people sitting at a table, seemingly interrogating the frazzled youth opposite them, snippets of conversation trickling into my ears.
I bit my thumb, and I did draw blood this time. No way was I leaving my future to chance.
Continued in Part 2…
At 8 am, the frazzled looking youth left the room while another young woman came in. I strained my eyes, trying my damnedest to make out what they were saying. At 8:30, the young woman left, and someone else walked in.
I kept observing them, focusing on keeping my connection to the CCTV untraceable while discerning what the interviewers were asking and what answers pleased them, all the while fully aware that I would be disqualified the second I was caught.
At 10:45, I snuck out, making my way to the ground floor through the back stairs. I took the elevator again, walking in for my interview five minutes before time – I had calculated this, of course. Five minutes was perfect; not early enough to be kept waiting, but early enough to appear punctual and diligent.
“Good morning,” I greeted, keeping up a look of casual self-confidence that I had perfected after long nights in front of the mirror and some rather embarrassing practice.
“Good morning,” an eagle-eyed old lady responded. “You seem to have hurt yourself,” she said, eyeing me askance.
My stomach plummeted, thinking the worst before I realized she was looking at my thumb.
“Oh, it’s just a paper cut. I feel like Jon Snow heading beyond the wall as it is,” I said, smiling.
The old lady chuckled, and her impression of me seemed to have improved somewhat.
Humour worked wonders for first impressions. Of course, I had made sure to look up the panelists’ interests beforehand, so I knew what to say.
We got off to a swimming start. I could see their regard for me growing as I answered each question perfectly, misplacing a few inconsequential answers here and there to avoid suspicion.
“Well, young man,” the old lady began, “this has been a pleasant conversation. Now, final question: If you were to be given a million dollars today, what would you do with them?”
My mind flashed to the answers I’d heard from those who had been accepted.
“I will donate one-third to start-ups working on renewable energy sources,” I said, recalling the energy resources major who was accepted in the morning. These guys lapped global warming and other issues right up.
“Then, I’ll use another third to set up a trust that opens a school for homeless and underprivileged children in my hometown. Education is the most important tool for uplifting people.” That should work. After all, it did for the girl from New York this afternoon. Besides, it never hurt to glorify their jobs.
“Finally, I’ll use the rest as seed capital to found an artificial intelligence start-up,” I said. About two hours ago, the committee had accepted a budding entrepreneur. My knowledge of AI was enough to fiddle around with a RoboVac, but that was about it. If I knew anything about my interviewers, it was that they loved people who thought big. Regardless of whether or not they could actually do anything about it.
I looked around, a bit apprehensively, but was overjoyed to see smiling faces and nods all around.
“Congratulations, Mr. Patel. You have been accepted! We look forward to you joining us at the beginning of the new term,” an old man said warmly, his face crinkling into a smile.
I beamed back, shaking hands with all the members of the panel. I turned to leave, unable to resist a small smirk of triumph from tugging at my lips, when something caught my eye. It was the eagle-eyed old lady, her lips pursed in thought. I could almost hear the gears of her brain turning, and I struggled to maintain my poise and mask of joy as I took my leave.
I shut the door behind me, but I could feel someone’s gaze on my back, and the weight of unasked questions.