I view my upcoming Oregon Massage Board exam with a sort of anticipatory nostalgia. It is to be last, probably, of the exams that have loomed so large in my life, the make-or-break exams after weeks of study: the GRE; my orals in grad school; the finals in the course on compilers that were the dread of Computer Science students at PSU. I have always had a gift for exams. I'm a clutch hitter, and I have the kind of peripheral psychological vision that tells me what sorts of answers will be welcome, even when I have no knowledge to go on.
At my orals, John Hollander followed up a question about the Romantic poets with a question about their sources. The answer, I knew, had to do with Gray, but I also knew I didn't know it. "I'm aware of my ignorance of the Pre-Romantics," I said stiffly. Technically, the Pre-Romantics weren't to be part of the exam: we chose nine out of fifteen possible topics to be examined on, and the 18th Century wasn't one of mine. But really Hollander was quite within his rights: knowing sources is fundamental to understanding any poetry, and Gray is hardly obscure. My Romantic poet, whichever he was, would almost certainly have learned Gray's poems by heart in school. But I knew that a) Hollander really wanted to know if I knew what sort of knowledge would supply the answer to his question, more than he wanted the specific answer, b) that he was sensitive about being thought of as an overbearing academic -- he was the sort of professor who wants his students to like him -- and c) that admitting ignorance of something I wasn't to be tested on wasn't going to be damaging, and d) a spirited answer of any sort was going to do me more good with the examining board than a meek one. Hollander backed off at once, with a mumbled apology. I passed my orals.
There was a brilliant girl in the same year who failed. She was slight and nervous, the sort of girl who touches her face a lot and seems always to be apologizing for occupying even the small space she takes up, who makes her smallness seem smaller by always wearing dark clothes. You usually had the impression that if she could have disappeared altogether, she would gladly have done so. Confronted with seven august professors sitting around the table, at her orals, she froze. The rumor was that she had managed to speak maybe two or three sentences during the whole hour and a half. They had no choice but to fail her, though every one of them knew she had more intelligent things to say about most of the topics than any of them did.
There was a certain sense to it, cruel though it seemed, and still seems, to me. It was difficult to imagine her teaching, at least teaching in America, which requires a lot of improvisation in front of a class (as opposed to reading written-out lectures and doing tutorials.) But she worked so hard, and thought so well. I suppose it's a species of survivor-guilt that I feel, about the people I know who have failed exams out of anxiety, or because they were just not very good at guessing what sort of thing was wanted. So many of them were better thinkers and harder workers than I ever was.
But anyway -- to return -- this is probably it. The last time I do such a thing. Oh, I imagine I'll take exams from time to time, in reality as we shape it here in the first world, exams are a fact of life; but not exams I'll need to be anxious about. All these exams, of course, were supposed to be initiations -- the only initiation rituals we still know how to do -- but I'm not entirely sure I'll know how to live without one in the offing. The thought that I may have exhausted all my delaying tactics, and finally have to be an adult, is a spooky one. So it's appropriate, maybe, that it should be scheduled for the eve of the All Hallow's Eve.