Wednesday, March 18, 2009

`Trapped in Our Minds'

Proctor derives from the Latin pro- (“in behalf of”) and curare (“care for”), and can signify an agent of a church or holy order. It also refers to an attorney or university official, particularly in England. The word in the United States is used most often as a transitive verb, to proctor, meaning to supervise the taking of an examination; that is, to watch for cheating. It shares an etymology with another English verb, to procure, but not, disappointingly, with the noun proctology (from the Greek proktos).

I spent much of St. Patrick’s Day proctoring exams and pondering fanciful etymologies. Part of the standardized reading test requires 10th-graders to read a three-page story about Willa Cather, a writer not part of the curriculum at the high school where I’ve been working. This photo of Cather was printed in the examination book, and a boy asked me if it was a woman or a man. Sitting for hours in the gymnasium, occasionally rising to wake sleeping students, revived memories of a thousand study halls. Do you remember the tedium of those hours? Sunlight refracted through dirty windows? The passing of notes? The ripe smell of bag lunches? Boys playing “football” with paper folded into triangles? That’s where I first read T.S. Eliot, in a yellow paperback I still own.

I had Guy Davenport’s The Hunter Gracchus with me again, wishing it and the rest of his essays, along with Willa Cather, were part of the curriculum in all American high schools. This comes from “Keeping Time,” a two-page essay Davenport crafted out of a request from an editor to write about “the authorial I”:

“The business of a writer is to show others how you see the world so that they will then have two views of it, theirs and yours. We are all of us trapped in our minds. We can get out through the imaginative alchemy of reading, a skill complementary to writing but psychologically more mysterious. How writing is written is a process far more straightforward than how it is read.”

3 comments:

The Modesto Kid said...

Thanks for that Davenport line -- just beautiful. I spent much of 2007 trying to describe what goes on in my head when I'm reading Pamuk's novels, and that sentence is much more concise than anything I came up with... Think I will track down a copy of The Hunter Gracchus (which I see is also the title of a story by Kafka -- any connection?)

Adam said...

Better, surely, to move to England and invigilate an exam rather than simply proctor it?

Although the etymology - linked to the word 'vigil' - is far too grand for the task at hand. But, more appropriately, it does link to the notion of wakefulness (which your students appear to struggle with!)

Ron Slate said...

Robert Pinsky makes a game attempt to include Cather in his upcoming book THOUSANDS OF BROADWAYS -- based on lectures he gave about imagery of the small town in American lit. In particular, Cather's SONG OF THE LARK -- which I haven't looked into since reading for my prelims.