*The following is brief, fictional writing exercise entitled “The Proctor”. Although inspired by real events, none of the people or opinions expressed should be confused with reality.
Proctoring provincial exams in Mozambique is a lot like trench warfare. I went to help with the effort. They were short on men and I knew this way I could do my family proud. I kissed my girl goodbye and I enlisted as a teacher. That was in the fall. It hasn’t been a year yet, but now its fall again. Things are opposite here in the southern hemisphere. Anyway, nobody wants to be here – in the trenches, that is. I mean the exams. Nobody wants to do the exams. You think you want to, when you’re far back you see all those good men in front and you think you want to, want to be a part of something, you know? But then you get to the front and its just you and the exam and you’re up there at the front and there’s nothing to look at, no line of good men. So you get to thinking, and you start to ask yourself why am I here at the front? And you can’t remember why you would ever want to go to the frontline because there is no good reason to ever go to the frontline. Things seemed so opposite back when I was home. But man, what I wouldn’t give to be back home. So anyway, there you are at the frontline, or rather here I am at the frontline. I don’t want to be in this classroom and neither do my students. We wish nobody had assassinated Ferdinand; we wish we could all just get along. But World War One happened, and so do provincial exams in Mozambique. Ninety students crammed into rows of benches in this one little room at the end of the block. Just me, just one commanding officer, controlling, roaming through their wrists, knees, and elbows. It’s a lot like wading through the mud.
I am the commanding officer. The average age of my troop is probably thirteen. We are demoralized, I’m not gunna beat around the bush. The value of their education isn’t clear to my students, who mostly look forward to a quiet life on the family farm after the mission is over, and I so I try to make them see. I try to make them appreciate the value of literacy, the value of books. Catch-22, that’s a good book. I liked that book. So anyway, there we are on the frontline, but, like I said, we don’t want to be there. We want to be home with our families. We want to cook beans. Just one good plate of beans is all we’re asking for. We look for shortcuts to complete our mission, a mission we are not prepared for because we’ve been overworked and poorly trained. I see my soldiers looking for a way out. Typically, the way out rests in their lap – a note covered with definitions and other info. The million-dollar wound, I heard them tell Forest. My students sit on it when I walk by. I make eye contact with the cheaters, to let them know I know, to warn them to stop. I don’t want to stop them – I don’t want to be here just as much as they don’t – but this is where we’ve found ourselves. Don’t defect, I want to say, don’t do it. They avert their eyes quickly, too quickly, too hurried. They wait until I turn and they look into their lap for the way out again. It is not my pleasure, but rather my duty to respond. I try various methods: I rip up the test and let them restart. I give them a zero. I take off five points. Disincentives, disincentives. We’re already demoralized – I’m only making it worse in the trenches.
How to motivate? How to motivate? I don’t know the answer so I continue to try various means, all disincentives. Marcelino, go stand in the corner. Marcelino, put your nose on the wall. Marcelino, squat against the blackboard. No, not like that Marcelino – squat facing the blackboard. I don’t enjoy it, but I must do it. I have orders. It becomes almost a game: who is looking at their privates instead of their paper? I catch one. I feel dread. I feel a slight tremor of excitement. I push it down. No, no – I don’t enjoy this. I can’t let myself get caught up. I’ve seen some of the others that have been here longer than me. They’re jaded, I’ve seen them. They derive a certain satisfaction from shredding cheated exams. I can’t become like them. How can I get out? Students begin finishing the test and I let them leave for home. Teacher, I want to go cook beans one students tells me and I tell him to go home and cook beans. Yes, good. The class is emptying. I’ve found a way, an incentive: escape. We’ll get out of here together, boys. I’m optimistic. But what did that book say? Do you remember that book? You can’t leave the war unless you’re crazy, but if you want to leave then you must not be crazy. Another teacher comes to speak to me. He tells me we can’t let the students go until the exam time is over, otherwise they’ll disregard the test – scribble in any answer – so they can go home. He announces this to the class, that crazy bastard. Morale drops in an audible groan. They saw the others escape, but they’re still stuck in the trenches. We thought we were prepared but the Maginot line was just overtaken. We’re demoralized again. The teacher leaves. I can’t take the dissatisfaction among my troops. I fear a riot. I begin to let kids out slyly – two by two, the kids go marching, hurrah, hurrah. Every two minutes, two kids, two kids. We’re almost to the end of the line. Hurrah. Just one girl left. Why is she taking so damn long? We’re holding our breath, me and the other students. We won’t say anything, but dammit we’ll make her feel our eyes. We want to go home and cook beans. There is still thirty minutes left but why isn’t she done? We want her to disregard the test so we can go home and cook beans. Finally, she holds up her test. She’s done! She’s done! What a perfectly wonderful little soldier, fulfilling her duties to the fullest. The battle is over and we’re elated, but there is still one more mission. Silence. We need to be silent – we’re still close to the front. No fires, kitchen corporal, keep that fire out. We’ll grab our bags in silence, perfect silence, and we’ll slip out the front gate. Right through the front and they won’t be able to stop us. We’ve fulfilled our mission; let’s just get out quietly. We’re united, my students and I, in this subterfuge, this little game of escape. They listen. They’re quiet. We sneak out. I found the incentive, I found the motivation: home, home on the range. We all love home, where the gazelles and the elephants roam. We get to go home and we get to cook beans. Everyone wins. I go to my superiors. I hand in the exams, satisfied with my job well done. We got the words written on the paper, sir. What more can you ask for? A job well-done, if you ask me, sir. A job well done, if you look at the papers, sir. I’m going home now. I’m going to cook beans, sir. Yes, sir. Right, sir. Okay, sir, then I’ll see you tomorrow for the next mission, sir. You can’t leave the war unless you’re crazy, but if you want to leave then you must not be crazy. I wish beans didn’t take so long to cook.