Even after all these years, I can recall how I felt when I finished taking my final college exam, knowing I had done well on it and feeling ten pounds lighter, back when I didn’t have ten pounds to spare. And that test had been a humdinger.
It was for a class in Shakespeare, and most of the small class was made up of English majors who were required to take it for their degree. We had studied one play a week in detail, so a tremendous amount of material was covered. Instead of where the classes were held, the final would be conducted in a different classroom, and the reason for the change was apparent as soon as we arrived for the test.
The larger room had two walls of blackboards, and written on them were six or eight different excerpts from various plays. The test was to identify which play, which act and which scene each one came from, as well as the speaker, the audience and the context of the speech.
To be fair, some of the most famous speeches were excerpted, but not necessarily the most remembered parts. “To be, or not to be” is easily recognized from Hamlet, but the part about “this mortal coil” is not. So it was with quotes from Antony and Cleopatra, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. The key to passing the test was not the recognition of the obvious, but rather the ability to use the more obscure clues to identify the true source. Funny how life works that way, too.
If I thought while walking to my car that this was the last test I’d ever have to take, I now would have to chalk that up to youth and inexperience. Life itself is one test after another, sometimes of character, honesty, patience and any other quality one might care to add. There are the big tests when facing real hardship and challenges such as illness and death. But it’s the smaller ones, like what we put in our income tax returns and how we respond to casual racist remarks we hear, that are generally unevaluated by anyone else, leaving it to ourselves to grade the test.
There are many who attribute all of this to some godly or karmic plan to determine how worthy we are or where our next transmigration might land us. Perhaps, but sometimes it seems more likely to me that we humans run into each other as if we’re in a bunch of bumper cars at the county fair, alternating between being jostled and doing the jostling.
We tend to look around, making all sorts of assumptions, and then come to some conclusion about how well someone did on the particular test that we watched them take. Isn’t that what we commonly think of as “judging?” Isn’t there a line between “jurying” and “judging?” After all, there is a difference between a private evaluation of someone’s test response as inadequate or inappropriate and a shout-out to everyone else for societal sanctions.
Some folks have the dubious distinction of taking their tests on the public stage, either by design or by accident. As I am writing this before the first debate of the candidates (save one) seeking the Republican presidential nomination, this is unlikely to be read by anyone until it is known who passed that national test. There may or may not be a winner, but there will be a biggest loser if I don’t miss my guess.
Embedded in the indictments of Trump and his cronies are tantalizing tidbits of often unnamed and unidentified individuals who passed tests of integrity and character when doing so was not the path of least resistance. Presumably, there are some co-conspirators who jumped off the train once it started to leave the station. Only time will tell how all this will resolve itself.
The prosecutors, particularly Jack Smith and Fani Willis, are being tested as well. We will be watching to see whether or not they can chew what they bit off. Folks like Rudy Giuliani, Mark Meadows and Mike Pence are being tested, too, although what kind of test they’re taking remains somewhat uncertain.
And then there’s Donald Trump. Well, I think he might be beyond being tested. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that he’s the one who spent all of that time writing all those clues on the metaphorical blackboard. That being the case, he’s the one testing us, the one “that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.”
I had to end that quote there because the “and then is heard no more” part sounds like wishful thinking. The “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” seems more germane.
For those trying to remember where those quotes can be found, just ask your closest English major.