The Final Exam

For SP - 20061208

My fellow students and I were in that last week of the semester when serious students focus all their mental and physical energy on The Final Exam. Few of us were feeling like scholars at this point, however. We had jumped through so many academic hoops by this point in our graduate careers that the final exam in Dr. Davidson’s class seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.

Let’s face it; she was a hypocrite. All semester long we had heard from her the same recurring theme: true scholars learn for the sheer love of knowledge, not to pass a test or to flash an A paper before one’s peers. We must set our own standards of excellence, love the pursuit of truth and not be dissuaded by our society’s need for standard setting and evaluation.

So why was there a final exam that could so easily determine the difference between an A or B, or worse, a C, D, or F? Was Dr. Davidson unaware that there was a university rule that we must maintain a B average if we wanted to complete this graduate program? Hardly. It was common knowledge that she was among those who fought to maintain such an arbitrary standard. She was forever challenging us to base our decision upon research, but what studies could she produce to substantiate this capricious practice? None at all. Most of the students in the class were in their last semester and their grade in this course could easily determine whether their G.P.A. would reach that required 3.0.

Our fate in her class was being determined by one final, comprehensive exam that we all must take on the last night of finals week when we were most exhausted and our minds had turned to mush. We had already proved our mettle in the endless stream of papers, reports, analyses and discussions we had submitted. Why extract the last pound of flesh?

In fairness, I must say that while all of us viewed a final exam with universal dread, not all of us would suffer the same dire results if we did poorly on it. My grade was balanced somewhere between an A and a B. The worst case scenario in my particular situation was that I fail the final and tumble to a B- (a very marginal grade in a graduate program). Yet I was angry. If she would only drop the final, I was sure I could lean on the A side of the scale and pass gloriously into the Christmas season.

Others did not share my circumstances. Stephanie, the keenest mind (if not the kindest spirit) in the class, had far outclassed the rest of us. In spite of Dr. Davidson’s relentless red pen on our papers and her complex and demanding test questions, Stephanie had maintained a high A average all semester. She had set her own standard and was fixing her eyes on the prize — Dr. Davidson’s outstanding student of the year and a glowing letter of recommendation for a Ph.D. program. Nothing less would satisfy her.

Not many of us shared Stephanie’s aspirations but, even in our most competitive moments, none of us would claim that we had put the same effort into our studies. And Stephanie faced more obstacles than most of us. She was without a family or economic (much less emotional) support; her struggle was truly her own.

On the other hand, most students had maintained a solid B. They certainly didn’t teeter on the brink of being kicked out of the program at this point. But why should they be subjected to an exam that even Stephanie would struggle to excel in and inevitably see their grades slip lower into the abyss of C’s, D’s, and F’s, like Dante’s rings of hell?

Peter had the most to lose. He had little background for this program since his undergraduate degree was in a totally unrelated field. All semester he had struggled to maintain a C and now his academic life hung in the balance. With an A on the final he could swing safely to a B. If he failed the final, there was a strong likelihood that he would not be able to graduate from this program. His coveted professional life would be washed up.

So, during the final exam week, the contest was clearly defined and the finish line in view. Yet all of us dreaded the race and few even ventured to predict the outcome for themselves, much less for others. Of course, several students made both half-hearted and concerted attempts to change Dr. Davidson’s mind about even having the final. Some pleaded from reason — hadn’t we proved our skills on multiple tests and papers already? Others resorted to groveling, pleas for mercy, and even deception. In the end it was all to no avail. We would be there for the final exam or receive a zero.

To all, the night before the final exam seemed endless. Some met in study groups, pouring over crumpled notes and underlined textbooks. Others sat in the library propping their heads on their hands and sinking into the despair that only those who have been virtually alone in a university library the last night of exam week can know. Still others threw all variations of caffeine down their throats as they reread the text far into the morning hours, hoping against hope that such an all-nighter ritual would emblazon previously vague ideas on their cerebral cortex.

Finally … finally … we all trudged to the third floor of that old brick monolith where we had met each Tuesday and Thursday in the late afternoon all semester. Our pencils were a great deal sharper than our minds. Dr. Davidson stood at the front of the classroom looking as expectant as a child on Christmas morning.

She chatted on for a bit about the joys of having us in class and the exemplary effort we had all made. Few listened. Most eyes were fixed on the thick pile of exams that sat, like the Empire State Building, behind her. At last the moment of “truth” had come. The law of the Medes and the Persians had prevailed and some of us would be found wanting. By now we only wanted the next two hours to pass. We could hardly imagine life after exam week, but almost anything seemed preferable to struggling over this tower of multiple choice and essay questions piled before us.

She passed the exam down each row and only the sound of turning pages ensued. It was a ten-page exam and not even Stephanie would be able to finish it in the two hours allotted. We were all, to some extent, doomed.

Dr. Davidson announced, “I’ll pass back the answer sheets now. Please put your names at the top.”

I sat at the back of the second row, watching as Dr. Davidson counted the correct number of answer sheets and passed them down the first row. At first there was the usual silence of dread. But then students began to look up in amazement and confusion, turning to stare at others’ papers.

By the time I received my answer sheet, there were audible whispers darting between the first two rows, and the rest of the class knew something was wrong. I looked down. The answer sheet had the usual format of previous exams, albeit its length was far greater. The stir was not because the format was unexpected, but because the answers were provided where we had anticipated blanks. (In discussing this with classmates over several pitchers of beer at the local hangout later that evening, the student who sat in the first set of the first row admitted he thought he had gotten the answer sheet and was not immediately predisposed to announce his good fortune to Dr. Davidson. Yet he soon realized that we had all received the answer sheet.)

By the time the last person had received theirs, the room was in an uproar. Peter was leaping up and down with the exam in hand shouting, “Yes! Yes!” Others were less physical about it all, but were laughing loudly, slapping one another in a congratulatory fashion and reveling in the realization of the gift they had received. Several others were unwilling to believe their eyes. They rushed to the front of the class where Dr. Davidson stood surveying our reactions.

“What does this mean?”

“Why did you give us the answers?”

“Don’t we have to take the test?”

These questions were fired almost simultaneously from the gathering mob of students around the professor. She raised her hand for silence and, finally, the cacophony lowered enough for her to be heard.

“I knew this exam was a matter of academic life and death for you, and I wanted you all to survive. I knew I was the only one who could obtain a perfect score in two hours, so I took the exam for you. Merry Christmas. Have a good semester break!”

A cheer like one heard only at the end of a national championship rose from that classroom and sounded far out into the snow-filled dusk. Students ran down the crowded stairwell and into the white powder. Some threw their books into the air while others fell backward making snow angels for the first time since fourth grade.

I was still transfixed in my seat, unable to take it all in. Stephanie stood at the front of the classroom speaking in a low and controlled voice.

“Dr. Davidson, I have studied and worked all semester for this exam. I have spent late nights and predawn hours making the content of this course part of my very being. I want to be tested and to prove my scholarship.”

The red in her neck had slowly crept into her face, and her voice was firm and clipped. “I do not want this supposed ‘gift.’ I demand that you let me take this exam.”

“Even if you took the exam,” replied Dr. Davidson, “you would never be able to finish it. You would never be able to get an A.”

Stephanie stood wide-eyed, silenced by the alternatives. Then she flung the answer sheet across the room, its pages fluttering in several directions, and marched to the door. She turned before exiting.

“I’ll see the dean about this. There are rules about the mandatory nature of final exams,” she pronounced and stalked out.

Slowly I gathered my belongings and walked to the front of the class, the test and answer sheet clutched in my hand. I had to ask.

“Dr. Davidson, why did you do this?”

She looked into my face and smiled. “That’s the real test,” she replied, “and I’m not going to give you the answers to that one.”

I stuffed the exam and answers into my backpack. It seemed important that I keep them — perhaps even read them someday.

“Merry Christmas, Dr. Davidson,” shaking her hand a bit too warmly for what our distant relationship allowed.

I virtually slid down the banister and out the heavy metal doors with a leap. Cold air filled my lungs and I felt alive again. The final exam was over before it had started and I had a perfect score. Amazing!

© Dr. Catharine Whittaker, professor of special education, State University of New York at New Paltz. First printed in Student Leadership journal.