The Truth, Mainly - 04/26/1993

Final exams a twitchy time in world of academics
by Leon Satterfield

The semester is winding down, final exams are coming up, and I'm growing twitchier by the day. Not because I'm taking finals, but because I'm giving them. Why should that make me twitch?

Let me tell you my final-exam story:

It's the middle of finals week in 1979 and I'm fumbling for my office key at 10 p.m. so I can pick up a set of ungraded exams to work on later. My dog, Sherman, who has seven more years to go before he'll die of terminal goodness and thus be canonized, trots down the hall in front of me to check out the catfood smells from another office. It's the same routine he goes through every evening I take him inside the building. But this time, he stops, turns around, comes back, and sniffs under my door.

That should have told me something. I should have turned around and gone home right then.

Because after I manage to get the key in the lock, after I open the door and switch on the light, the first thing I see is the hand sticking out from under my desk.

My impulse is to turn off the light, slam the door, and get the hell out. But then the hand moves. Sherman goes over to my desk, wagging his tail like he's glad to see who the hand belongs to.

"What's going on?" I say, pretty sure I don't want to know. I try to sound deep-voiced and professorial. I take a tentative step into the room and see that somebody too big is trying to make himself small, hunched in a fetal position in the kneehole of my desk. He crawls out, red-faced and gasping, and I see he's one of my American Lit students. He's about the age of my older son and he's sitting on the floor trying to breathe.

"What are you doing here?" I ask. He stays sitting on the floor, looking like he might cry if he could catch his breath. Sherman licks his face.

"Come on," I say. "What's going on?"

He seizes a mouthful of air, as if the major problem here is a lack of oxygen.

"I was looking—" He puffs out his cheeks, exhales, and tries again. "I was looking for my test."

"Why?" I ask. It's another question I'd rather not know the answer to.

"I need an A," he says, still sitting on the floor. "Med school."

So I try to make blustering noises then about breaking and entering, about hauling him before the Student Judiciary. I try to be stern and indignant, but it's like trying to be stern and indignant with the bleeding driver of a wrecked car.

"Come on," I say. "Get up."

He stands up. He isn't as tall as my son. I ask how he got in. Through the window, he says. His hands are shaking, but his breathing has leveled out some.

"What are you going to do?" he asks.

"I don't know," I tell him. "I'll have to think about it. Come see me tomorrow."

It's supposed to be a signal for him to leave. But he seems immobilized, standing now, looking at his running shoes. I try to lighten it up.

"Your grade isn't that bad," I say. "You probably had a B going into the final. Bs aren't bad grades."

"I need an A and I blew the exam," he says. He still won't look at me. "I thought I could patch it up."

We don't say anything then for a long time. I straighten a paper clip and bend the wire back and forth until it breaks. He flicks his flashlight on and off, on and off, watching the beam on the floor. Sherman moves closer and offers his ears for the boy to scratch.

"How's your brother doing?" I finally ask. Another subject, any other subject. His brother had been in my class several years ago. He was a good student. He got an A.

"Really well. He's in med school."

So much for that. More silence.

"What are you going to do?" he says again.

"Come back tomorrow and we'll talk about it," I say.

This time he leaves. I sit in my office for a while and try to imagine what I'll tell him tomorrow. Sherman pokes me. Time to get on with the walk. On the way home, I wonder what the boy thought when he heard my footsteps stop at the door, when he heard my key turning in the lock. It must have sounded like a pistol being cocked.

I suppose that by now—14 years later—the educational statute of limitations has run out on whatever crime my student was guilty of. What's less certain is whether it's run out on a grading system that can degrade—you can call it self-degradation if you want—, a system that can make students hunch in fetal positions while they wait to see what's going to happen to their futures.

During the wait, my students twitch. So do I.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

©Copyright Lincoln Journal Star