A Professor’s Journal: Final exams mimic life, give chances for a new beginning

Nothing makes me more nervous during the course of a semester than final examinations.

For me, final exams mimic life itself. I think I remember my anxiety as a student years ago, four years as an undergraduate and then several more years as a graduate student, enduring the anxious anticipation and then the fretful week itself.

I remember giving up on study group sessions; it always made me nervous when a fellow student seemed to know it all already or when friends joked and jostled, all slap happy from too few hours of sleep.

So I would hunker down in my dorm room or in a lonely corner of a library. There I would pore over classroom notes, neglected textbook chapters, or stacks of note cards all arranged chronologically or topically.

I committed these cards to memory, a practice few of my students seem to use anymore. And I tried to anticipate essay questions, forming in my mind and in scribbled outlines a possible plan of attack.

I think that once I was in that zone, that intense study mode, all pepped up on steamy cups of coffee laced with cream, un-showered and unkempt, eyes glazed over outwardly, but mind active and even burning inwardly, once I found myself in that state, I actually enjoyed myself, though I would never admit it.

And then when the time came for the examination itself, if I had prepared properly, if I had committed the time required, if I had covered all the bases of textbook reading, note-taking and organization, then it all came pouring out in one mad exhilarating rush.

Finished, I breathed again, placed my No. 2 Ticonderoga pencil on the desk, looked over the thing one more time, checked my name at the top right side of the first page, gathered up my book bag and unloaded the examination on the professor’s desk at the front of the room.

Now, on his or her side of the desk, he or she sat, reading calmly sometimes, or working on who knew what, or simply staring vacantly out over the room. I used to imagine a slight smirk on the professor’s face or a look of bored, but satisfied control.

Now I know better. Now that I sit on the professor’s side of the desk, I know that the professor, all pepped up on steaming cups of coffee – black – is anticipating lonely hours in a coffee shop corner, or all holed up in a home study or in a campus office, poring over the students’ offerings, administering a combination of justice and mercy, and waiting, like the student, for the holiday break, a welcome respite from days of anxious toil and worry and busyness.

I don’t know which side of the desk made me more anxious, but I do know this. Final exams are like life itself. And I know that final exams always presage new beginnings.

Study hard. Do well. Have a great holiday break. Get some rest. Love your family and friends. Love your enemies, if you have any. Help someone who is unable to help themselves. And pray that your professors will be able to do the same.

Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.