One of my most traumatic memories of finals week is from my freshman year. My roommate left the day before and took the alarm clock. I woke the next morning, looked at my watch, and jumped out of bed in horror. It was 8 o’clock, and I had a final at 8 o’clock! I threw on clothes and ran to the final exam. Of course, I was the last one there. I took my exam and sat staring at it for several seconds, almost in tears. Then the professor did something amazing. He walked to my desk, leaned down and told me to calm down. He would stay as long as I need to finish the exam. I have told this story many times before, always with tears in my eyes. It was an incredible kindness because, after teaching now as long as I have, I know that he didn’t have to do that. I know how tired teachers are at the end of a term, and I know how irritated they can get at students who don’t make the necessary preparations to show up and/or be on time. He was indeed a very kind man.
Over the years, I have noticed that there is something about finals week that makes even the best students momentarily come up short. I’ve seen the look of panic as a student realizes she/he has forgotten a pencil or pen or paper for the essay question. Here in the library, we do a brisk business in lending out calculators to students who left them at home or whose batteries chose that moment to die. Some forget that the test is open book. Or the when the exam is taking place.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a proponent of teaching people to prepare for the worst and make sure that they’re ready for any of the various things that can go wrong. But stress can take its toll on the best of us. And I will always remember that scared freshman who made it to class fifteen minutes late, and how the result may have been very different if the professor had not let me in the room or had chosen to yell at me, or threatened to snatch test out of my hands after two hours. I truly don’t know if I would have come back to college that next semester.
Of course, being a conscientious student, with a pattern of showing up and getting work done, goes a long way in having a teacher be more sympathetic when you’re overtaken by a finals brain freeze and forget where you put your calculator! If the final exam is the 40th time you’ve been late in the semester, you’re less likely to elicit any positive reaction.
So, if it makes you feel better, when you go into your class to take a final and realize you’ve somehow lost your pencil on the way, realize you’re not the first and you won’t be the last student to make such a mistake. And then come over here to the library; we keep a supply for just such occasions.