There are stories I have told over the years about my personal and professional life that are mostly accurate. (The “mostly” is related to a faulty memory or attempted embellishment for entertainment value or to protect identities or for other reasons.) So, I ask that anyone who reads this should understand that this should not be taken as “gospel” but rather enjoyed.
College is a unique experience in many lives. It certainly was for me, in that I chose a small, liberal arts college that only admitted males. It was not chosen because it was all male, but rather in spite of it.
I was a naïve country boy with no significant money to speak of and Wabash College offered me scholarships and a high-quality education as well as an inordinate amount of freedom.
When I arrived there, I did not know a soul. So, it was an opportunity to re-invent myself.
The only rule at Wabash was that a Wabash Man “is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen.” Of course, this rule was subject to rather broad interpretation, which gave plenty of leeway for personal growth.
Aside from lack of rules, there are several other unusual characteristics of that institution, which included diplomas written in Latin on real sheepskin. But the thing I want to tell you about here is the requirement of passing comprehensive exams or “Comps” in order to graduate, no matter what grade point average you might have achieved.
Comps are an ordeal covering the material from every class taken during all your years at Wabash College. It included a written test as well as an oral grilling by a panel of professors from the department of your major as well as at least one professor from another discipline.
In my case, I was crazy enough to major in chemistry, largely because it seemed to have questions that could be answered unequivocally. Thus, the answer would be either right or wrong, meaning that I could study and understand the subject.
This was in contrast to the literature or psychology classes I took for example. Some of the tests in those classes had questions that could be interpreted multiple ways or could have points deducted because of style or the opinion of the professor.
The concrete nature of chemistry as a subject however is more curse than blessing when it comes to Comps because there are right answers, which makes faking your way through a response nearly impossible.
As you might imagine, the time spent studying for and taking Comps is incredibly stressful since your whole college career can turn on how well you do.
I have told you all of this so you might understand the following story.
When my time came to take the written portion of Chemistry Comps during the spring of my senior year, I was assigned one end of a long table in the Chemistry Department library while one of my classmates was taking the test at the other end. We were the only people in the room as the other chemistry majors were scattered through the rest of the chemistry building.
After four years with many classes together, I knew the other guy to be brilliant. I expected him to be done with the test in half the time it was going to take me to finish and to score twice as well.
After we were well into the test and more than an hour had passed (Did I mention that written Comps is a timed test?) I heard moaning from the other end of the table. Naturally, my first thought was that he was way ahead of me and had found an outrageous question that even he was not prepared for and against which I would have no chance.
However, as the moaning became louder, I looked up from my test to see my brilliant classmate fall to the floor and begin a full-on grand mal seizure.
Not knowing what else to do, I called for help and tried to keep him from banging his head on the bookcases, table and chairs that surrounded him.
Fortunately, he stopped seizing after several minutes that seemed like hours to me.
Next week, I will finish this story and tell you another story to continue this change of pace as we start the new year.