Some College Memories Remain Vivid Over the Years Chroniclers

There are stories that I have told over the years about my personal and professional life that are mostly accurate. (The “mostly” relates to faulty memory or an attempt to embellish it for entertainment purposes or to protect identities or for other reasons.) So I ask anyone reading this to understand that this should not be viewed as a “gospel”, but rather appreciated.

College is a once in many lifetimes experience. It certainly was for me, as I chose a small liberal arts college that only admitted men. She was not chosen because she was entirely male, but rather in spite of herself.

I was a naive country boy with no significant money to speak of and Wabash College offered me high quality scholarships and education as well as inordinate freedom.

When I got there, I didn’t know a living soul. It was therefore an opportunity to reinvent myself.

The only rule at Wabash was that a Wabash man “must conduct himself at all times, both on and off campus, like a gentleman and a responsible citizen.” Of course, this rule was subject to a fairly broad interpretation, which left a great deal of leeway for personal development.

Besides the lack of rules, there are several other unusual features of this institution, including diplomas written in Latin on real sheepskin. But what I want to talk to you about here is the requirement to pass comprehensive exams or “Comps” to graduate, regardless of your grade point average.

The Competitions are a test covering material from each course taken during all of your years at Wabash College. It included a written test as well as an oral grid 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 he seemed to have questions that could be answered unequivocally. So the answer would be right or wrong which means I could study and understand the topic.

This contrasted with the literature or psychology courses I took, for example. Some of the tests in these classes had questions that could be interpreted in more than one way or points could be deducted due to the teacher’s style or opinion.

The concrete nature of chemistry as a subject, however, is more of a curse than a blessing when it comes to Comps, as there are right answers, making it nearly impossible to fake an answer.

As you can imagine, the time spent studying and taking Comps is incredibly stressful, as your entire college career can depend on your results.

I have told you all this so that you will understand the following story.

When my time came to take the written portion of Chemistry Comps in the spring of my senior year, I was assigned one end of a long table in the chemistry department library while a classmate of mine was taking the test at the other end. We were the only people in the room as the other chemistry majors were scattered around the rest of the chemistry building.

After four years with many classes together, I knew the other guy was brilliant. I expected him to complete the test in half the time it would take me to complete and score twice as well.

After we’re well into the test and over an hour has passed (Did I mention Written Comps are a timed test?) I heard moans from across the table. Naturally, my first thought was that he was way ahead of me and that he had found a scandalous question that even he was not prepared for and against which I wouldn’t stand a chance.

However, as the moans grew louder, I looked up from my test to see my brilliant classmate fall to the ground and start a fit of grand mal.

Not knowing what else to do, I called for help and tried to keep her from banging her head against the bookcases, table, and chairs around her.

Fortunately, it stopped seizing after several minutes which seemed like hours to me.

Next week, I’ll end this story and tell you another story to continue this change of pace as we begin the New Year.


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