The first couple of months of my first English class at U-M were fairly relaxed and stress free. I indulged in many great books, discussing the meaning of words and finding hidden passages in text. My professor had a reputation on campus as being very eccentric and extremely hard when it came to grading. In preparation for our first exam, he gave us an outline and hinted that the exam would include essays and fill-in-the-blank questions.
I went to the library every day to study, trying to anticipate the questions he might ask. That morning, I woke up early, packed up my notes, went down to the cafeteria to grab breakfast, and headed out to Angell Hall. The hallways were crowded and seemed to radiate a nervous energy. Kids were sitting on the floor doing the best they could to cram in the last morsel of text. As I approached the lecture hall, a sudden fit of panic seized me. I became lightheaded, and my palms were sweaty.
As I entered, I briefly stopped by the teaching assistants to pick up my blue book and then proceeded down the long aisle to take my usual seat in the third row on the aisle (because I sometimes experienced fits of claustrophobia). The professor entered. Dressed in a tweed coat, brown Dockers, and penny loafers, he carried a battered briefcase and looked really happy. In fact, that was the first time I had seen him crack a smile.
Silence filled the room, and everyone watched as the professor pulled out the exam sheet from his briefcase. The teaching assistants started counting out the exams as if they were counting bars of gold and then passed them down the rows. My heart skipped a beat as questions raced through my mind. Did I study enough? Did I study the right things? Did I even read the right books? I was getting carried away with self-doubt. The professor asked the class to continue to keep the exam face down until all the exams had been distributed. He then told everyone to write his or her Social Security number on the back of the exam, turn it over, and begin.
As I turned over the exam, I saw only three black words written on the stark white page. “What is courage?” I thought to myself, “Is this it? Is this the whole exam?” I looked around the room, and all of my classmates had the same puzzled look on their faces. The professor then spoke up. “To answer your silent questions, yes, that question is the whole exam, and it counts for 50% of your grade. So get to work.”
I sat there in my hard chair and collected my thoughts. I then took my pen and wrote, “This is courage.”
I shut my blue book, packed up my book bag, and slowly walked to the professor and handed him my exam. He huffed, noting that I was finished fast and telling me to place the exam on the corner of his desk. As I walked out of the auditorium I thought to myself, “What in the world did I just do? Did I completely lose my mind for a brief moment? Should I go back to my dorm room and begin to pack and make that phone call to my parents to inform them that I will be flunking a class my first year?”
Needless to say, I had many sleepless nights until our exams were returned a week later via a cardboard box outside the professor’s office. As I reached for mine, my hands were shaking and I held my breath as I opened it to the first page, where I found this note from my professor: “That took guts, kid. A+”
Darcell Brown, ’99, is a crafty gal, creating fiber art in the form of wool hooked rugs and fun crochet projects. Currently, she brings stories to life as a freelance writer for the Oakland Press. She is a mother to Cooper, who just turned 8; a wife to Dave; and a fur mama to her dog, Teddy, who she is sure comes from circus dog parents.