“Merry Christmas, Sir!”

Your mind
Has just jumped the track

In the early part of university teaching career, tried to be innovative in questions prepared for exams. Tried to be mostly original; no lifts of questions from the back of the chapters. Original, so original, so wonderful.

Must have been December of 1985; had taught for about a year and a half. Intermediate Accounting final. The last exam on the last day of exams. Christmas a couple of days away. Thought the students would marvel at the exam; so thoughtful, so challenging.

Had created a series of integrated questions. “Based on your answer in Question 1, now consider…”; “Based on your answers in Questions 1 and 2, now consider…”. Lots of holes in the subsequent questions, easily filled with answers from the earlier. Prepared a detailed solution, to make sure that it all fit nicely.

Very pleased when handing out the exam. Students clearly going to enjoy this. Such a brilliant, thoughtful exam. My Christmas present.

Within half an hour of a three hour exam, did not sense any spirit of Christmas joy. Lots of heavy breathing, guttural noises and sighs of exasperation. Student in the front row started hyperventilating. Tried to calm him down; obvious case of exam nerves. He looked up at me, eyes as if he saw me as the firing squad, in the moment before the volleys.

“Sir, what happens if I can’t figure out the answer to the first question? How can I answer anything else on the exam? All the questions are interrelated…” Voice fading with sense of absolute defeat. Kill me, now.

Perfect exam turning into perfect exam disaster. Salvaged by the phrase “assume anything”. What else to say? Such innovative leadership; restructure your own exam.

And throw out the marking key.

Lots of silence and sweaty palms at the end of the exam. Virtually the entire class stayed until the end; generally a bad sign. Except for those who surrendered and walked out in the first forty minutes or so.

After the exam. Heading to the bus, with exams in one arm; bag of tears. Snow starting to gently fall. Nice touch to a day or so before Christmas.

On the other side of the bus platform, a group of students waiting to take the bus in the opposite direction. Didn’t catch the symbolism of life, then.

Recognized the group. Students who had just written the exam. Suddenly six or so voices in unison:

MERRY CHRISTMAS, SIR!

Different tones. Absolute sarcasm and disgust. Defeat. Terror. At least one voice, apparently with the spirit of the season, including forgiveness, involving genuine well-wishing.

Saved from saying anything in response, as bus in my direction arrived thereafter.

Moving away. Don’t remember looking at the students.

Do remember Christmas present to future students: never again to write an exam like that.

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About brucelarochelle

Practising Lawyer and Part-Time University Instructor (Accounting, Commercial Law, Organizational Behaviour); Part-Time Federal Tribunal Member. Non-practising Chartered Professional Accountant (Chartered Accountant and Certified Management Accountant).
This entry was posted in Christmas, Community of Scholars, Ottawa Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “Merry Christmas, Sir!”

  1. Audrey says:

    This article was very well written. It enables us to see a side that we rarely hear of as students: the side of the teacher. While reading, I kept hearing the way you said the “Merry Christmas, Sir!” in class. Short, bittersweet, and very enjoyable.

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