A Prayer for Literature

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I’m finally finished with my classes for the semester, all my exams have been taken, my service blog has been done and I survived my first semester at Southern Virginia University. Preparing for my exams was a little nerve-wracking, none more so than my exam for Professor Cluff’s class.

The lit exam was an oral one – you prepared for seventy-eight questions and by luck of the draw, answered two. You had two and a half minutes to prepare your answer while someone else was giving theirs in front of the class.

You could tell even before you entered the classroom who was preparing for Cluff’s exam. Students who had taken it previously had this look when they saw people pouring over ancient Greek texts, Dante and Milton. It was “Oh, you’re taking the oral exam??…. well, it’s not so bad…” The morning of the exam in the dining hall was quiet. While saying grace before I ate, I was so nervous and pleading for calm nerves I even forgot to ask a blessing on my food.

It was quiet, tense when you walked into the classroom. We took our seats, cracking feeble jokes about how we expected to fail/pass out/ have  a heartattack, or any mix of the three. I look up from praying to find my friend Bruce praying as well, in addition to a few other classmates. Professor Cluff, seeing the panicked looks on all of our faces suggested an opening prayer. Good thing.

I was to go third in both rounds, my first question covering The Iliad, and the second covering The Aeneid. I was praying so hard throughout the whole thing to calm my nerves. I was surprised though, how quickly prayers go from praying for yourself to praying for each of your classmates. You’re frowning at them, willing them to somehow pick the answer from your mind that they might do well. People were miming “breath” to those speaking or preparing to speak – even those who had already completed their answers.

We also tried – I’m not sure if we really succeeded – to inject a little humor into the situation. Most of it was a little dark, anxious and a bit crazed, but it worked. Many of the questions had several parts to them. One of my classmates stands, reads his question with the 5+ questions within it and at the end adds, “And finally, how many questions can we fit into this question??” We looked at Professor Cluff, expecting him to either ignore it or smite someone, to find him laughing pretty hard. It lightened the tense atmosphere a bit, until another classmate stood to answer his question before his prep time was finished. Dr. Cluff looked at him and tells him quickly, “It’s not your turn!” Needless to say, we all froze. I guess it comes with walking on pins and needles.

But there is definitely a spiritual component to that exam. You’re praying so hard for yourself and your classmates, you’re all but ignoring what’s going on around you. You keep praying just as hard, and your nerves are just as tight, even after you’ve completed your two questions and you’re back in your seat.

By the time you finish the exam (and start a slow clap in celebration), you’re emotionally (and mentally) drained, but you’re feeling as though you’ve joined some sort of elite group: Survivors of Dr. Cluff’s Western Literature Oral Exam.

Why yes, I am a certified member, thanks.

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