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Finals Frenzy: A Bit of Humor

Badger Insider readers shared their final-exam horror stories with us, and we heard everything — from studying the wrong material to misreading the exam location. Here are all of the memories we received.

Student sleeping at Ebling library.

Finals Frenzy

My favorite memory of a “forgotten test” was, I believe, Spring of ’81. The class was Modern American Literature with professor John Lyons. Our small group was gathered in the exam room, but the professor wasn't there, so we waited … and waited. We wondered if we had the wrong day, time, or place, but how could so many be mistaken? After 10 minutes some students left, saying that’s as long as you'd wait for a class to start anyway. After 20 minutes a few more left, saying they'd doubled their wait now. Only three or four of us “grinds” waited longer, then decided to search for Professor Lyons. We went to his office in Helen C. White and didn't find him. But as we stood outside again pondering whether to quit or go back to the exam room, we saw Professor Lyons approach the building. We went up and said, “Professor, weren't we supposed to have our final today?” and I'll never forget the surprised look on his face as he said, “I've never even so much as lost a blue book before!” Well, he said if we were satisfied with the grades on our papers and midterm already (I was!), that would have to do — and he added there'd be special consideration for those so committed to test-taking they'd even search for their absent-minded professor.
Jeffrey Jacobs ’81, MA’83
Lime Springs, Iowa

Final exams, Spring 2008, the class was Bio 101, and it was the end of my desire to be a psych major. We had three grades for three tests in the class, and the day of the final my test anxiety was at an all-time high. Bascom Hall was packed with 500 students all waiting to tip the bell curve against I was convinced. Thirty minutes in, the doors to the auditorium flew open and a male student walked in and screamed, “LET’S DO THIS THANG.” He walked very confidently up to the TA, grabbed a test, and sat down next to me. He then said “C, C, and C … Well, that wraps it up!” He handed in his test and walked right out. My anxiety melted away, I knew at the very least I would not be last. Thank you, sir, you really saved my grade that day!
Amanda Fucinato Czubik ’11
Marietta, Georgia

Having a birthday in mid-May, most years, works out pretty well — springtime celebrations are so life-affirming. However, on May 14th, 1991, I was celebrating a Very Special Birthday, a rite of passage for any college student on a campus such as UW — the first day on which one can consume alcohol legally. In my case, that day happened to fall smack dab in the middle of finals week. Early in the semester when the final exam schedule was published, I anxiously reviewed these appointments as though my life depended on it, and I found quickly that my week held two finals on my actual birthday: one at 7:45 a.m. and the other at 2:45 p.m. Now, that shouldn't have been a problem, you say, because your night of flashing your legal ID at the campus bars would be AFTER said exams were finished, right? However, the tradition at the time was to hit the bars the second the clock struck midnight on the day of your birthday — in other words, exactly seven hours and 45 minutes before that first exam. Given the fact that this exam was in some obscure statistics course that I needed to fill a prerequisite for my food science major, I didn't concern myself with that one too much, but the exam later in the day was in my major so I was going to have to be strategic during the hours between exams.

On May 13th at 11:59 p.m., having studied about as much as you would expect, my friends and I stood at the door to Madhatters and anxiously awaited for the clock to strike midnight. And strike it did. How much alcohol could a 120-pound college junior consume in the two and a half hours before bar closing, you ask? Enough to necessitate my roommate dragging me, still drunk, out the door at 7:30 later that morning so I could make it to Final #1. Reeking of alcohol, I stumbled into the exam hall where the TA who was proctoring the exam visibly recoiled at the sight of me. Blue book in hand, I took my seat briefly before having to leave the room to "powder my nose" in the nearby ladies’ room. Needless to say, the aforementioned TA was not amused, and after my third such exit, I hastily completed my exam with the first answers that came to mind, left the lecture hall and stumbled back to my apartment. I never did find out my grade for that exam, although my end of semester AB in the course illustrated that no permanent damage had been done.

Two postscripts to this story:

  1. My 2:45 exam went quite a bit better than the first, having procured a shower and nap in between the two exams. I've had a successful career in the food industry for the past 26 years.
  2. Of course, I went out again the night of my birthday, starting at the Nitty Gritty and continuing from there, and did it all over again. Given that my next final was on May 16th, I had even more fun that night (which is a story not fit for print!)
Julie Borgwardt Wankowski ’92 De Forest, Wisconsin

My second-semester freshman calculus class on differential equations completely baffled me. The only learning technique was to memorize sequences of steps, never really understanding the subject. That said, it seemed the final exam went well — a thought rudely proven wrong when the postcard came with a grade of about 50 percent. In the fall, after the three-month summer break, a visit to the instructor was in order to see what happened. He pulled the exam and we looked at each wrong answer. He never said anything; I saw immediately what was wrong and what the correct answer was. Too bad we didn’t have those three months between the classes and final exam!
Paul Darbo ’72
Fair Oaks, California

It was junior year, English Literature: 18th Century American Authors (Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain.) I liked Melville, loved Twain, could barely read Hawthorne. I was fairly well prepared. After all, it was an essay test. I rammed through Melville and Twain, and then went back to Hawthorne. I pondered, trying to find my voice. I pondered some more, then put my head down to ponder some more. Perhaps I snored, because a tap on my shoulder by the student next to me caused me to jump awake. I looked at the clock. Twelve minutes left. I began to write furiously, all the while thinking about how much I hated Hawthorne and every one of his seven gables. The TA was pulling the blue book from my desk as I finished the last sentence. The grades came back: A, A, C = B+ Damn Nathaniel Hawthorne and all his works.
Thomas Alt ’71
Evergreen, Colorado

I graduated in 1950, so I'm sure the woman who taught this class is no longer on the faculty. At this time, I do not even recall her name. I'll never forget her final exam, however. It was the first and only time I ever cheated on a test. Like most students, I reviewed the work of the semester. Studied my lecture notes. Worked with another student to anticipate what questions we might expect. When we settled into the room for the exam, she announced there were only three questions. 1. What is the title of your textbook? 2. What is the name of the author? 3. What are the titles of the 10 chapters in the book? Amid the groans and moans of the students she left the room. After a short delay, a male voice from the back row said, “The title of my textbook is …” Then he named the author and slowly read the chapter titles. Every student in the class got an A on the exam and nothing more was ever said about it.
Jim Bie ’50
Palm Desert, California

At 8 a.m. on a cold January morning, after cramming all night, I trudged up to Bascom Hall for my final in Math 211: Calculus for Non-Math Majors. In those years it was required for a BA to have 20 credits of math, language, or both. I thought four credits of math was doable. I arrived at 7:50 a.m. and was met by my TA who asked me what I was doing there. He said it was useless taking the exam — nothing would help me pass the course! Stunned, I thanked him and in a bit of a daze went to work. I had a part time job with the state senate. Since I wasn't expected they gave me the worst assignment: raising the flag on top of the senate side of the capitol. Only this was the first day of session, and I was accompanied by a photographer from The Capital Times. Next morning my picture appeared on the front page climbing up to the roof and raising the flag. My 15 minutes of fame! All because I didn't take my math exam! My TA was blown away. My parents liked the picture but were not amused by my grades: 1 A, 3 Bs, and an F! Needless to say, my GPA suffered a bit. But I did manage to graduate and was awarded a Ford Fellowship to graduate school and went on to law school. But that's another story.
H Stephen Halloway ’69
Fernandina Beach, Florida

My memories of and relationship with the University of Wisconsin range from the fatuous to the awe-inspiring. They are deeply interwoven in the very fiber of my being. In fact, the relationship is on-going with me and in my family’s past, present, and future.

My Wisconsin roots go back to before 1840, when my progenitors arrived in Madison. Great Grandfather, Herbert R. Bird, who was born in Madison, trained as a 13-year-old drummer boy at Camp Randall before joining Grant’s army in the western Civil War campaigns. After the War, he attended Wisconsin for a couple of years before transferring the Rush Medical School, in Chicago, for his MD. Wisconsin didn’t have a medical school in 1870. I have dozens of relatives, who are Wisconsin alumni, including my grandfather and, of course, my father, with his three Wisconsin degrees. My father was a professor and department head at Wisconsin, when I attended.

My first Badger football game was on 18 November 1950, at the University of Pennsylvania (the closest game my father – the truest, reddest, archetypal Badger - could find during our years in Washington DC, where I was born). We lost 0 to 20. I can still hear my father singing, “If you want to be a Badger…”, “Don’t send my boy to Harvard, the dying mother said…”, and, of course, ‘On Wisconsin’ and “Varsity”, as we drove to Philadelphia. My mother preferred, “A hot time in the old town tonight.” In short, when my inevitable enrolment transpired, I could ill afford to be on any Wisconsin dean’s BLACK list.

In the fall of 1960, I checked into 304 Swenson House, Kronshage Hall, for my freshman year as a dormie. (Jeff Greenfield, the Public Broadcasting System’s venerable expert on the USA political system, was just down the hall at 306.) I got there the easy way. As a Wisconsin high-school graduate (by then, we had moved to Madison and I graduated from West High), I was assured of a place at the UW, at least for a one-semester try-out. The only requirement was that I let the school know that I was coming. I took no tests, provided no letters of recommendation, or stellar grades, or exemplary public service record. It was all too easy and the ease may have been the root of my freshman problems.

Registration week was a blur of excitement, moving into the dorms, queuing up at the course-registration tables, buying books at Browns and the University Bookstore, or a steak sandwich at Shorty and Lammy’s Brathouse. I even attended one or two of the presentations that the university staged to introduce us freshmen to the trials and rigors of college life. I remember an assistant dean lecturing us on the pitfalls and how to navigate them. He said, “Look to your left and to your right, only one of the three of you will graduate.” I looked left and right; but, what did that mean to me? Wasn’t I predestined to attend and graduate from the University of Wisconsin?

Of all the wonderful things that befell me during that registration week, the ultimate was wandering through the Rathskeller to find my ‘place’ at a table under an inscription that included the partial German phase, “…wollen und sollen” (Is it still there? What was the rest of that inscription?).

I was intimately familiar with the Wisconsin Union. My family seemed to go there every Sunday, after church, for dinner. However…that was the world of a faculty-member’s family…and a strict Protestant, teetotaling family it was! We stayed in the brightly lit part of the Union and dined at Tripp Commons. We only strayed as far as the art gallery, if the artwork was…appropriate. Now, as a properly registered freshman, I could descend into the nether world of the Rathskeller. I was ‘in’. I was duly registered. I had, at least, a temporary right to be there, before I was discovered to be a fraud.

I embraced the raucous college-student world wholeheartedly. I wore army-surplus clothing, recited Beat poetry, hung out with African-Americans from Alabama and Detroit, Jews from New York and Chicago, Germans and Scandinavians from Wisconsin. We were the Internationalists; intellectual, amoral, and…oh, so political. I played pool and drank beer and cut classes. How obtuse of a university administration to assign me to a calculus class that met at 3:30 on Friday afternoon. There’s a game tomorrow! I have to be ready…and ready started at noon on Friday.

At the expense of calculus, I got to be sort of good at pool. My roommate, Buzz (his real name…I see no reason to protect him) got to be very good; but, he had his own cue. That kind of intimidation went a long way. My moment of glory came late one Saturday night at the first table (just into the Ratskeller from the main hallway) when I nearly beat Franky the Stickman at nine ball. Franky was cool. He lived in a bipolar world of sex and pool; hence, his nickname. Anyway, Franky was having a bad night. I was even up for a while; and, that attracted a big crowd, mostly of Franky’s acquaintances. They were giving him a hard time for losing to an unranked Honky. In the end, Franky beat me because he was good at cheating, as well as at pool (and every cheat was loudly applauded and cheered by the crowd). I was happy to pay up. It was all part of the game and it was exhilarating to be in the good graces of Franky and his friends.

I wish I could tell you about some of my academic achievements during that first semester; but, I can’t remember any. There were some vaguely related events, of note.

I quickly changed schools when, after a couple of weeks, I realized that engineering wasn’t cool. I had to find something in the humanities…maybe the exclusive club of the Integrated Liberal Studies program. Everyone I knew wanted to be in ILS. Some wanted it so much that they said they were in it, even if they weren’t.

I was able to do enough pushups and sit-ups to escape the Physical Education Department’s mandatory basic fitness classes. I enjoyed paddle ball for the rest of the year. I took ROTC seriously….at first. Wisconsin is a Land Grant College. Land Grant colleges are a product of Congress’s Morrill Act (1862), which granted the proceeds, from federally controlled land, to states to fund colleges that taught practical agriculture, engineering and military science. The State of Wisconsin signed up the university for that program; and, along with it came the military science courses to provide militarily trained, university-educated citizen-soldier officers to the USA’s military forces. I was more than happy to do my part; so, I looked forward to the classes of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC.

ROTC was fun! I was the only participant who had a uniform that fit; so, I always got top marks at inspection (even though I never polished my shoes or my brass). I discovered, on the shooting range, that with well-placed bullets, I could knock down two of the target silhouettes per shot. On the marksmanship test, I got 27 hits out of 25 shots; and, I was awarded a Marksmanship Medal.

I eventually got into trouble because I knew how to march. (I was once the drum major for my junior-high matching band. That may sound cool; but, it wasn’t) I was selected for the ROTC’s honorary crack-drill team and promoted to corporal. That may sound cool; but, it wasn’t. For one thing, it was too much work for a guy who looked to just ‘slip through’. For another, my unkempt hair was beginning to show over my ears and under my uniform hat. When I quit, I had to formally present myself (full uniform, salutes and all) to the unit’s commanding officer, Major Something. He thanked me for my participation and told me that I had a good record. He hoped that I would rejoin, at some later date. Then, he said, “When you rejoin…cut your hair.” That, and the body language that came with it, sent a chill through me that, ever since, has kept me away from the military.

The toughest thing that I had to do, during that first semester, was trudge up the steps of Hiram Smith Hall to the second-floor office of the Chairman of the Poultry Department, Dr Herbert R Bird, for periodic interactions with my father. It was at these times that my mask and costume of the all-knowing university scholar, the cognoscenti, were stripped away. My only defense was to put a spin on my activities in such a way that it gave my father what I thought he wanted. I was enough of a sociopath to do that; but, I was enough of a cognoscenti to know that I would eventually have to fess up. Don’t get me wrong, none of the problem was with my father. He was a wonderful father, beyond belief. Just to give you one example, he was such a good Christian that he forgave me for spurning Christianity. That was what made those trips to his office so hard. I knew that, by not performing academically, I was letting him down…and worse…he would forgive me for it.

The problems that precipitated my consternation, as I trudged up the Hiram Smith steps, were probably much more worrisome to me than to my father. As a department chairman, after all, he did appear to have a capacity for handling many problems (including those of his children). We still had our great relationship. I still attended family Sunday dinner, where my opinions were accepted, if not always fully appreciated. I also had the advantage of being the only child, of four, who liked sports. My father and I went together to all the Badger sports events, except for football. After football, basketball was our favorite. I rarely accompanied him to a football game. His faculty pair of tickets was reserved for my mother and him. He was the ultimate Badger fanatic. As the clock ticked down in Wisconsin’s first Rose Bowl victory (1994), my first and foremost thought was, I wish he were still here to see this.

That first semester ended with a bang. I whimpered; but, the semester, for me, ended with a brutal BANG.

Buzz called me at home on a cold January day, about a week after the first semester ended. Buzz was also a Madison boy. I had known him throughout high school and we had become good friends. We were great roommates, never in each other’s way and always ready for a game of pool or gin. Our gin game didn’t end until the day we moved out of the dorms. He was well up at the time. I can’t remember, now, if I ever paid up. He, as I did, often went home for a day, or more. As this was between semesters, we both had abandoned 304 Swenson. “Bill, you’d better go down to the dorms and pick up your mail.” As roommates, Buzz and I shared one of those old-fashioned combination-lock mail boxes, which were located in a bank of boxes at the Kronshage dining and administration center.

“Why? What’s in the box?” At this point, I could make out the beginnings of a snicker or giggle. “It’s not for me. It’s for you. You should go down and get it.” Now, I was sure that he was giggling; although, he was trying to stifle it. “I’m not going all the way down there. You saw it. What is it? Is it a grade card? I still haven’t got a couple of grades back.” “I don’t know what it is. Well, I think it’s a grade card.” He was laughing uproariously, now. It was a kind of mischievous, maybe evil laugh. “Tell me what was on it, when you took it out. What course was it?” “I didn’t take it out. I didn’t open the box. I could just see it through the little window.” He was beside himself with laughter. He could hardly spit out these few words, “Goddamn it! Tell me what it is!” I was starting to laugh, too. “It’s a big red ‘F’!”Red is good, sometimes…and sometimes not. A red Badger tee shirt is good. A red letter ‘F’ is not.

At this point, Buzz was trying to apologize, as he continued his convulsive laughter. He was not doing well. Later, I imagined that, after he hung up, he was holding his sides and rolling around on the floor in uncontrollable mirth.

But… I accepted his apology, such as it was. My laughter subsided to a weak whimper of, “Ha, ha, ha.” Buzz and I were used to this kind of ‘banter’. At times, we tormented each other with our black, even cruel humor, knowing full well that our friendship could take it. My dead cold feeling wasn’t caused by him, the messenger. It was the grade.

I did go down to get my ‘mail’. I sort of sidled up to one side of the box and took a quick peek. I looked away. Nothing had changed. The big red ‘F’ neatly filled the little window in the mailbox door. The last verse of “Casey at the Bat” came to mind.

Calculus had been a pesky course all semester. The 1:20 PM lectures put me to sleep and it was nearly impossible to get to that 3:30 PM Friday quiz section (never again, would I agreeably sign up for an afternoon class). When I did make the 3:30, the instructor always asked if I were in the right room…He didn’t recognize me. As I went into the final exam, I was sure that I would slip through. All I needed was a ‘40’ on the final and I would have my ‘D’. My final exam grade was ‘37’.

As the full weight of a five-credit ‘F’ started to sink in, I could find no ‘manic’ to counter my ‘depressive’ state. I just sort of ‘vegetated’ for a week. Believe me; it was tough to tell my parents. In the short run, I was fine. Even with the big red five-credit ‘F’, I had a 1.5 grade point average, well above the low first-semester ‘flunk-out’ limit of 0.5. Still, I was on notice. In the long run, I had to beat a 1.5 by the end of the second semester; or, I would ‘flunk out’. I wasn’t thinking much beyond the end of the next week, as I queued up at the second-semester course-registration tables that January. My courses included retaking calculus. With new resolve and a different approach (I stopped playing pool); I was able to begin the second semester with a bit of an upbeat feeling. It worked. My overall two-semester grade-point average at the end of the year was 2.1. Buzz didn’t stop playing pool and he didn’t make the cut. He joined the army, while I looked forward to a sophomore year, just ahead of the voracious ‘F-for-fraud’ beast.

I still remember that big red ‘F’. It and its story are first in my mind when I happen to think about the courses and stories of my academic career. I still can see it behind that little window in the dorm mailbox door; the vivid red, the shape of the handwriting…winking at me. I still can see it on my Wisconsin transcript. Those were the days when a satisfactory repeat of a failed course did not remove the original ‘F’ from the transcript. But, I want it there. I love that ‘F’.

When I graduated, after five intense years of labor and love, I thought of that ‘F’ as I walked away from the Camp Randall graduation ceremonies. I thought, now, I deserve to be here, I passed (most of) the tests and the Administration awarded my degree. Nothing can take it away. I’m not a fraud. I deserve it; but, the big red ‘F’ of the fraud beast is still lurking.
My work and Wisconsin’s reputation got me into graduate school, where I completed a PhD. My parents’ faith in me was vindicated. And Buzz? Buzz came back to Wisconsin and graduated with me; but, with a better grade-point average. His PhD is from Stanford.

Wisconsin? I’m glad you asked. It’s in my blood; or, at least, in my RED blood cells. Wisconsin is part of my ‘whole’ and it can’t easily be dissected or discussed as individual isolated incidents. One thing leads to another, and an incident becomes a story, and the story is not just a memory. It’s not the past. It is all part of my glorious present.
William Bird ’65
Victoria, British Columbia, Can

My Wisconsin roots go back to before 1840, when my progenitors arrived in Madison. Great Grandfather, Herbert R. Bird, who was born in Madison, trained as a 13-year-old drummer boy at Camp Randall before joining Grant’s army in the western Civil War campaigns. After the War, he attended Wisconsin for a couple of years before transferring the Rush Medical School, in Chicago, for his MD. Wisconsin didn’t have a medical school in 1870. I have dozens of relatives, who are Wisconsin alumni, including my grandfather and, of course, my father, with his three Wisconsin degrees. My father was a professor and department head at Wisconsin, when I attended.

In 1974, the hockey team just got back from Boston, winning NCAA championship. Everyone was tired from being at the games or watching it on TV. There was a Monday 8:00 a.m. anatomy exam: 200 pins on three cadavers, you must match that body parts to the number.

There were about 12 members of the team all beat [who didn’t have] much time to study. Getting to the exam early. there was a note on the door: “Due to the hockey team’s victory, I have moved final exam to next Monday, sometime.”
Scott Wille ’74
Indian Land, South Carolina

During the fall semester of the 1973-74 academic year, I took Economics 301: Intermediate Pricing Theory from Professor Morgan Reynolds ’65, MS’69, PhD’71. Our final exam was scheduled for 7:30 a.m. on the Saturday at the end of the semester. When exam time arrived, Professor Morgan was not at the test site. A few minutes later he arrived to tell us he had locked the exams overnight in the economics department’s safe and that the department secretary was en route to the office to unlock the safe. He said he did not know the secretary wasn’t planning to come to the office on Saturday.

He assured us that the exam would not take the full two hours scheduled. However, there were a few students (including me) that were taking a money and banking final exam from Professor Smolensky at 10 a.m. that morning.

We were able to start the exam around 8 a.m. True to his word, Professor Reynold’s exam was short enough that the money and banking students were able to get to that exam on time.

Professor Reynolds left UW a few years later. He earned notoriety in 2005 when he implausibly claimed that no commercial airliners were involved in the 9/11 attacks and that the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job.”
Jeff Holtmeier ’75
Rehoboth Beach, Dela

The year did not start out right in 1986. The first week back to class, as a freshman, and I came down with 103-degree fever and a peri-tonsil abscess and ended up at University Hospital for a week. This all happened on the day of the Challenger explosion. A day I’ll never forget.

Since I missed the first couple weeks of classes, my grades greatly suffered. I don’t think many of the professors believed my excuse. I missed a political science exam because the exam dates escaped me. Was I on my death bed? No. I couldn’t make it up. Luckily the professor only counted the higher graded midterm towards my final grade. I got lucky in that class.

First semester calculus (good old Thomas & Finley) was a beast. I didn’t understand it once I got back to attending the lectures. I met numerous times in after class sessions with my TA, but continued to score poorly. I should have dropped the class, but I was bound and determined, and very stubbornly so, to make it work. The night before the final exam, in put on my Dire Straits album, ironically, and studied the first half of Thomas & Finley textbook and did very well on the test, and passed the class.
Debra Walker ’89
Parker, Colorado

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