This time of year always reminds me of that great feeling of finishing that last fall semester final. Regardless of the outcome, the cessation of academic stress is gratefully replaced by the sensation of holiday stress and a few weeks of time found.
I’m thinking about finals because I’ve just heard on the radio Burl Ives’ rendition of “Holly Jolly Christmas." Whenever I hear that song, I cannot help but think about my biology final at
Atlantic Cape Community College in southern because the professor looked just like Burl Ives, though, to tell the truth, he resembled more the snowman on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. New Jersey
I dreaded my biology final. Every time I’d try to study for it, I would easily find more a more pressing activity like cutting my toenails. It wasn’t that I disliked the course; I just wasn’t into it. What made it even worse for me was the professor seemed to take the approach that everyone in the class was destined for a career in medicine or some sort of scientific hodge-podge which couldn’t have been further from my own aspirations. Science has never been a favorite subject of mine. I would much rather dissect fiction than frogs.
The morning of my biology final I woke up with a high fever. I had two finals scheduled for that day: Psychology of Adolescence/Adulthood and Biology of Our World, and I thought I would have been fine if I could only stop shivering. I popped a couple of Tylenol and drove to campus.
Midway through my Psych final my chest began burning with every inhale, I struggled to hold back coughs, and the little dots on the Scan-Tron form started moving around in dizzying swirling patterns. I randomly filled in the last five questions to put an end to the misery. But I still had a second exam in a half an hour. When I broke into uncontrollable fits of coughing, I realized I had little choice.
I walked into my professor’s office and explained to him my situation. Keeping to the other side of his desk, he jotted down his home phone number and told me to call him as soon as I felt better.
Four days later, two days before Christmas, I called him expecting to schedule a make-up exam for sometime during the first week of the spring semester. Instead he asked me what I was doing that afternoon and gave me directions to his home.
At his front door, I held out a doctor’s note, written evidence of my bronchitis, but he only smiled, bid me entrance and led me into his kitchen. The house was decorated for the holiday for both sight and smell. Hints of cinnamon and nutmeg lingered about boughs of garland, laurel and holly.
The professor offered me a seat at the table and asked if I liked mulled cider. I confessed that I had never tasted it. Cider was only served cold in my house, I told him. He smiled again, walked over to the counter and lifted the lid off of a crock-pot. What I had taken for a scented candle when I entered the house was actually the aroma emanating from this potion. He placed an oversized coffee mug in front of me and then handed me a stapled packet of papers. Enjoy, he said and then left the room.
I reached maybe the third question when his wife walked into the kitchen, placed a plate of holiday cookies and some napkins on the table, said she had some last minute shopping to do, wished me luck, and left the room. For the next hour and a half I worked on the exam interrupted only once when my professor refilled my cup and told me to help myself to more if I so desired.
When I was done, I took my test into his living room. The professor was sitting in an easy chair reading a book next to a Franklin Stove with doors ajar enough to show a glowing flame. The whole scene seemed almost too cliché to me, and yet there it was.
I thanked my professor for his trouble. He insisted that it was his pleasure, and he wished me a merry Christmas.
On my drive home “Holly Jolly Christmas” came on the radio.
Maybe it was the fact that what I presumed as a stogy science professor treated an undergrad in a gen-ed class with empathy and genuine kindness that had made a life-long impression on me, or maybe it was the image of the snowman that told me the story of Rudolph every year of my life sipping a mug of mulled cider, nibbling on a Christmas cookie and grading my exam because without any degree of certainty, I couldn’t name one thing that was on that test.