Day one. Human Physiology 201. A tentative enthusiasm diffused through the room. Exhilaration often accompanies unfamiliarity. Most “day ones” start off the same and “Human Phys” was typical in that regard. The professor, Dr. Hines, was a diminutive man in his early fifties with wire-rimmed bifocals and sporting one of those crew-cut haircuts that men with thinning hair often go to. And, despite the fact it was thirty some years ago that on “day one” I sat in the second to the last row, I remember being impressed by the man. Seems scientists do not need chiseled physiques to impress.
Introductions were brief. Dr. Hines held up copies of the textbook and lab manual and, just about that quickly, put them to one side of the lab table which would serve as his desk and lectern for the remainder of the course. Then, with an enthusiasm and body language that not-so-subtly proclaimed, “now for the important stuff,” he picked up the stack of light green papers we had all been staring at since we arrived. He did not have to tell anyone of us, the most important issue that day would be the four page document he began to distribute. We knew (as every student does) that the syllabus was the focal point, not only of day one, but of the entire class. Schedule, expectations, grading scale, research papers, quizzes, tests, comprehensive final exam.
Now, a final exam is a final exam…. unless it’s a comprehensive final exam. “Comprehensive final” changes the dynamics for the whole course. “Comprehensive final” means you are accountable for all the material…. twice. Once for the unit test. And again for the final exam.
“Comprehensive” means you cannot throw away your notes after the first test.
“Comprehensive” is a seed of dread which, when first read on page three of that light green syllabus, trickles down into a groove in our brain, nestling up against some fertile gray matter. We try to not let it get to us but, like a tiny rock in our shoe, it nags and irritates, compelling us to acknowledge it and say, “I know! I know!”
As I reflect and write, I remember being more than a little perturbed that the final would not only test us on the course material covered by all previous tests (as if that’s not bad enough), but over the last unit of new material which we were just covering for the first time. The breadth and difficulty of material we were responsible for knowing, coupled with the stress of learning brand new material just days before the final made it one of those “killer” exams.
Mind you, since day one I have loved the study of physiology. I relish the struggle of learning complex and difficult things about how the human body functions. So when you hear me vent my spleen about a test I took more than half my life ago, understand that I enjoyed and excelled at the topic. The most important things to be learned in life, however, are not in the textbook. And it is only through retrospect I have learned this: realizing that we cannot know and master everything is, in fact, the most important thing we can know.
I remember the final. Thirty-some years removed and I still remember it. That is just sick, isn’t it? I cannot remember where I put my glasses five minutes ago, but I can remember, verbatim, one of my responses on a college final over 30 years ago.
I studied hard for that test. As hard as anyone, I am sure. The enormity of the material was overwhelming but I had given it my all. I showed up to the exam armed with a couple hours’ sleep, two sharpened #2’s, and a cup o’ joe by now sloshing its way through my jejunum. The test was part multiple choice, part essay.
Now, notwithstanding my level of command of test material, I am a good multiple choice test taker, so I did pretty well on that portion of the exam. I remember the essay questions to be tough, but not unanticipated.
Except for one. I do not even remember the question. All I remember is that I did not know the answer and it was not one of those questions for which you could reply with a muddled-through answer, hoping for partial credit. For this question, either you knew the answer or you did not.
I did not know the answer and knew I could not muddle through one.
There is something, however, about leaving a question blank. Somehow I could not bring myself to conclude my favorite class in my favorite subject with an unanswered question.
With just minutes left, words came and in humility (and, I admit, with a smile on my face) I wrote the following response to a question for which I did not have an answer…
“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, I cannot attain unto it.”
That day, in addition to proving my ability to answer some questions, I admitted my inability to answer them all. Some things are just too lofty, too wonderful. I find myself agreeing with Dr. Richard Swenson, who wrote, “The body. Never presume to fully understand it--physically, spiritually, or ecclesiastically. Instead, stand in awe at the kind of God who can package atoms in such a mystical, glorious form.” (More Than Meets the Eye). I really did not expect any credit for answering a physiology question with a Bible verse that day.
And received none.