It is a nightmare: I am at university, and I have to pass a difficult exam. It is an oral examination, for which I have prepared, but probably not enough. I am nervous. The Professor’s office is in an old building, down a long corridor. Outside the room, a few students are waiting their turn. I go sit with them. I don’t know any of them. One of the girls greets me and says something. I don’t understand her. It sounds like what she is saying is “So, how many times have you tried this one?” I mumble something about this being my first time. (And hopefully my last! But I don’t even have the courage to say that. This, I feel, is no time for being over-confident.) I go through my notes, like everybody else does. After a few minutes, the door opens and out comes The Professor. I have never seen this man before.
“Who is next?”, he asks. The student sitting closest to the door gets up, miserably, and follows The Professor in. Something is wrong, I think. I look over at the person next to me, who is going through his notes like everyone else. I look at his notes. They don’t look familiar. “Ahem, excuse me,” I say, “could I have a look at this?” He hands me the lecture notes he has been reading. A soft-bound book with a yellow cover, just like mine. Except, everything in there is different. All the text. All the numbers. All the chapters. It’s not the same. Something is very wrong.
Exam nightmares are quite common, and many have a similar Kafkaesque quality to it. So it is very possible, reader, that you can relate to this. There is a difference in this case though. It was not a dream.
It actually happened, and fittingly for a Kafkaesque experience, it happened in Prague. I had arrived there a few months earlier, in winter of 2003, as a hopeful Erasmus exchange student. I was equipped with elementary language skills, a dictionary, and a large box of instant cappuccino (a gift from my uncle who was at the time working in the coffee machine industry). What could possibly go wrong?
The first lecture I went to, “Physical Chemistry for Biologists”, was tough. I understood just enough to gather what the recommended textbook was, where we could purchase lecture notes and that there was an oral exam at the end, for which it was necessary to sign up on a sheet of paper posted on the institute’s noticeboard. I was quite proud to have understood all that, even though I understood literally nothing else. After the lecture, I went on a quest to find said sheet of paper on said noticeboard. I am afraid to report I got quite lost on the endless corridors of the natural science faculty. In the end, I did find a sheet of paper that said “fyzikální chemie”, signed up for an exam slot, took careful note of the date, time and location, and that was that. This is where I must have gone wrong. Trying to reconstruct events later, the only possible explanation I can come up with is that I ended up in the wrong institute and accidentally signed up to take a physical chemistry exam for a completely different course (like chemistry maybe, or physics), with a different focus, different content, different textbook, different level of difficulty, and different prof. Of course, I did not know that at the time.
When I returned to the Physical Chemistry lecture a week later, I already had the lecture notes and textbook, and was determined to understand as much as possible from the lecture. I understood next to nothing. After an hour, there was a short break. During the break, the student sitting next to me turned to me and said something. I didn’t understand what she was saying and replied politely, with my new most-frequently-used phrase: “Nerozumím”, I don’t understand. At the same time I thought, how funny … that sounded like she was asking whether there’s a test now. But obviously, I must have misunderstood. – A minute later, the professor came in and handed out the tests. In my three hours of lecture so far, not only had I not understood most of the content, I had also completely missed the fact that there was going to be a test! It was clear to me that going to lectures was not a winning strategy, and because attendance was not mandatory, I decided to prepare for the exam at home, with my books, my dictionary, and my copious amounts of instant cappuccino.
I fared better in the other courses. The lab-based courses were smaller and therefore more accommodating of a student who faced a language barrier. In the Developmental Biology practical, I was the only student, and the postdoc who supervised my experiments had found an English-language description online. In Analytical Chemistry, they paired me with a bench partner who spoke German, and allowed me to answer the questions on the final exam in English.
So, I made it through the semester. Since my course load was rather low, I had a lot of spare time. I went for long walks and explored Prague. I started running. I went to the cinema whenever I could. I read books, one of which so mesmerising that I missed my tramway stop, missed the last stop on the line, and ended up trapped in an empty tramway car in the depot. (But that’s another story.)
The Physical Chemistry exam was the last one in the semester. I was nervous about it. Though I had spent time preparing, studying an unfamiliar subject in an unfamiliar language is not easy and, looking back, I probably did not use the most efficient study strategies. Still, I was going to give it my best shot. And then the nightmare happened. The long corridor, the professor I had never seen before, the unfamiliar lecture notes.
A few weeks ago, the hashtag #myworstgrade was popular on Twitter. Successful people used it to look back at low points in their educational career and how that did not stop them from becoming … well, successful people. Some report a C or even a B minus as their worst grade. I can only laugh at that. Pah, I think, lightweights! Look at me! I didn’t just get a bad grade or fail an exam. I didn’t even manage to sign up for the exam in the first place! Surely, that’s master-level failure.
What did I do about it? I made a decision in the blink of an eye. I got up and left. Walking back along the long corridor, I had a moment of anxiety. I did a quick calculation in my head: Did I need those credits for my scholarship? No, I had enough credits from my other course. That was alright then. I walked out of the building, into a beautiful summer day, and into freedom.