Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Open Letter on the Eve of Finals

To all my freshmen students:

Tomorrow morning you start your very first round of final exams. Good luck! I hope they go really well - as well as you are hoping, even better than you are expecting.

My first semester in college, I started studying for my tests two weeks in advance. Trust me, I know exactly how stressful finals week is. So now, on the eve of all those big tests, I want to offer you a little encouragement.

First of all, you'll do fine. Have you studied? Showed up at class all semester? Paid attention? Then there's no reason to worry. Worrying can actually make you perform worse. Keep studying, and studying hard, but make wise decisions that are not influenced by your fears about the exam. Don't, for instance, skip a night of sleep to study a little more. Taking an exam on a foggy brain is not a wise move. Don't skip meals because you're nervous or studying too much. Taking an exam on an empty stomach is also not a wise move. You're smart and dedicated students, and you've got this. When final exam time comes, sit down, pull out that scantron, and trust God for the rest.

More importantly, remember this: Your finals are only a very small part of your academic education. Even your grade is only a very small part of your academic education. By "education", I'm not referring to the various life lessons that you learn living in the dorms, pitching in at church or holding down a job. I'm referring to what you actually take away from the course: The letter grade, whether it be an A or a C or even an F, is a poor indicator of what you've learned in any given class. I personally learned more in some of the classes I received a B in than in some of the classes I received an A in: Expository Writing, for instance.

Your final, scary as it seems right now, is not the most important part of the course. The most important part of the class is not the letter on your transcript; it is not the printed red number on the bottom of your scantron; it is not even the litany of facts and dates you may be able to rattle off afterwards. All that will be forgotten.

No, the most important part of the class is how it changes you. Do you think new thoughts? Have you picked up new habits? Found God somewhere unexpected? Do you see Him more clearly? Hopefully, the answer to this is Yes.

Perhaps the most life-changing class I took never had a final exam. I fell in love with my class in Milton, especially with the fiery anti-censorship tract, 'Areopagitica'. Yet days before the end of the semester my senior year, a campus-wide whooping cough epidemic forced administrators to close the school early. Faculty were given a choice between giving a shorter, earlier final exam or simply skipping the final altogether. As I remember, most of my teachers picked the first option, but Dr. S picked the second. She used that final class period to deliver one last lecture on Paradise Lost. This was not, or at least not entirely, out of kindness to the students; Dr. S was one of the hardest graders I ever had. No, her decision was a decision of priorities: Exams are important, but the truths that we learn in class, truths that perhaps cannot even be covered on the exam, are far more important.

I still have my notes from that class. According to my notes, the final books of Paradise Lost hold out, in defiance of Adam's fall, a promise of hope: that "All this good of evil shall produce" - in other words, that whatever errors we commit, Providence shall erase them, and correct the sum. That final class was the story of Redemption, of the foundation we believers have in divine grace. Such truths are, obviously, worth so much more than a grade on an exam.

You may not have a whooping cough epidemic to get you out of exams, but what you do have is this:  the opportunity, in every class you take at Emmaus, to discover such truths for yourself, and to be changed by them. Those of you who take English Composition with me have (hopefully) already made such discoveries: for instance, that all truth is God's truth, that sometimes the deepest truths (even the truth of the Gospel!) are communicated by story. Yesterday at lunch my student A. told me about a discovery she made in her Old Testament class: that Leviticus, despite its reputation for being a dull and legalistic book, was actually shot through with evidence of God's grace and His desire to walk close with His people.

Hold fast to these discoveries. Long after the exam is finished, long after you've forgotten your grade in the course, these truths are the ones that you will remember. These truths are what make your education worthwhile. They guarantee that not only your mind but your soul and spirit are growing as well, that you are being transformed into a thoughtful, Christlike individual.

Study hard for your exams, by all means. That's a good decision. But even more than that, study hard to discover, in every class, more of Truth, and more of Christ.

Good luck tomorrow!

Your teacher

1 comment:

  1. Megan, I loved this! Written like a true teacher: loving and encouraging. I wish I had read it a few days ago so I could have sent it to my students.