Now it can be told: I got my B.A. by sheer luck. I say sheer luck because, if events were ordinary, I would have failed almost every course. Instead, when things looked impossible, some "Chance" idea pulled me out. Here is my story.
Professor Kolb (the students called him "King Tut") was especially rough that year. Some said that an editor had turned down his manuscript; others said that he was just tired of students. But whatever it was, exactly 63.6 percent of the class failed Egyptian History. And if it were not for sheer luck, I'd have raised the percentage to 65.4.
I remember most vividly the frightening pace of the lectures. No one could take notes as fast as “King Tut” talked, especially when he became excited. My frantic scribbling and almost indecipherable abbreviating were so slow that I missed more than half. Without complete notes, it was impossible to study. I was lucky to have gotten even the 38 on one exam. As the fellows used to say, the "handwriting on the 'sarcophagus'" was clear for me. I knew that my only chance for survival was to get fuller notes.
That night after the exam grades came out, I tried to fall asleep—to forget my devastating grade for even awhile—but words like "hieroglyphics" and "rosetta stone" kept kaleidoscoping and rolling through my mind. As I mulled over my missing more than half of each lecture, I suddenly hit upon an idea: Why not leave every other line on my note paper blank? Then during the following period I could recall the lecture and fill in the missing portions. In deference to the ancients, I called this the "Osiris Plan."
The next day I tried the "Osiris Plan," and it worked! What luck! At first it was difficult to recall the lecture, but as days passed, it became sort of a game. Often, in the privacy of my room I would, in softer voice, imitate the old professor and try to redeliver the lecture as best as I could without looking at my notes. This mimicry almost got me into trouble, when, on a rare occasion, the professor called on me to answer a question. Stunned by being called, I jumped to my feet and for the first two sentences, before I caught myself, the fellows said I sounded "exactly like Old Tut."
One evening while quietly reciting the day's lecture to myself, I made an important discovery. In trying to make my presentation as smooth as possible (about this time I had begun imagining that I was a lecturer), I used the transitional words "Now that we have discussed the major reason for the phenomenal success of Pharaoh Hophra, let us look at the subsidiary reasons." At that moment I stopped still, for at no time did the professor ever cut up the lecture into topics and subtopics; nevertheless, the topics and subtopics were neatly packaged and embedded into the seeming onrush of words, waiting to be perceived by the student. With this secret in mind, I found that I could take better notes during the lecture, and during the periods after class I could very easily supply the missing portions, filling in the blank every-other-line.
I tried to share this find with other students, but they'd always say, "You're foolish to take all those notes. Just sit back and listen." Although this sounded too easy to be good advice, I was struck by the great intelligence of my fellow students who could remember the main ideas of lecture after lecture, just by listening. I knew I couldn't; so to hide my inferior intelligence, I continued taking notes, completing them directly after class, categorizing the ideas, supplying the titles and subtitles, and reciting the lectures.
Another incident finally convinced me of my intellectual inferiority when I found that the other students just "flipped the pages of the textbook. But poor me, I had to work on each chapter for hours. It was only luck that I wasn't found out, because the professor never quizzed us on our reading; everything depended on the final exam. I was luckier still when, looking in the library stacks for a book on Egyptian religion, I ran across an entire shelf filled with books on Egypt. I spent the rest of the day until 10:00 P.M. (closing time) perusing this lucky find. I finally picked out three books which were written in a style easy enough for me to understand, and I took these back to my room. By first reading these extra books, I found I could come back to the assigned chapter in the textbook and understand it better. I noticed that the author of our textbook frequently referred by footnote to these library books. So with luck I solved the textbook problem.
Well, all of this simply led up to the final examination. There I was with a notebook, about two inches thick, filled with lecture notes. Now, was I to memorize all these notes for the exam? And the textbook? Realizing that I didn't have the brains to memorize everything in my notes, I decided (this time without Osiris's help) to read each lecture bearing one focusing thought in mind: "What is the really important idea here?" As I found the answer, I'd jot this central point on separate sheets which I called "Summary Sheets." When I finished, I had "boiled" down inches of lecture notes to just twelve pages of "main issues." I then did the same with my textbook.
Thus armed, I aligned the "Summary Sheets" so that the main issues for both the lecture and textbook synchronized. I learned these main issues by first reading them over, thinking about them, reflecting on them, then without looking at my notes, by trying to recite them in my own words. I went through my summary sheets in the same way, issue by issue.
I guess that I had played the role of the professor too long, because after having mastered these main issues, I composed ten questions — questions that I'd ask if I were the professor. Still having some time left, I pretended that I was in the examination room, and I spent the next four hours rapidly answering my own ten questions. I then corrected my answers by referring to the lecture and textbook notes, and much to my delight, I had discussed all the facts and ideas accurately. For the first time I felt that I had achieved something. I felt almost adequate. But the warm glow was short-lived. What if the professor didn't ask what I had staked my life on? Well, I thought, "It is too late to change." With the feeling that my luck had really run out, I half-heartedly studied for six more hours. I went to bed at 10:00 for a good night's sleep, having refused to go to the second show of a "relaxing" movie with the rest of the boys.
On the way to the examination room the next morning. I knew without question that my luck had run out when I met Jack, who sat next to me. He had not taken a single note all semester; he had not even gone through the motions of "flipping" the textbook pages. When I asked why he wasn't nervous, he answered, "This is the semester for Examination Set #4, the one dealing with dates, names of pharaohs, dynasties, battles, and so forth.”
"What's Examination Set #4?"
Everybody on campus except me, I guess, knew that old "King Tut” had five sets of examinations (ten questions in every set), which he rotated over a five-year period. Though "King Tut" collected the mimeographed questions from each student, he did not reckon with the organizing ability of fraternity students. The plan worked like this: Specific students were given the mission to memorize question #1, another group to memorize #2, and so forth. When the students left the examination room, they jotted down these questions quickly from memory and put them into the fraternity hopper. In this clever way all five sets of the examination found their way into the files of numerous students.
I knew then that even Osiris and Ra,3 put together, couldn't help me. I had studied relationships.
The room was hot, yet others complained of the cold. My mind reeled. I knew my luck had run out. Dimly, as the examination sheets were passed up each row, I heard successive moans of various kinds: "Oh, No!" "No!" and occasional uncontrolled, almost hysterical laughter. I thought that perhaps the professor had by mistake given out Exam #5 instead of the anticipated #4.
By the time the sheets reached me (I always sat in the rear corner of the room where it was quieter) I, too, involuntarily gasped, "Oh! It can't be." I closed my eyes and waited for my vision to clear so that I could read the ten questions. They were the same ten questions that I had made up only yesterday — not in the same order, but nevertheless, the same ten questions. How could that be? One chance in a million, I'm sure. How lucky can one get? I recovered my composure and wrote and wrote and wrote.
"Old Tut" gave me a 100 plus. He penned a note saying, "Thank goodness for one good scholar in all my years of teaching." But he didn't know the long line of luck that I had, and I never told him.
Now that twenty years have passed, I think that it is safe to reveal that here is one fellow who got his B.A. just by sheer luck.