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Prompted By Exams

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When I entered Brandeis, it still had a General Education requirement, so I had to take courses across varying disciplines, not only in my major of Theatre Arts. I wanted to get all those requirements done quickly, so freshman year, I took French 10 (all literature, read in French), Humanities 1 (all literature), Theatre Arts 1 (all literature) and Math 10 (Algebra). I did a LOT of reading. The syllabus for Hum 1 alone would bring anyone to her knees. I read everything for every course until the very end. I read the Monarch Notes for “War and Peace”. I thought I’d earned it. Hum 1 had papers sprinkled throughout the semesters, but the rest just had one final exam, taken over several hours, written in a blue book; long form answers to thought-provoking questions.

For me, the most challenging course was Algebra. I’ve never gotten along well with numbers. My brain just isn’t built that way. And this course, standard for freshmen, had many sections and was taught by graduate students. Our first teacher was French, spoke with a heavy accent and pronounced “integer” with a hard “g” like “grr”. We had a difficult time following what he was saying and protested. He was replaced by Ron Simkover; a real improvement. He took a liking to me and I sought some out some private help as well. I also decided to take the course Pass/Fail. This was a new concept in 1970. We could take one course a semester Pass/Fail (but I still submit a self-addressed post card so I could find out what my grade would have been; the teacher didn’t know who took the course P/F).

I only took one semester of that course. I studied as hard as I could for the final exam and walked in full of dread. We had three hours and loads of problems to solve. Open your blue books NOW. I solved all I could, always showing my work for partial credit.

I came out sure that I had passed. Relief spread over me. It was also my last exam of my first term. I was done. I spent the evening watching my boyfriend play pinball in the game room of the new student union. Then we went back to his off-campus apartment and I lost my virginity to celebrate the end of the semester and passing Algebra. I had turned 18 a month earlier, so was no longer jailbait.

When the post card arrived, I actually got a “B” in that dreaded class, but it was worth the peace of mind to have taken it Pass/Fail.

There were no exams in my many acting or speech classes. We had to do final scenes or monologues. The scenes were assigned by our professor. We picked the monologues; one classic, one modern. I performed one from “Romeo and Juliet” (“Gallop apace you fiery-footed steeds”) and one from “The Fantasticks” (This morning a bird woke me up”). I still love both.

I took several more Theatre lit classes (several taught by Martin Halpern, Retrospect’s Suzy’s brother-in-law). We covered Ibsen (considered the father of modern drama) through Albee, who was quite current in 1973. Also, a fabulous Shakespeare class. All of those had prodigious blue book exams with thought-provoking questions about some deep topic delving into the readings from the semester. Since we had to write opinions and they were graded by graduate students, I was never sure how they could be graded. Why should someone pass judgement on my opinions?

I loved my Art History courses. The first was a standard survey course from Renaissance through Modern art. The semester I took it, Brandeis experimented and had four professors teach part of it, so Vico Borgo taught Renaissance, Bob Berger taught Baroque and a bit more, Carl Belz taught 19th century and Gerry Bernstein taught 20th century and was my section leader. The exam was identifying slides of famous paintings we had learned about throughout the semester.

I went on to take two more courses with Vico; Italian Renaissance and Northern Renaissance painting. The final for the latter class was not a blue book exam, but the most interesting project of my entire four years at Brandeis. We had to pick a painting from that era that we could actually SEE and study in person; the provenance, the history of its restoration, how it came into the collection, etc. As a lover of Tudor England, I chose Holbein’s Lady Margaret Butts at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston (they have Dr. and Lady Butts. Dr. Butts was Henry VIII’s court physician, Lady Butts was his wife).

“Lady Margret Butts”, Hans Holbein the Younger. Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum

I did as much research as I could going through sources in the Brandeis library. Finally, a week before the paper was due, I called the Gardner and drove over. This was 1974, long before the terrible theft 29 years ago. It was a sleepy little museum with few staff people. I spoke with the curator who was vaguely annoyed with me. “Not another one of you Brandeis students!” I assured her that I would be the last. We chatted for a few minutes. She was young. She asked if I knew Gil Schwartz. Indeed I did. He was a theatre major who graduated a year earlier and was working improv in Boston (he is now the VP of Communications at CBS and writes business books under the name Stanley Bing). He was also very handsome. She had been at a party with him the weekend before. We made that connection and I was home-free. She gave me a pair of white gloves and full access to the archives. I sat and read the actual letters that Bernard Berenson wrote to Mrs. Gardner when he saw the pair of paintings in England and convinced her to buy them in 1899. I was transported, sitting in a Gothic alcove, surrounded by history and enveloped in the lives of these famous people. Eventually, I went into the gallery and studied the paintings; both of them. I chose to write about the one that had less restoration work done on it through the ages.

This is the gallery from which the Vermeer and the two Rembrandts were stolen, years later. I took it personally. That was MY gallery. I had spent one of the best days of my life in that gallery and now no one will ever see it intact again. I loved doing that project. I learned a great deal. Much more than writing in any blue book.



Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: theater lit, Gen Ed requirements, Algebra, Brandeis
Characterizations: been there


  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Betsy, your stories about blue books and exams in general really resonated with me. I totally relate to your feelings about the algebra course. If I had to take that in college, I would have been terrified as well. I loved your details about the art history assignment.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, Laurie. I’ve been involved with the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis for 30 years now, on its Board for 22. It has the finest post-WWII collection of modern art anywhere in the Northeast, north of NYC; really extraordinary, and people are always surprised to learn that I was NOT a Fine Arts major. But my love of art history (which was begun at the DIA and Cranbrook) was reinforced in those courses, and particularly that day at the Gardner Museum, though it had nothing to do with Modern or Contemporary art. I just loved being in that world.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, Betsy. I particularly liked the range from the alpha — the terrifying blue book exam in algebra, a subject so dreaded — to the omega — the total, joyous immersion in the art project at the Gardner. It so nicely reflects the spectrum of emotions that we all had with college exams. And if the Vermeer and the Rembrandts are eventually found in your attic, we’ll understand.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, John. I don’t have an attic, but I’d turn those paintings in in a heartbeat. I cried my eyes out when I read about the theft in the Globe the morning after it occurred and have followed the story, transfixed, all these years. I was at the Gardner with a friend just a few weeks ago. After seeing the special exhibit, I took her up to “my” room and told her the story of my special day there, 45 years ago now. Then solemnly pointed out the bare spaces where the famous works once hung. Actually, the Vermeer was on a table in a small wooden frame. You could get a really good look at it. And “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” was Rembrandt’s only non-portrait painting.

  3. Suzy says:

    Great story, Betsy, and thanks for the shout-out to my bro-in-law (although he didn’t marry my sister until many years later). Your experience at the Gardner sounds wonderful – white gloves and full access to the archives, wow! Much better learning experience than writing in a blue book, I agree. Love that you consider it YOUR gallery, and sorry about your loss (of the stolen paintings).

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thanks, Suzy. I know your sister married Marty Halpern years later, but still…funny coincidence. I even stage-managed an original play he wrote my sophomore year. I knew him well, back in the day. Yes, the Gardner experience was truly exceptional. Five years ago, while working on my 40th reunion, the yearbook committee asked “what was your best day at Brandeis”. I didn’t choose that as one of the questions to answer for the yearbook, but pondered it for a while, then realized this day was it, even though, technically, it didn’t take place AT Brandeis (just while I was still a student there). I’ve later described it as transcendent.

  4. Marian says:

    This story brings back a lot of memories, Betsy. I had an economics class my first semester, which I promptly dropped, because I didn’t understand a word the Greek professor said. Alas, I got mononucleosis before I took any exams. Loved your art history recounting. Later at Mills I wrote about a Reubens painting by visiting the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and many years after that saw it again, when it had been cleaned. Didn’t look like the same painting.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I wrote about a Reubens for that first Art History survey class, one that is in the Boston MFA. I love to see it every time I visit. And the last time I was at the Gardner, a restorer was in a gallery, hard at work on a Titian, but out in the open for all to see. SO interesting. He answered questions as he worked, though also really had to concentrate on the subject at hand, so couldn’t always respond to everyone. And I confess, I switched from an all French section to one where the class was taught in English for my French 10; taught by M. Lipson. We also wrote our exam in English, just did all the readings in French. My French was good, but not that good!

  5. Marian says:

    My college French experience was the same as yours, Betsy. I took several French literature courses (being reasonably good after five years of high school French). If you weren’t majoring in French, you could write your exam in English. I enjoyed doing the reading and conversation in French.

  6. JeanZ says:

    I took one general survey of fine arts course in college. The viewing assignments were memorable. Even now whenever I go to the Boston MFA I always visit the piece that made the greatest impression on me, “Madonna in the Clouds” by Donatello. I had never been into any form of sculpture but that piece showed great 3D within a very narrow depth.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      On our first trip to Italy, we took the tour of the Borghese Villa. The Bernini sculptures were exquisite and just blew my husband away. He particularly liked Apollo chasing Daphne, as she turns into a tree to escape from him, her hands already turning into leaves. Though marble, they are so delicate. It is the photo background on his iPad. And, having longed to see it my whole life, I burst into tears at the sight of Michaelangelo’s David. I found it so powerful. Yes, art can do that to us.

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