Blue Book by
(90 Stories)

Prompted By Exams

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I assume we college graduates of a certain age all have a Pavlovian, and not entirely happy,  reaction to any references to blue books.  Here is my one semi-amusing blue book story.

" [T]he final grades [were to be] based solely on the grades of the papers, but...any student opting for this waiver nonetheless had to show up for the final exam, sign his/her name in a blue book and remain in the exam room for at least half of its 3-hour duration before being allowed to be dismissed.  [The section leader] was apologetic; many of us were apoplectic...

Spring semester of my freshman year, I took Hum 5, a typical lower level gen-ed course on philosophy; you know, all the Great Minds in easily digestible pieces.  The professor who dispensed the wisdom in large lectures was Rogers Albritton, known himself for being a Great Mind, but also for publishing very little; thus he had the sobriquet “Allbutwritten” in academic circles.

I remember even more particularly our section leader, a graduate student named Betty Katz.  She had a huge, flaming red “Isro” (our term for Jewish Afros) and was the archetypal brilliant but absent-minded scholar who could barely get a sentence out before another great idea came into her head and interrupted any coherent flow of her (many) thoughts.

At one point during the semester, Betty announced that, because there were two fairly lengthy papers required for the course, if we felt comfortable with the grades we received on them, we could accept their average as the course grade in lieu of taking the final exam.  That was really good news for me, as I had aced both of the papers and was just fine with my grade.

The bad news came just before the end of the semester, when Betty sheepishly announced that she had failed to timely submit the final exam waiver arrangement to the Powers That Be in the Harvard academic bureaucracy (the “PTB”).  And the PTB were as arbitrary and capricious as those sort of unbridled bureaucracies are.  In their infinite wisdom, they decreed that the waivers would be granted, and the final grades based solely on the grades of the papers, but that any student opting for this waiver nonetheless had to show up for the final exam, sign his/her name in a blue book and remain in the exam room for at least half of its 3-hour duration before being allowed to be dismissed.  Betty was apologetic; many of us were apoplectic, but the PTB had spoken.

But wait; it gets worse, at least for me.  When the final exam schedule came out, I had all but one of my exams clustered at the very beginning of the two-week exam schedule.  However, the Hum 5 exam, pursuant to some corollary of Murphy’s Law, was scheduled for the last afternoon of the exam period.  In short (or long), I had ten days of down time to kill before I had to simply write my name in the damn Hum 5 blue book.

But the Gods were not entirely frowning on me.  It turned out that the Red Sox, fresh off their “Impossible Dream” season, were in an extended home stay during that period, so I figured that I could just go to the Sox games most days and happily kill the time.  (In those days, Sox tickets were very cheap and always available.)  However, I soon found that getting company for the games was a bit problematic.  As soon as my pals finished their exams, they took off for their homes or summer jobs.  And most of my pals who had exams near the end of the period, unlike me, had to actually study for them, so were not too inclined to kill an afternoon at Fenway.  So I went to a lot of games solo, which was sort of fun, but also sort of sad.

Finally, the day came for the Hum 5 exam.  I was all packed and ready to drive home immediately afterwards and went into the exam room and was presented with my blue book.  To her credit, Betty also showed up and explained the situation to the exam proctors, lest they wonder what the reason was for the semi-exodus at the 1 1/2 hour mark.  Still, being neurotic about such things — I still am — besides putting my name in the blue book, I also wrote a fairly lengthy explanation in it as to the situation with the waiver and that I was opting for the waiver based on the advice provided by the PTB. I was also tempted to write something pretty snarky about the PTB and the stupidity of the whole exercise, but, showing greater restraint than I did about several years later when I had my Army physical (the subject of a previous story of mine), I restrained myself.

As I recall, we were at least allowed to bring something to read into the exam room so long as it didn’t relate to the course material.  I was on a Thomas Hardy binge then, so I probably followed the sad fate of Tess or Jude for most of the time.  We were told when the 1 1/2 hour time was up — as if we hadn’t been checking our watches every five minutes — and bravely handed in our blue books, as Betty smiled reassuringly at us.   I was not so sanguine, but, when I got my grades some time that summer, in turns out that the waiver arrangement had been honored.

Still, I never looked at a blue book quite the same, and always felt happier as I was filling page upon page of it with whatever I had to say.

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  1. Laurie Levy says:

    Like you, I took “all the Great Minds in easily digestible pieces.” What a perfect description. And the PTB forcing you to sit for the duration of a meaningless exam and wait 10 days to do so — totally insane and relatable. Thanks for sharing a great story.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Betty does sound like quite the scatter brain, but at least she kept her promise and all worked out well, if inconvenient. As a college student, it does seem rather sad that you had to go to the Sox games alone; even that you had to stick around all that time just to write your name on the blue book and sit for 1 1/2 hours. Hope at least the weather was good and you could sit by the Charles and catch some rays.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Betsy. Yes; I didn’t want to paint Betty as the bad guy in this story; more the hapless “McGuffin” who created the issue. I googled her to see if she was an esteemed emeritus professor of philosophy somewhere, but couldn’t find anything about her.

  3. Suzy says:

    Poor you, suffering at Red Sox games while everyone else was feverishly studying! Of course you could have gone home to Connecticut for the 10 days, but what would be the fun in that? Sounds like you had a pretty sweet deal from Betty, even if she did blow it with the PTB.

    PTB is an excellent term, I’m going to have to figure out how to use it in the future! And by the way, who is Anne Taylor, and what are you doing with her blue book from Philosophy 368?

    • John Shutkin says:

      In fact, I checked with my pals back home in CT, and they were generally not around then, so I figured getting home cooked meals, and little else, wasn’t worth the extra trip.

      I got the blue book image off the internets, so no idea who Anne Taylor is. Didn’t she go on to own some women’s clothing stores?

  4. Marian says:

    Cool story, John. Fortunately, Mills, as a very small college, didn’t have that much of a bureaucracy, and we just wrote papers if that’s what the professor wanted. I remember “Yisros” well from my Brandeis time, hadn’t thought about that in a while!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Marian. Actually first heard about “Isros” (how we spelled it) from Brian Newmark, who was a basketball player at Harvard — and younger brother of Dave Newmark, an even better basketball player at Columbia — in a newspaper interview. The reporter also asked Brian if his nickname, “Bru,” was short for “brute.” No, he replied, it’s short for “Brooklyn Jew.”

  5. Brings back memories! Thanks for sharing.

  6. Brings back memories! Great story – Thanks for sharing.

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