I sat back in the theater style seats of the lecture hall after my syntax class. I needed the support to cushion the blow to the stomach I’d received from getting back my syntax midterm. In big, red, unforgiving pen, circled at the top of the page was, “23%”. My heart was beating fast, my mouth had gone dry. How could I have let it get to this?

“What’d you get?” Asked my best friend Stewie Goode, returning to his seat beside me with his midterm in his hand. He peered over my shoulder curiously.

“I did okay,” I said quickly folding the midterm and shoving it in my bag. I knew exactly how I’d gotten myself into this. It was those 6 hours I’d spent playing Sims the night before the midterm, well into the early morning. Well, that coupled with the fact that I had no notes to review because I hadn’t taken any during the semester because I’d been too busy journaling, or sleeping during classes. “You?”

“A 94,” Stewie said frowning at his own midterm. “I wonder what I got wrong.”

He flipped through the thick booklet and stopped on page 4. His syntactic tree was heavily marked up in red pen. I was pretty sure I had gotten that one right. One of the few things I actually remembered from class. I looked at the sentence he’d drawn the tree for: The lamp fell off the table.

“It’s correct!” He claimed adamantly, confusion rising in his voice.

“You put the lamp as the agent,” I explained hesitantly. Was that it? Did I really know something Stewie didn’t? I pointed to the hint provided on the exam booklet: The lamp caused itself to fall*. Stewie pointed at it too, still confused. “That’s what it says. In the hint, it clearly states the lamp is the agent.”

“No…” I disagreed. I was sure of myself now. “The lamp caused itself to fall is syntactically incorrect. Lamps can’t cause themselves to fall. Lamps can’t be agents. It’s a null agent.”

“So then why is that hint there! It’s confusing!” Stewie rose out of his seat stubbornly. He started walking toward our professor Marsha, still at the front of the room, to complain.

“Stewie,” I called, rushing behind him. “It’s a hint. The asterisk means that, ‘The lamp caused itself to fall’ is syntactically incorrect. It’s supposed to help us.”

I watched horror creep across Stewie’s face as he realized I was right. He had missed the asterisk. He stopped dead in his tracks staring at the tiny star, frustrated that it had cost him a perfect grade. Frustration turned to anger as his face turned beat red. He whirled around, violently grabbed his bag from his chair and headed in the opposite direction toward the exit. “Let’s go.”

I followed behind him slowly. I’d never seen him so angry. I tried to help. “It’s just 6 points. You still got an A+.”

And I’d still gotten an F. Stewie gritted his teeth and just as we were leaving the lecture hall, punched the wall leaving a dent in the yellow drywall. He muttered something about being late for class and rushed out of the building. I found it hard to sympathize with Stewie’s position given my own. I felt bad for him, but I was devastated for myself. I would have killed for a 94. I would have done anything to get that kind of grade. Anything, of course, except pay attention in class, or study.

I walked to the bus stop with my head hung. I sat on a bench outside and took my midterm back out. I had gotten the question Stewie got wrong, right. The rest of what I had written was bullshit, though. I had just been so horribly unprepared. I could have punched a wall myself. I understood this stuff. Why hadn’t I just studied? Why did I always do this? Why couldn’t I just –

“Hey, how’d the midterm go?” Some random guy asked me, rudely cutting into my downward spiral of wallowing and despair. I glanced up at him annoyed. He was tall, about 6’2, with curly hair. His name was Anthony something, I recognized him from my program. Linguistics was a very small program in which Stewie was my only friend. I intended to keep it that way. I didn’t need more linguistics friends. I had real friends. I folded up my midterm, and put it back in my bag. “It went fine.”

2008

 

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