In the Spring of my freshman year I took a Nuclear Engineering survey course taught by a cast of quirky professors. We heard about a lot of things without actually learning them, on account of the time. I got to hold a uranium pellet.
Due to the disjointed nature of the course the midterm and assignments were under the control of a mysterious and generally unpredictable graduate student. The questions on the weekly problem sets bore little or no relation to the reading, and even less to the lectures. Accordingly when the midterm came around I was prepared for some thorough flabbergasting. The exams were distributed face-down, and during the jittery pre-test undertakings I noticed that the last page was almost completely blank, with just a few words at the top. When the signal was given I flipped the thing over and, for some reason, looked at the last page first. It looked like this:
"Extra credit: Why?"
The background to this story is that I had recently begun my love affair with urban legends, mainly through the aid of The Urban Legends Reference Pages, a site that was introduced to me by my friend Jon who ICQ'd me a link about hidden messages in Disney films. During a long, lonely freshman year weekend I had read every single page in the ULRP, a feat which has rendered me very unpopular at parties and in e-mail loops. Accordingly when I saw the one-word question I immediately thought of this delightful tale of the professor who gives "Why?" as a final exam question and awards the highest grade to the student who writes "Because."
Convinced that the grad student had struck again, and elated that I was living my very own urban legend, I went through the exam, giddy with delight, waiting until I got to the extra credit question so I could write "Because" and be all clever. Of course, I waited until I finished the exam proper before I wrote the cheeky extra credit response, and I even erased and re-wrote it a few times to make sure it looked as cool and confident as possible. Yes, I know that's self contradictory.
The exam ended, I handed it in, and headed home, very pleased with my bad self. When I was about two thirds of the way home I literally stopped in my tracks, overcome with a wave of pure shame. I realized that, while the test had been almost entirely multiple choice, the last two questions were short answer. In fact, the very last question was extremely short answer. It was something like:
"Is the fusion that happens in the JET and Tokamak reactors the same reaction that happens in the sun?"
The answer was No, and I had said so. Only a half hour later did I realize that the extra credit question, "Why?", referred to the fusion question, and provided an opportunity to explain the Yes or the No, and it wasn't an invitation to explore the deeper philosophical meanings of the human experience after all.
I headed back to the dorm and posted my sad tale on the Urban Legends Message Board. A few weeks later I got my test back, complete with a "Good one +0" scrawled on the back page by the grad student.
Life is boringer than fiction.