Prose Header

The Flying Dutchman of MacKinnon Hall

by Don Webb

« Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien » — proverb
‘Better’ is the enemy of ‘good enough’.

This is another story taken from real life. In a course in Basic French for Reading Comprehension, students occasionally ask whether they are allowed to bring a dictionary to the final exam. The answer is a resounding No. The following explains to them why it’s for their own good... more than they might suspect.

The perennial question arises: Are dictionaries allowed at the final exam?

The short answer is no, you will not need one. The new or less-familiar vocabulary will be explained at the end of the new reading texts in part II of the exam, just as it was on the midterms.

The long answer is that for the purposes of the final exam, a dictionary would do you more harm than good. Now, why might that be...?

There is a cautionary legend that seniors whisper to freshmen in residence hall conversations that last after midnight, when you can see leaves falling from the trees at a time around Halloween and strange shadows flicker on the walls...

In a language course (not French!) years ago, an apparently kindly instructor allowed students to bring dictionaries to the final exam. The students filed into classroom 0666 on the basement floor of MacKinnon on a dark December evening, armed with knowledge and reference books. It was a Friday. The 13th.

As the instructor, who had the unusual name of Bill C. Bub, handed out the exams, some students could have sworn they whiffed a faint odour of brimstone. But they quickly decided that Professor Bub merely used a peculiar aftershave lotion. Which was odd, if they’d thought about it, because he did not shave; his dark sideburns ended in a pointed goatee that went quite well with his crimson suit.

Professor Bub smiled delightedly as the students industriously started their exams, frequently checking words in the dictionaries perched on knees and desks. After an hour, some realized that they were barely one-fourth of the way into the exam.

“Professor Bub, may we please have more time? This is an evening exam, and there are no others afterwards.”

“Most certainly,” replied Professor Bub, beaming a smile and rubbing his hands together. “By all means. You have all the time in the world. But I must leave you at 9:00 pm. You may bring your exam to me... whenever you finish.”

Grateful, the students settled back down to work. They would read a line and then check each word, often writing in decodings between the lines on the paper. Now and then, one of them would make so bold as to note a possible answer to a question. At 9:00 pm, the students were still busily consulting their dictionaries and still scarcely daring to write an answer.

“Students,” Professor Bub announced, “time is up. I must leave you now. Does anyone wish to hand in an exam?” A few shook their heads; most continued to thumb diligently through their dictionaries.

Some say that a thunderstorm was raging at the time and that thunder echoed through the hallways; perhaps the professor departed as the lights flickered from a lightning bolt striking nearby. However, others say it was a triumphant peal of laughter from the Devil himself and that Professor Bill C. Bub vanished in a burst of flame.

* * *

There is no classroom number 0666 on the dark subterranean floor of MacKinnon Hall. That is, not anymore. And yet, over the years, on cold December nights that fall on a Friday the 13th, students have sometimes turned a corner in the dimly-lit hallways and discovered a classroom they have never seen before. Ghostly students are bent over their exams, conscientiously checking in their dictionaries words they already know. For them there is no time limit, and the exam is the most Final one of all.

So then, students, be of good cheer. Your kindly professor does not use brimstone aftershave, nor does he wear a crimson suit. You will leave the exam at closing time and stride forth into the world, confident in the understanding you have gained in the course and leaving the Devil in the details.

Copyright © 2002 by Don Webb
French Studies
University of Guelph

Author’s pious disclaimer: There is a large structure at the University of Guelph known prosaically as the Mackinnon “building.” It does have at least one dimly-lit subterranean passageway complete with classrooms. But there ends any resemblance to the story, as far as I know...

Home Page