On November 24, 2000 I got the automated email from the proctoring pool system saying that they needed me to invigilate an extra exam, and it was a damn nuisance because the exam was Math 440, it was scheduled at the end of the exam break, and my other proctoring duties were all during the first half. I had to delay my trip home for an extra week just because of the 440 exam. It could have been worse, though - I could have had to mark it as well. The 440 exam was advanced differential equations; I didn't envy the poor sap who was the actual TA for that course.
They gave me the email address of Dr. Benz, the instructor for 440, and told me I should contact him to get my orders. He told me where it was, and when, even though I already knew those things from the schedule, and said I should report there ten minutes early so we could set up. Fine.
On the day of the exam, weeks later, I arrived at the two rooms where it was supposed to be, and nobody else was there. The hall was full of students, waiting. I turned on the lights and erased the blackboards in both rooms, then waited in one until five minutes to, when Dr. Benz and the regular TA (whose name I never did find out) both showed up. There wasn't much time for conversation. I took half the stack of blank exams, the other TA took the other half and went into the next room, I slapped them down in front of alternate chairs in my room, and Dr. Benz let in the students, gave the usual speech, and disappeared into the next room.
Proctoring an exam is three hours of boredom. A lot of grad students will bring in books to read; I've even seen it happen for someone who'd written an exam of their own the previous night, to just sort of doze off sitting in the chair at the front. I figure, though, that since I'm being paid for this, I ought to do some kind of work even if it's stupid, so I stay on my feet. I walk up and down the aisles and try to look alert. In theory, my presence is supposed to deter cheating, although in practice, very few people try to cheat on final exams in any way I'd be able to tell by looking. Of course, we do have all kinds of rules and policies for checking IDs and so on, but when I'm not really the TA for the course and don't know the kids, I don't see that it can have much effect.
At about the thirty-minute mark the prof walked in and presented me with the stack of signature cards to take around, so I went through the room checking IDs and getting students to sign the cards. The only excitement there was one girl who had forgotten her student card - so I had to go back to the front, dig around under the podium for an extra "I'm sorry I forgot my ID" forms because the prof had forgotten to bring any but there are usually copies left lying around in the exam rooms, and then take the form back to the student for signature. Really, I don't understand how that system works: you either show your ID and sign the regular card, or you don't show ID and sign the form, and you still get to take the exam and there don't seem to be any repercussions. So what's even the point of telling the students to bring ID?
Anyway, I brought the stack of cards back to the front and Dr. Benz asked me how many there were and I said 37. He asked if I was sure, so I counted, and yes, there were 37. "That's odd," he said, "There are only supposed to be 36 here." "Well, maybe we have someone who was supposed to be in the other room." "No, I don't think so... they have 41 and that is how many there should be there. Let me count the cards." So I gave him the cards and while he was counting them, I counted the students. I got 36 that time, and he said there were only 36 cards (actually 35 plus the no-ID form from that one girl), so we figured I must have counted wrong the first time.
Two more things about that 440 exam. At the end of it when I was collecting the papers I thought to count carefully how many I got, just to make sure about the 36 or 37 business. Unfortunately, Dr. Benz had been drifting from room to room, and every so often going outside for a smoke, through the whole three-hour procedure, and when time expired he happened to be in my room. He starting picking up finished exams, messing up my count. He handed the stack to me, though, so I tried to get back on track. At that point I had collected a dozen. There had been thirteen handed in from people who finished early, before the fifteen-minutes-left point when I told them they had to remain in their seats so as not to disturb their colleagues. (I always try to use the word "colleagues" in that announcement; I want to make them feel like what they're doing is important.)
Anyway, as Dr. Benz handed me the stack of exams I asked him how many there were and he said "twelve" and immediately vanished out the door for another cigarette. That would make a total of 37; but when I counted his pile there were only eleven, so I guessed he had simply counted wrong. I took the pile of exams and the stack of cards and the form over to the other room, left them with the TA there, and then I stuck my nose back in the exam room to check that we'd left nothing behind.
Actually, someone (presumably a student) had indeed left something behind - a grey, bound hardback book with a stipple pattern on the cover. No title or markings on the outside. It looked like a diary, and I wasn't completely sure I should look inside, but I figured it would be important to figure out who owned it, so I opened it to the first page. The first page was blank except for the letters "JW" written in soft pencil in the upper right. I flipped through the rest of the pages, but they were all blank.
The other TA appeared in the doorway and asked what I had there, and I showed it to him. I said, "This probably belongs to one of the students, do we have a J.W. in the class?" and he looked through the stack of exams but couldn't find anyone with those initials. "Maybe Jehovah's Witness? That's the only other meaning for J.W. I can think of. Well, I'll put it in the lost and found, I guess." So I left it with him and went back to my apartment to finish packing for my trip.
Early September, 2001 - "Frosh Week". I was sitting on a bench in the quad outside the library, with my laptop computer, enjoying the wireless networking and the unseasonably warm weather. A large gaggle of new students, with their leader recognizable by his silly hat, marched into the quad and stood around while the leader harangued them on the library building and its history. They were spoiling my mood, and I thought about picking up and moving, but I wasn't sure where else to go, and I didn't really want to move, so I thought I'd wait them out.
"Open until 2am most weeknights! And some say," the frosh leader recited, from his memorized script, "That the ghost of Sad-Eyed Joe can be seen in the sixth-floor stacks at midnight! Because, of course, six is thirteen, modulo seven." He paused for laughter, but nobody did, and I couldn't blame them. The silence stretched uncomfortably until one fat girl called out, "Okay, okay, who is Sad-Eyed Joe?"
"I'm glad that you asked that!" said the frosh leader, still reciting his script. "Sad-Eyed Joe is the campus ghost. Legend has it that he was the top student in the very first math graduating class. He'd taken all his exams, and thought he'd done well on them, except for one last class: differential equations. He'd been doing badly on the homework, he hated it, and he needed the credit to graduate or he'd be stuck here another term." The frosh all shivered - either from the breeze or the prospect of being stuck here an extra term.
The leader continued on. "The night before the exam, well, we don't know just what happened. Some people say he just studied very hard. But there are those who say that he had been reading dark and dangerous books of eldritch lore in the library, books that have since been locked away in Special Collections, which, incidentally, is the next stop on our tour, books whose catalog entries have since been purged from the computer, lest any other poor fools go the way of Sad-Eyed Joe!"
The fat girl wasn't swallowing any of it. "Okay, fine, so he pulled an all-nighter and it killed him?" "Oh, worse, much worse than that, young lady!" The frosh leader was overacting horribly. "There are those who say he studied too hard, solved a forbidden equation, and opened a gateway to a universe of eternal torment and non-convergence! There are those who say he summoned a nameless demon and made an horrific pact with it! Ha-Haha! Eyargh! Blughthth!" The frosh leader coughed.
"What is known is that Sad-Eyed Joe went into the exam room with a head full of differential equations... and they all vanished quicker than morning dew when the TA said, 'You may begin'. After three hours, he had written his name and student number, and that was all. He went home and killed himself." "How did he die?" "I don't know, the story doesn't say. But his ghost haunts the place. Now, let's all climb these stairs to our left and I'll introduce you to the library staff..."
Frosh Week gets sillier every year, especially since they banned the good old-fashioned hazing I had to go through. I shrugged, and continued with my Net surfing.
The story did interest me enough, though, that later that week when the crowd had dispersed I spent some time in the microfilm room reading old copies of the Sentinel - that was the old student newspaper, predecessor to the current Image - from the first few years of this school's history. I couldn't find any stories about students killing themselves after final exams. The closest I could come was an item about a young woman named Jen Watson, who had climbed Mt. Galway just north of the campus, and, sitting on the summit and looking out over the University and the city below, overdosed on crystal meth one cold October night. Apparently deliberately. She'd had no known motive, hadn't been known to be a drug user, and had appeared to be a popular and social girl with no major problems. No suicide note or anything. However, she had indeed been a star student in the first math graduating class, so I could see that her story could have been twisted into that of Sad-Eyed Joe.
I was sort of disgusted that that could happen, that she could go from being a real living young woman with hopes and dreams to being a campus scare story with which we entertain new students and don't even get her name or gender right. I stopped reading the Sentinel after reading about her. But I guess we do lots of worse things here, and maybe it's better to be remembered at all than forgotten.
I'd actually been assigned to Dr. Benz's course that term, Fall 2001. It was "numerical methods", cross-listed as both Math and Comp Sci. In late October, the prof asked me to attend a couple lectures where he'd be telling the students about the midterm exam, so that I'd know a bit more about what would be on it, the better to mark it. I thought that wouldn't be necessary, but, hey, it's my job, so I showed up.
The lectures were as boring and useless as I expected, but there was one interesting point at the end of the second on. Dr. Benz made a big thing of telling the students that no notes were permitted, no calculators, no nothing, and we'd be enforcing that. He said they should be sure to put their names and student numbers on every page of the exam, not just the front, because there had to be no mistakes. "Over the Summer, when I was teaching Math 440, we had a bit of a problem," he said. "We had one extra exam in the pile, with no name on it! Everyone on the class list was accounted for, and not only that, but the answers in it were almost perfect. Not quite 100%, but very close. Now, I am not saying that someone cheated, because I don't know how they could have gotten a copy of the test to fill out in advance and bring in. And why would they go to all that trouble and then not put their name on it? But it looked suspicious, and I do not want it to happen again."
It didn't happen again. We had the midterm, Halloween night in fact, when no doubt everyone would rather have been out partying. We had a couple of students missing, but no extra exam papers, and we checked the class list carefully against the cards and everyone who was there was supposed to be there and so on. Nothing weird. The rest of the semester went okay, too. I turned in an okay comment form at the end of it, the prof turned in an okay comment form about my performance, and that was the end of that. Nothing more.
That's the story and you can decide for yourself how much of it to believe. Me, I think that if Sad-Eyed Joe was ever a real ghost who haunted this place, in Summer 2001 he finally passed differential equations and graduated to whatever plane of existence comes next. I'm not saying he was ever for real. I wish Jen Watson well wherever she is; I don't think that's anywhere near here. But of course people will still say they've seen Sad-Eyed Joe, and they'll be telling the story about him in Frosh Week orientation tours until the end of time. It'll get more elaborate every year.