In the foyer of the physics building there is a train. A very small train, mounted on a circular track on a horizontal bicycle wheel. You can activate the train by pushing the button to the right; this causes it to drive forward, which causes the bicycle wheel below it to spin backwards, and the train continues forward, the wheel backward, and the two spin around and around, running endlessly in futile circles, never gaining any traction, never going anywhere.
Yes, welcome to finals. The ground is frozen and snowbound, the sky gray and foreboding, and in your heart you feel the icy grip of anxiety. It is
THE FINAL(S) COUNTDOWN
(a first-hand, second-person account of finals week)
How much work do you have anyway? Three exams, four papers, a presentation, and a lab? That won't take too long. With all of your newfound free time, watch the entirety of Adventure Time. The episodes are so short anyway. When it's over, almost accidentally do some work. Whoa! Careful. Instead, watch some Ted Talks and become an expert in fields completely unrelated to anything you are studying.
3 a.m. creeps up on you. What a beautiful time of night, you think. I am glad that I drank all of this coffee and am now able to appreciate this. Crash at 3:04, go to bed. Wake up at the crack of noon, feeling refreshed and productive. Treat yourself to a long brunch. You've earned it.
Go to all the study breaks. Familiarize yourself with every a cappella and improv comedy group on campus. The work you have to do sits in the back of your mind like a skunk that crawled into your backyard and died: sooner or later you're going to have to deal with it, but for now it just smells bad and you can just go hang out with your friends instead. At 11:57 p.m. on the last day of reading period your self-loathing finally erupts into productivity. Write a single page and, in doing so, realize exactly how much work everything is going to be. The thought exhausts you. Go to bed early, tell yourself that you'll get an early start tomorrow. Sleep through your alarm.
TUESDAY/FINALS DAY 1:
The work begins--slowly at first, but it gains momentum. Write a page, then another, and another. Look back on it. It is not "good," per se, but you can edit it later. Take a break and go for a walk. Some of your friends are out building a snowman. How is it that some people have barely any work?! Jeez. Join them for two hours, then get back to your work. You review one chapter of your statistics textbook--why are you taking statistics, anyway?--and then you get hungry. Go to Stevie, stress eat. As you stare into your third bowl of cocoa puffs, the realization hits you: at this rate, you will never finish anything. The implications of this fact terrify you. Why are you so unmotivated? Will you ever truly care enough about anything to do it? Are you squandering your education? Will you be a failure? Tears drop into your milk. Gross.
Drink two cups of those amazing Stevie latte things that come from that machine and return to work with a renewed vigor. (Man. Those things are so good.) Study until the caffeine high subsides, leaving you feeling woozy and dull. It takes you half an hour to find your way out of the labyrinth that is the upper levels of Mudd. At A-Level you become suddenly agoraphobic. All that empty space! Everyone is joking around and having a good time. You feel sick. Make your way through the frigid air back to your room. As you lie in bed you realize again just how much work you still have left to do.
WEDNESDAY/FINALS DAY 2:
Coffee in the morning, coffee all day. You read over the pages you wrote from yesterday and discover that they are terrible. Delete them and start over. Try to work briefly in the Science Library but it seems so serious and everybody frowns at you when you sneeze. Exiting through the physics building, you pass the little train on its circular track, meant to illustrate some principle of physics you don't understand, and you press the button and feel a sudden empathy with this little machine.
Take your first final. It feels like swallowing a brick. Go home and lie in bed until the sun sets. Then go work. Skip dinner, subsist on the free coffee and goldfish at the Rathskeller. You can feel that your body is holding sickness at bay until just after the week is over.
Fall asleep mid-paper at your study carrel. When you wake up you are listening to some super weird music from the depths of your iTunes library. What the heck is that even doing there? You didn't even know that Post-Post-Funk was a genre. Resume work until you start to notice a weird smell. Oh wait. No, it's you. You don't remember the last time you took a shower. You feel...crusty.
THURSDAY/FINALS DAY 3:
On the agenda for today: Crying, with a couple of exams in between. By the afternoon you feel like you have been stuffed with packing peanuts. Realize that you included Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in the works cited page of your essay. Drink some more coffee and the big questions start to pose themselves. How will the universe end? Will the universe end? Would this end represent the final state of all existence, or would there be some possibility of a universal renewal? Is the concept of an "end" dependent on the linear fashion in which we process time? If so, is it possible to experience time in another way? Did I choose the right major?
The universe may end but the work does not. There is always more. Essays. Labs. Review for the test. Work, eat, work, eat, work, sleep, work, put work off, work. Your capacity for language has fled. If you run into someone you know you communicate with them in guttural noises and facial expressions. Your hygiene is at its lowest point since middle school. You haven't changed your clothes in a week. All that is left is You and the Work.
FRIDAY/FINALS DAY 4:
Right before your last final, you are seized with a sudden euphoria. You love finals. You never want finals to end. With this soaking your brain, you take your test in a haze of competence. You are brilliant. You are fantastic. Every problem you solve is a mystery of the universe. Every answer you write is poetry. You destroy that final. Afterwards, you feel strange and light. Someday, you will think about this week and you will be glad that it happened. But for now arise from the ashes, Phoenix-like. You have jumped your tracks.
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September 16, 2021