One of my students just told me a story belonging to the ever-popular "final exam" category of campus legends.

The details of the story couldn't possibly fit any school other than the University of Utah, where I teach - or could they?Since every other college exam story that is told here has shown up elsewhere, it's likely that this one too is told on campuses nationwide.

Here's my student's version of the story:

"An instructor at the Institute of Religion here was teaching a course on the life of Christ over in the new East Institute building.

"On the last day of class, when students arrived for the final exam, they found a note on the chalkboard from their instructor saying that the exam would be given in the old West Institute building, across campus."

The note was referring to one of the buildings, located at opposite ends of our campus, where instructors from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - the Mormons - teach non-credit religion classes to LDS students who desire them.

"The note on the board sent all the students rushing off to the West Institute, in order not to arrive late. On the way they all passed a pathetic old beggar who petitioned them for help as they hurried by.

"Nobody stopped for the beggar, however," the student noted.

"When the students reached the other classroom on the west side of campus, their instructor was waiting. He asked the class if anyone had helped the beggar, and learning they had not, he informed them all that they had failed the final exam.

"The beggar, the instructor explained, was really an actor he had planted in their path. By ignoring him, the students had shown that they had studied the facts of Jesus' life without acquiring any of his compassion."

In a local variation of the story, one student does stop to help the beggar, and only he (or she) receives an A for the course.

In the only other variation my student had heard, the incident was supposed to have taken place at the Mormon-operated Brigham Young University.

According to my student, the "Lesson in Compassion" story is sometimes told as an instructive example at LDS meetings. But he has never met anyone who was either a member of that institute class, knows someone from the class or who can name the instructor involved.

And so "The Lesson in Compassion," has three typical features of a campus legend: It's unverifiable, it teaches a lesson, and it's told with slight variations.

I'll be very surprised if I don't hear from someone beyond the borders of the Beehive State who tells me a different local version of the same story.

While I'm on college examination stories, there's a classic I've never mentioned in this column - "The Lesson in Courage." The story usually concerns the final exam in a philosophy class, a typical setting for such legends. In one such legend, for example, the exam question is "Why?" and a student answering it with just the word "Because" gets the "A.")

In the legend I have in mind, the philosophy professor asked only the single question, "What is courage?" for the final exam.

Only one student received an A. He or she had handed in a paper on which was written only a single sentence: "This is courage."

Another version of the story claims that the application for a prestigious university asked the applicant to write a five-page essay on courage. A student who mailed in five blank pages was accepted to the university.

Now that took guts!


(C) 1989 United Feature Syndicate Inc.