A Divine Graduation

In late May 1986, I was in the office of a rather stern Thad Seymour as he delivered the news that I would not be graduating.

by Jay Werba ’86 | illustration by Brian Ajhar

Illustration by Brian Ajhar

I hadn’t fulfilled my PE requirements. Thad told me that I was the son of an unprintable epithet who had simply run out of rope, which I interpreted as meaning there was still some rope left. I told him I would cling tenaciously to it and see him on the graduation stage. He replied that the chances were “one in a hundred.”

“I’ll take your odds,” I said. “And I’ll see you there.”

What Thad hadn’t realized was that my situation was really much more dire. The PE problem was simple to deal with. I contacted a doctor who wrote a note suggesting that physically exerting myself could be grave. Much more serious, however, was the fact that I was failing Astronomy. The only way I could graduate was if I passed the final exam. No doctor’s excuse could help me there.

I had always been weak in science and math, so I delayed taking that requirement until my final semester. But when it came time to choose classes, the nutrition course I had planned to take wasn’t available.

Scanning the list of available science classes, I came across Astronomy, taught by Professor John Ross. I had always been a huge fan of Star Trek, with a particular affinity for Mr. Spock, so I signed up.

Astronomy class was nothing like Star Trek.

The textbook was a massive tome. Terms like “lenticular galaxies,” “astronomical units,” and “quantum chromodynamics” were bandied about. There was a significant amount of complex math. I was completely lost.

Sister Kate Gibney, a Rollins administrator who was also a Catholic nun, had taken a special interest in my case. She was aware that I might not graduate on time, and she knew I was failing Astronomy. She came up with a rather divine plan. She told me to pray to St. Jude, the saint of impossible cases, and ask for a miraculous intervention.

“I don’t care if you don’t believe,” she said, reading the incredulous look on my face. “Just do it!”

The night before the exam, I realized studying was futile. I decided to take Sister Kate’s advice instead. A prayer certainly couldn’t hurt, right? I got on my knees. “St. Jude, this is clearly an impossible case. Please help me pass my Astronomy exam tomorrow. Amen.”

The exam consisted of 300 multiple-choice questions, and I finished in about 30 minutes. (I later found out that some students took longer than three hours.)

After I completed the exam, I climbed on top of my table, which was in the back, and I jumped from table to table until I reached the front of the room. I hopped off the last table, landing right in front of Dr. Ross, and handed him the exam that I knew I had failed. “See you next year, Dr. Ross,” I said as I walked out of the room.

Two days later, I got a phone call from Sister Kate. She asked if I was sitting down.

“You passed,” she said. “Not only did you pass, but you passed with a high grade. You are the only borderline student to pass the exam and go on to pass the class.”

On graduation day, May 25, 1986, my name did not appear in the program—it was assumed that I would not be graduating. As my name was called, I walked slowly across the stage until I faced Thad. He handed me my diploma. “One in a hundred, one in a hundred,” he said, with an unmistakable twinkle in his eye.

About 10 years later, I was visiting Winter Park and was in the CD store on Park Avenue when I heard the unmistakable sound of Dr. Ross’ voice. We started talking about that class long ago. I had always wondered if I had really passed the exam or if Dr. Ross had simply passed me to send me on my way. When I asked him, he said he would never pass a student who did not earn it. I had indeed passed the exam.

All these years later, this story still seems unbelievable. It was either an incredible string of luck that allowed me to correctly guess the vast majority of 300 questions, or it was the intervention of St. Jude guiding my hand as I penciled in those bubbles. If the latter is the case, which I choose to believe, then it certainly was a miraculous graduation.

Jay Werba ’86 went to graduate school in his 30s, where he learned he did not need any heavenly intervention in his coursework, and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. He currently teaches in Islamabad, Pakistan. His goal as an educator is to get kids hooked on reading before activities like television, shopping malls, and computer games take total and absolute control.