Education Lessons Nonfiction Observations

The Oral Exam (VI).

We were directed to another room for the second portion of the exam, though it would not begin for nearly an hour. We were one of the few groups whose exam was interrupted by lunch.

One side of the room was constructed almost entirely of windows and the view revealed empty fields, a few uniform buildings constructed of steel and glass, and distant houses stacked alongside each other. On the other side of the room was the door and more windows that looked out into the hallway, though these were partially covered with blinds. A white board was on the third, narrow wall, and the fourth wall was empty. A large conference table was in the center of the room, surrounded by conference chairs, and on the table were several bottles of fluids: sodas, waters, and juices.

Our small group of seven filed into the room and sat down. More familiarity was present.

“I wish we could just get this over with,” someone commented. “I don’t want to sit here for an hour.”

“Yeah, I know,” someone else replied.

“But! we’re halfway done,” I said. One must help maintain morale in these situations. Context matters and I didn’t want to spend my lunch hour listening to people grouse.

“Yes,” people said, sighing. “Halfway done.”

A few of us brought lunches and we began to take them out of our crinkling plastic bags. The others wandered out of the room to forage for food in the cafeteria. Some returned with small boxes filled with sandwiches and chips; others returned empty-handed, having devoured their meals elsewhere.

Because eating is a social activity, and because we obviously had several things in common, conversation began to flow amongst this group of strangers. This is what I remember:

  • a community psychiatrist from Washington, DC, whose spouse is in the military
  • two addiction psychiatry fellows, one from New York, the other from Connecticut
  • an inpatient psychiatrist from South Carolina
  • an inpatient psychiatrist from New Jersey
  • one person who didn’t participate in any conversation, so I don’t remember where he hailed from
  • one person who had flight problems getting into Boston
  • one person who was originally from Russia, and this spawned an enthusiastic conversation about cold weather and life in Russia
  • comparisons between programs and occupations
  • one person who went to medical school with someone who was one of my fellow residents; I provided updates
  • discussions about pregnancy and raising kids in medical training
  • plans following the exam
  • dialogues about things to do in Boston

I was also struck by the age range in the room. It was a small sample, indeed, but I was undoubtedly one of the youngest people in the group. The oldest person’s age was probably somewhere in the middle to late 40s.

The hour passed. Food disappeared, we shared some laughter, the beverages on the table lost a few of their comrades, and we brushed the crumbs off of our suits. The sunlight continued to stream in through the large windows and the streets and parking lots remained empty.

An older man with a nasal twang appeared in the doorway.

“Are you all here for the vignette portion of the exam?” he asked. He was wearing a bright red vest underneath his dark blue blazer. We nodded.

“Good. We’ll get started in about five minutes.”

He disappeared and the conversation dwindled away. The second half of the exam would start very soon.