Sad pony is sad . . .
Okay, I should probably get this out of the way right now:
I’m a brony.
Yes, that means I’m an adult, male fan of the children’s show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
I’ll wait for the inevitable groans to die down before I continue.
. . .
Better? Good, now let me get to my story before I lose all my nerve.
Currently I’m studying Mechanical Engineering out of Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas. I’m told this is one of the best engineering schools in the country, and I suspect this is true from my experiences so far as well as the fact that this campus is home to NIAR, the National Institute of Aviation Research. I really feel I’m getting a great education so far, though one particularly bad experience I had a month ago really hit me where it hurts.
I was in a math class, Calculus I to be exact. This would be my fourth time in taking it. Wow. An engineering student who’s bad at math? Well, not exactly.
See, I’d taken the class three times previously and had different experiences each time. The first time, which was at a community college, I really didn’t put forth much effort into it and had to drop it because I didn’t give it my full attention. The second time however, I go a C+, which is a passing grade. However, I wanted to increase that to a B or even an A, so, like an idiot, I took it again Fall 2012 when I transferred to WSU. I got a D in it, because the instructor wouldn’t correct my homework to account for the astoundingly picky online homework submission software. Eight or nine problems out of ten would be counted as wrong, despite my own work being correct in every respect. This teacher would also not budge an inch if I had to miss a quiz or test day, which I did on two occasions due to a job interview and sickness. I even offered to come a day prior to the test day on the day of the job interview and take it early at the on-campus testing center, but he refused. After that, I didn’t even bother to do the homework out of spite. My final grade reflected the stupidity of that move . . .
The really bad part about this decision was that the school takes the latest grade, not the highest grade, when deciding if prerequisites have been met. In short, I would never be able to pass on to higher classes unless I got another C at least.
But this semester, I decided to do it right. I would go to class every day, do the homework on my own (I couldn’t afford the outrageous price of the online homework program this time), and take the tests, and hopefully get a B. I remembered most of the material after all, and despite not doing the homework I felt confident in my ability to do the work on the tests and make up for it. Plus I was attending every class, which the teacher said would grant extra credit, so why should I have to put up with the ridiculous program they use?
After a couple of weeks I started going rather intermittently, because it was all like an extreme case of deja’ vu. Everything discussed was intimately familiar, to the degree that I was able to do every single odd-numbered problem in every chapter on my own, sometimes needing to refresh my memory, but usually without needing any help from outside sources. I’d had the class three times previously; it was like riding a bike.
Eventually I stopped going altogether, attending only so I could find out when the next test was. I had a pretty good idea of when he would give them, so I would go to class a few days early, jot down the test day, and basically goof off until class was over.
The first test seemed to prove my method correct, as did the second and third. Every problem seemed to come naturally to me. I blazed through them, doing everything correct to the best of my ability. Some problems were not as easy as others, because I simply forgot to refresh my memory the night before on some basic things, like trig identities and other simple things. But I didn’t attend class the next day because I had a pretty good idea of how well I was doing based on how easy it came to me.
Then that fateful day happened.
I attended a class near the beginning of October, and after it was over I headed out, ready to get some more work done on a model I had sitting on my work bench. However, the teacher called me as I was leaving and asked me to stay until he could talk with me. I knew that would happen eventually, so I prepared to tell him why I hadn’t been coming to class — a perfectly justified reason in my opinion.
After the last student left he looked for a private classroom so he could talk with me one on one without interruptions. When he found one, he sat behind the empty desk in the dark room and asked me how well I thought I was doing. I told him I figured I was doing at least in the 80s. He got a funny look on his face and asked me where I got that idea from, which sent up a few red flags, but I told him it was because I had very few problems on the tests.
Then he told me something which shocked me to the core: my score was 43%.
I was too dumbfounded to ask him how this could possibly happen. All I wanted to know at that point was whether it was at all possible to make the grade up to at least a passing grade. He told me that, based on my test scores, realistically I couldn’t expect to even pass the class at all, let alone with a grade high enough to move on in my studies.
I was cordial, but by the time I got back to my on-campus apartment, I was a nervous wreck. I’d heard that community college classes are easy compared to university-level courses, so I figured I might have been fooling myself this whole time into thinking I was good at calculus. Even if I was doing great when I did the homework, it obviously wasn’t sinking in, or else I’d do well on the tests as well, right?
Before I go on any further, I need to bring up something which I promise is entirely relevant to this story.
As I said before, I’m a big fan of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The stories are good, the characters are relatable, and the overall story arc is something I’m following with interest. It culminated last spring with the transformation of Twilight Sparkle, the main protagonist of the series, into an alicorn. The events in the episode leading up to this transformation however are of more relevance. The other main characters — Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rarity — all had their cutie marks switched with each other, which had the effect of making them think they had each other’s talents as well. It’s not entirely clear in the episode, but they seem to possess memory of doing jobs all their lives which they actually hadn’t done. The result was that they all tried to do these jobs, but failed miserably. Applejack, the Earth-Pony farmer, was trying to make dresses like Rarity, the fashionista. She in turn was trying to control the weather, which was the domain of Rainbow Dash, who now is trying to take care of Fluttershy’s animals. Fluttershy meanwhile is trying to entertain the townsfolk, which is normally what Pinkie Pie would do, but she’s now trying to maintain Applejack’s farm. If you pay attention, you can see how much this shatters their self-confidence and how it completely deflates them. Twilight shows up later however, and figures out that if she reminds them of their true nature, the Elements of Harmony will turn them back to normal. It works, and all the ponies are returned to their true destinies.
The reason this is relevant is I fully understand now how those ponies must have felt. I have always been good at math and been sort of proud of that fact, even if I didn’t always feel like proving it to others. It’s always come rather easily (which incidentally is why I never really wanted to prove myself to my teachers before; I already knew I was awesome, so why do I need to prove it to anyone?). But that was before I basically got informed that I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought I was.
It got worse. I had only six hours in my schedule, so dropping this class meant I would lose not only my student loans, but my housing as well. But the biggest thing in my mind was that this meant my life-long passion of engineering was just not possible, let alone practical.
I felt like my world and my future was evaporating before my eyes, like the ground was crumbling beneath my feet and my hands had no purchase. It was truly devastating, and I was even starting to reevaluate all my life choices, including the decision to pursue engineering.
That evening however I had a conversation with a dear friend of mine via Skype. It was rather long, and most of it was me pouring my heart out to the guy. No real solutions were arrived at, but it felt really good talking to him. I felt like he had my back no matter what. Some people would be content to tell me, “Well bro, life sucks, but we all gotta deal with it.” Yeah, thanks, Mac. I got that. But this guy listened and tried hard to make me feel better, and it was something I really needed. And when the conversation was drawing to a close, suddenly it occurred to me that the lyrics of the song Twilight and the rest of the cast sing were directly applicable to that conversation:
“A true, true friend helps a friend in need
A friend will be there to help them see.
A true, true friend helps a friend in need
To see the light that shines from a true, true friend.”
It might seem like rhetorical, circular logic on the surface. In fact, that’s what I took it as when I first saw the episode. Then I realized the real meaning behind the words. When you’re at your darkest and there seems like no hope, when you feel like your dreams are shattered and your future is in grave peril, only the truest of friends will help you to see the light and guide you toward it, and this light of hope comes right from their heart and shines like a beacon in the night.
Yeesh, when did I get so sappy? I think I need to watch Commando again and balance it out . . .
By the way, you want to know the real reason I did horribly in that class? The teacher’s idea of grading is that anything less than perfect work deserves no credit. Attempt the problem but don’t get much farther than setting it up? 0 points. Get most of the way through the problem but can’t finish it because of something you forgot how to do? 0 points. Get the problem done but miss it because you made a tiny error in your work? 0 points. Get the problem done and get the right answer, but it’s not done exactly the way he wanted it done? 0 points.
This is the most unreasonable method of grading I’ve ever seen! Where in life will you ever have to have a perfect understanding of math? Where are you going to work where you don’t have a) the internet, b) your old textbooks, or c) colleagues who you can ask assistance from. Argh!
Oh well, at least I can get an exception and take the class again, and hopefully I’ll get a *good* teacher this time.