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I’m currently wading through my second summer course, Mechanics of Deformable Solids, which I’ve decided, for those who care, is pretty much what you would get if Statics and Intro to Materials Science had a baby. I have also decided that the name of the course is redundant, since all solids are deformable. There is no such thing as a solid that can’t be deformed if enough force is applied. This course is called Mechanics of Materials at other schools, which is more accurate. But I digress.
You can wake up now. I’m done discussing force and deformation.
So I had a test last week, and I was 100% prepared. I knew my shit. I was ready. There were only three questions on the test and I knew how to do all of them. Relief ensued. I chugged away, satisfied, until I got to the last half of the third problem. Something wasn’t right. The answer wasn’t coming out correctly. But why? I executed all the steps perfectly. I’d done many problems just like this. But no. The answer was definitely not right.
I furrowed my brow. I stared at the paper. I stared more. I erased what I had done and tried something else that I knew wasn’t correct. That didn’t work either. What to do? Minutes ticked by.
I tried the original strategy again. Still wrong. More minutes. Twenty minutes spent staring at my paper, trying to find my error. Five minutes left. I carried out the problem and wrote down the wrong answer, having no other options. Time was up. I turned in my test.
My professor quickly went through the test in front of the class, giving the basic strategy for each problem. When he began going through question three, I saw my error almost immediately. There were two opposing forces, which were equal, but opposite. I’d done the problem as though they were equal. I’d missed a negative sign. That was the entire problem. One. Little. Negative. Sign.
Gears began spinning in my head. Three problems. Would they be equally weighted? How much would question three be worth? Based on that worth, how much credit would be taken off for my error? Would he recognize that the entire problem was wrong due to a tiny error and take off fewer points? Would he take off more points because I’d made such a fundamental error?
Behold, the inside of my brain after a test. God forbid I’d just be happy to be finished. No, the gears spin all day and all night going over what I did wrong and how many points may be deducted and what, then, would be my final grade, and based on that final grade, how well will I have to do on all the other tests to get a 4.0 in the class? Doesn’t the inside of my head sound like a fun place?
As it turns out, the test was out of sixteen points. Question three was worth five. He deducted 2.5 points for my error. I got a 13.5 out of 16, or an 84%. I know this is not a bad grade. The class average was a 65%. But for me, this is a bad grade. This is within panic range. For those less familiar with my neurotic tendencies, panic range is anything less than 90%.
That said, I wasn’t mad at my professor. The grade was fair. The entire second half of the problem was wrong, taking off half the points was fair. I was just mad at myself. I’d have to do perfectly from here on out.
That night (a Friday), I spent two hours driving up to my family’s cabin for the weekend, and something strange happened. I became oddly calm about the test score. I started to feel, believe it or not, grateful, blessed. I am not a religious person at all, but these are the words that popped into my head. In fact I made a note in my phone – “grateful” – to remember for this post.*
I started thinking about how far I’d come. I started thinking about that freaked-out girl walking into her first college chemistry class, convinced she couldn’t hack it. I thought about that girl who went to the book store to buy math review books and realized she had to start at ninth grade algebra. And here I was, kicking myself for getting an 84% on a test over material that would be completely unintelligible to almost anyone I might try to explain it to outside of my professors and classmates. That’s pretty awesome. And damn it – I’m proud of myself.
I get so immersed in the details of my day-to-day life with work and school and every one of the million things I have to do that I rarely step back and think about what I’ve accomplished. Going back to school at 29 to get an engineering degree while also working full time? That’s ridiculous. What was I thinking? But I’m doing it. And I’m doing great.
Maybe it was the quiet highway. Maybe it was the sunset over the pine trees. Maybe it was the fresh northern air, but something tapped me on the shoulder and said, hey, chill out, enjoy this for once. So I did.
*Yes, while driving…it’s shameful and I never do it, but I didn’t want to forget this post idea! If it helps, the highway was nearly deserted.