atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#5617: History rhymes, even on a personal level

Around this time--actually a couple of weeks hence it'll be 21 years ago--in 1996 I was trying to graduate from college.

I was putting in 12-hour days at school, mostly in the lab, trying to get final projects completed. I get there at 10 AM, work all day until the labs closed for the night, come home, eat something, drink a beer to help me get to sleep, and then repeat. The last week in particular was just like that, skipping work so I could do nothing but study.

I had mostly labs, but I also had one lecture: Control Systems II. CS2 concentrated on analog control systems, things where you had to know math, including calculus, to do well in the class. Math has never been my strong suit, so I really had to study just to keep my head above water. AC Circuit Analysis--which had just about made my head explode--paled by comparison.

Before the final exam, I was averaging a "C", which I took gratefully because if there was any class that school offered which I ever considered difficult, it was that one. If there was ever a grade that I sweated blood to get, it was that "C" in that class. It meant I had to do well on the final exam, of course; if I failed it, it meant another trimester in school. I'd gotten to the point where I'd run out of financial aid, and I could not beg or borrow another penny.

But the instructor, Dr. Burns, reviewed the material heavily in the week leading up to the final. I was there for every class. Dr. Burns told us that the problems he'd covered in his review were representative of what would be on the final exam--I can clearly hear him say that in his dry Texan twang--and the day of the final I spent in the library at school reviewing those practice problems until my ears bled. I walked into that class confident that I would do well on the exam, that I might even manage to raise my "C" average to a "B".

That lasted until I opened the test booklet.

Question 1 approximated this:
1) A system has the characteristic equation:
This system is:
A) Stable.
B) Metastable.
C) Unstable.
For those of you keeping track, that is a sixth-order polynomial. There was another part to the question, which gave you a second order polynomial (a*s2-b*s+c), and what you did was to take that 6th-order polynomial and divide it by the 2nd-order polynomial to determine the stability of the system according to this or that rule which I've long since forgotten, probably due to PTSD.

We had never covered 6th-order polynomials in class. Third order was the height of that pile. The review problems I'd re-calculated that very day had been 3rd-order.

I stared at the page in mute horror for at least thirty seconds before I moved. Then I flipped through the test booklet, with increasing panic. There were ten questions on the final exam--ten--and they were divided among three problems just like the first one. So that first question, if you got the wrong answer to your polynomial division you got three problems wrong. If you goofed the second one, too--or even if you got the first two right but munged the third--you failed. Period.

Then I took a deep breath. You have less than two hours to do this, so GET GOING, I told myself. And I dove into it, gamely doing what I could. It was exactly like what we'd done; there were just more terms to keep track of.

I have almost no memory of the test period passing. I was frantically figuring away, dividing polynomials and checking answers. I worked like a fiend right up to the conclusion of the test period; when time was called, I handed in my completed test--full of answers in which I had absolutely no confidence whatsoever--and left the classroom.

I walked out to my car, dejected. I sat in the driver's seat and stared at the steering wheel, tears welling up, because I failed it! I'd failed it, the one final exam standing between me and graduation. There was a Dave & Buster's next door; I briefly considered going there and drinking until I forgot my name and social security number...but then I put on my belt, started the car, and drove home mechanically. Once there I simply went right to bed.

That is how yesterday felt to me. I walked into that place confident that I would do fine. I left utterly deflated. Between entry and exit, something I was not prepared for, which I gamely attempted anyway, face thick with flop sweat and embarrassment and the shame of having wasted someone else's time. The disdain in the guy's voice when he told me the test was over. Disbelief that my knowledge of technology and engineering--which has always been reliable--had utterly deserted me when I needed it most.

Trying to explain it to Mrs. Fungus last night, I finally likened it to the guy who does the first kickoff at the Super Bowl missing the ball entirely, pulling a Charlie Brown, and landing flat on his back.

I mean, there has never, never, ever been a time when I've been totally stymied by a technical problem. I can almost always look at something mechanical and immediately figure out what it does and how it works. For fuck's sake--in 2011 when I was building that robot cell I made one mistake--wiring door sensors in parallel instead of in series--but otherwise I did everything with next to no guidance even to correctly connecting the robot to its control box without a manual when I'd never so much as touched a real industrial robot before that week.

Throughout my career I have never hesitated to dig into something to fix it, even if I'd never seen it before, because I have always been able to get to the heart of the problem and at least explain to the customer with some intelligence why his machine wasn't going to be fixed today (or ever). I know machines, and I know electronics, and fixing things is what I'm best at.

So for me to be stymied by something as simple as wiring a three-phase motor, given the wiring diagram (admittedly incomplete), just because I'd never done it before--

Made infinitely worse by the fact that when I got home and looked it up, I understood instantly what I'd done wrong.

* * *

The punchline to the final exam story is that I called the professor a few days later, and he told me cheerfully that I'd passed the class with a "C".

In retrospect I know what happened: DeVry is a for-profit school and the graduation rate for students in their BSEE program was something like 28%. Once you're in your final trimester there, they want you going out the door on-time, particularly because of their graduate placement program. They didn't want an employer coming to them to get help hiring grads, only to have a certain percentage of final trimester students not make it.

I would bet money the unspoken rule was, "Get 'em out the door as long as they're not total screwoffs." I'd bet more money that Dr. Burns made that test as difficult as possible, on purpose, specifically with the intention of tossing the results when most of the class failed it, so no one got an unpleasant surprise and had to tell their new employer that he had to take one more trimester.

So I graduated with no unpleasant surprises, and the embarassment and shame and mortification I'd felt that night in June faded into the mists of time. If it proved anything, it was that I was a little wiser than I'd given myself credit for being, because while I'd considered going and getting drunk, I realized that in the end it wouldn't fix anything and probably would make things worse, so I didn't do it.

And that it really ain't over until the fat lady sings.

* * *

This time, however, the fat lady has already sung her dirge: You blew it, kid.

I keep thinking, "What if they found out that the indicator light had burned out? They'd call me back to retake the test, right?" But of course that's nonsense, and it's not going to happen, and it's just my subconscious being a douche. False hope.

One shot, I had one shot at this excellent, excellent job, and I muffed it. I screwed the pooch so bad it will never need another screwing; it's permanently screwed.

And that's why I'm depressed.

But I feel better today than I did yesterday, and I'll feel better tomorrow than I do today. That's going to have to do.

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