The Relentless Pursuit of Academic Excellence


Though I did quite a lot of it I never personally cared much for math.

I came of age in a small town in the era before the internet. Back then when a kid was trying to figure out what he or she wanted to do for a living we just had to ask around or maybe consult the World Book Encyclopedia. In my case I liked to build things, so I figured mechanical engineering might be a good fit.

I reported to mechanical engineering school expecting to learn how to operate a machine shop and make stuff. It turned out that’s a machinist. Mechanical engineering was actually seven semesters of calculus. The only reason I didn’t quit was that I didn’t realize quitting was a thing you could do. My parents raised me that way.

After engineering school I entered the Army as a Lieutenant and spent the next eight years flying Uncle Sam’s helicopters. After travelling the globe making the world safe for democracy I came to appreciate that I could be a husband and father or I could be an Army helicopter pilot, but I couldn’t be both. I then left the military service for medical school. Along the way I bought a word processor, so here we are.

Med school was hard, but engineering school was horrible. Med school is drinking out of a firehose. There is so much information you cannot hope to learn it all in the time allotted. Mechanical engineering school gave me some basic concepts and then expected me to use these tools to solve complex tasks. In retrospect it taught me to think analytically.

Mine was a relatively small engineering program. We started out with fifty-six freshman and graduated seven. Among the survivors, only one other guy and I spoke English as a primary language. In the entirety of the engineering school there were no girls. It’s way better today.

Not meaning to toot my own horn unduly, but everybody knows that it takes an intellectual powerhouse to do stuff like that. Engineering training and medical school must require academic prowess that is well beyond that of normal folk. Such mad book skills would inevitably yield phenomenal grades, right? Well, not necessarily. I’m living proof that an average guy can become a mechanical engineer and survive medical school on the strength of a silver tongue and a simply breathtaking work ethic.

My Polish Differential Equations professor reminded me a lot of this guy.

The Academic Crucible

The class was Differential Equations, and it was taught by Dracula. At least that’s what he sounded like. The professor was originally from Poland and had a thick accent. The resulting language barrier didn’t do my comprehension any favors.

We called it “DE.” Apparently kids today call it “Diffy Q.” All I recall is that it sucked … a lot. I’d love to tell you what DE consisted of, but I honestly don’t remember. I think it was such a ghastly experience that my brain somehow subconsciously suppressed it.

The first test was indeed a voyage of discovery. I studied and all, but I left the experience feeling like I had not perhaps done as well as I should have. Two days later I got a call at my apartment. It was Dracula, the DE professor. He wanted to see me in his office.

I had no idea what this was about, but I knew I was doomed. When the Bloodsucking Lord of Mathematical Darkness summons you personally to his inner sanctum it is seldom to admire your innate awesomeness. On the appointed day, I girded my loins and headed up to campus.

The guy was more terrifying one-on-one than he was in class. Here’s how the exchange went. Imagine it in your mind the text being read by Bela Lugosi.

“Do you know what you made on the first test?”
“No, sir, I don’t. You haven’t given it back, yet.’
“You made a seven.”
“A seven? Like, out of ten?”
“No, out of a hundred.” There followed an ominous pregnant pause. “Are you absolutely sure you want to be here?’
“Yes, sir, I am. You drop a test grade, don’t you? I’ll be serious about the next one.”

While my math professor’s office didn’t look quite like this, it certainly felt similar.

So, I actually scored a seven out of one hundred on my first DE test. You’d think so long as you didn’t misspell your name, you’d do better than that but apparently not. I got religion, academically speaking, and did markedly better on the rest of the exams. They’ll not be singing my praises in the teachers’ lounge, but I finished respectably.

So, if you aspire to something that requires some proper academic credentials take heart. I am living proof that you can make a seven on a DE test and still become both a successful engineer and a practicing physician. You just have to have a profound work ethic and be willing to take a scary meeting with Dracula.

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