My Day as an Engineer

Standard told you last post about my move in day at Clemson and I decided to go ahead and enlighten y’all about the day I spent becoming an engineer. I had listed civil engineering as my major of choice before I got to Clemson mainly for two reasons: one, and I don’t know if it’s still this way, but then Clemson pretty much wanted you to declare a major in your junior year . . . of high school; and two, Daddy had counseled me to pick a degree which would let me and help me earn a lot of money.

Now back then I could only think of three professions to satisfy the “lots of money” part of the equation: doctor, lawyer, and engineer. I knew I’d never be a doctor. I’d wanted to be one when I was little, but in eighth grade I spent two weeks in the summer at the Governor’s School Mini-session, which was a trial program for rising freshmen separate from the “real” Governor’s School. ANYWAY, we went on a tour of the MUSC campus and we saw the gross anatomy lab after lunch. This was before the cadavers were in those fancy roll up tubes they come in now. Back then, it was just sheets over dead bodies. Between the occasional hand lolling out from under its sheet and the overwhelming smell of formaldehyde I just barely kept my two hot dogs from lunch in my stomach . . . I was one of the lucky ones. That ended my aspirations of a medical career.

I also knew I couldn’t be a lawyer because I was raised with the belief the Bible held a slew of special woes for lawyers. Apparently they weren’t much better thought of in ancient times than they are now. I understood good lawyers existed, but I also knew they didn’t make anywhere near the money the crooked ones did.

That left engineering. I’ll tell you at the time I had no idea what an engineer did. Honestly, I’m STILL not certain what all the different types of engineers do, but I liked building stuff so I settled on civil engineer. Thus with a happy heart and visions of future fortune, I signed up for a beginner’s year as a civil engineer.

First, a bit of backstory to get you in my frame of mind. I was a good high school student. I made a five on the AP Biology, AP US History, and AP English Lit tests, and a three on the AP Calculus test. According to the sweet young lady who signed me up for classes, the biology, history, and English scores placed me out of six classes and assured that if I remained an engineer I’d never see the inside of a science, history, or English class in college. That seemed like a good deal. She then said my three in AP Calculus would allow me to skip Calc 106, Calc 108, and Calc 206 to go straight into Calc 208. I thought that was a good deal too.

It was here my sorrows began.

I earned my biology, history, and English scores on my own merit. I was good in those three classes and didn’t need any assistance to do well. AP Calculus, however, was an altogether different animal. Math and I hadn’t really gotten on well since eighth grade when some damned fool went and put letters in with all the numbers and called it Algebra. Did you know you can prove 2=1 with Algebra? You have to divide by zero to do it, but still!

I didn’t get my three in AP Calculus on my own merit. I got that score because of Mr. Larry Brady who was hands down the finest math teacher this world has ever produced. He could teach Calculus to jellyfish and I’m sure at times he felt that I was his pet Portuguese Man-O-War. The ONLY reason I passed the AP Calculus test was due to his amazing teaching skill. Unfortunately, Mr. Brady was two years behind me by this point and, quite stupidly, I had no idea what 106, 108, and 206 meant anyway. I just knew I’d be taking fewer classes and fewer classes meant less time in college and more time out making “lots of money.”

I was a right benighted fool.

So, first day of class was a Monday. I had Calculus 208 at 8:00 in the morning. That SHOULD have been my first clue I was in the wrong neck of the woods because 8:00 classes are of the devil — I’m sure it says so somewhere in the Apocrypha to the Bible. Of course, someone SHOULD have written “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” above the door of the lecture hall where the class met. They didn’t, and I walked straight into the proverbial buzzsaw.

I found a seat next to a big ol’ boy from Stone Mountain, GA. I can’t swear to it anymore, but I think his name was Joel. We had good seats on the aisle about midway down. As he and I got acquainted, I noticed people just KEPT coming in that room. I’m certain more people were in that one room than attended my extremely large (1500+ students) high school. Way down front in a bit of a hollow was a long set of chalkboards. At exactly 8:00, a guy in a tweed jacket walked in, picked up a piece of chalk, and started writing.

He wrote for a solid twenty minutes before he turned around and introduced himself. When he finally spoke, he had a thick Indian accent. I don’t know if it’s still the same, but back then, Clemson’s math department was notorious for having professors who barely spoke the Queen’s English and this fellow was apparently one of them. In any event, after he finished writing, he put the chalk down, turned around and introduced himself as something like Dr. Rathpangjani or some other. What he said next killed my hopes of ever making “lots of money.”

He said, “Students, I have written upon the board the bare minimum knowledge you will need to know if you hope to pass this class.” At this, he gestured behind him to a board covered top to bottom and side to side with cryptic symbols and unknown formulae. He continued, “You should recognize all of this from your 106, 108, and 206 Calculus classes. I will NOT be doing ANY review. Know this, I have taught classes all over the world in Calculus and I assure you if you are not intimately comfortable with everything on this board, you will fail this class miserably. I have seen it many times before. Since you know this, understand there is no shame in realizing you are overmatched in something. I have drop – add and class change forms here for anyone who feels he needs one.”

Hands went up all over the auditorium and it took me only a split second of looking at that indecipherable writing on the board for me to raise mine too. This man was no Mr. Brady and since Joel had his hand in the air, I knew he wasn’t going to be any help. I took a drop form from one of the graduate assistants, gathered my stuff, and went back to my room a defeated man. Math, that heartless wench, had beaten me again. I would never be an engineer; I would never make “lots of money.”

And that, friends, is the story of my ONE day as an engineer.

Love y’all and keep those feet clean!


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