Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dipping Into My Past: Paths to the Future

I don't remember when I decided that I was going to be a computer scientist, but I must have been pretty young. I definitely had decided it by eighth grade, because in eighth grade I made the decision to go to an out-of-area high school, committing myself to over an hour of commute each way, every day, for four years, because the school specialized in computers and technology.

I took computer engineering throughout high school, and while I was successful at it, I loved programming and my computer science class far more. I was also obsessed with computers and technology in general. I built my own computers, and built absurdly over-complicated technological systems to handle simple problems. I had no doubt in my mind that this was my future.

The first hint of a problem came in 12th grade. For the first time in my life, I struggled with an academic class (I always had trouble with art, being colour blind), and it was a critical class for computer scientists: math. I'd spent years coasting along on natural ability in math, never needing to study and never really breaking a sweat. That all started to fall apart, and I didn't know how to respond, so I kept on as I always had, and I finished with a low B. That was bad, but it wasn't bad enough to knock my average below an A, and it wasn't bad enough to affect my university offer of admission. I was still going to UofT for computer science. Everything was still on track.

That didn't last long. In my very first semester, I became acquainted with failure for the first time in my life. I had calculus, Mondays and Wednesdays at 8 am, and I think I fell asleep in every class. I'm not sure how anyone else didn't; at 8 am the campus Tim Hortons wasn't even open yet. Worse than failing though, was the feeling that maybe I actually couldn't do this. It wasn't just me making silly mistakes and mental errors, by the end of the year I still really didn't know what I was doing. I could have retaken the exam a dozen times and failed every time.

However, I didn't really know what else to do with my life, so I plugged away. One failure wasn't so bad. I retook the class in the second semester, and managed a B. Unfortunately, I also took linear algebra that semester, and while I didn't fail, I scraped by with a D. Given that I was looking at a minimum of two more linear algebra classes (not to mention several more calculus classes), which built upon the one I had almost failed, a D was not good enough. Worse than that even, I found myself enjoying my computer science classes less and less. I was still doing alright in terms of grades, mostly B level work, but it wasn't fun. In high school, I used to look forward to my computer science classes. Now, I began to dread them almost as much as the math.

It didn't help that my personal life was a bit of a mess. In my first year, I made friends with a group of guys who became a major distraction for me. That first year became a blur of afternoon ping pong and evening drinking games. It wasn't that I fell in with the wrong crowd or anything like that; they were a good group of guys. However, they were probably about as frat boy as a group of computer science students can be, and academics were low on their priority list, and that caused it to slip on my own. Of the four of them, after three semesters, two had transferred to college, one had decided to take a year off to work and refocus, and one had changed majors.

That probably would have helped my academic performance a great deal, except that right around the same time, I had a nearly three year relationship implode. It was about as messy of an end as could be, and I basically lost another semester as I fell about as low as I've been in my life. That was the end of my career in computer science. My GPA wasn't high enough to stay in the program, and I hated it anyway. Plus, I needed to make broad changes in my life.

Thus began my brief tenure as a French major, a path which was somehow more disastrous than computer science. I had continued French all throughout high school, even after it had become optional, and I had been taking general French classes throughout my first two years of undergraduate. I didn't love it, but I thought it would be useful, and I was good at it. At that time, I needed to find something I was good at.

Except it turns out that while I was good at language practice, I wasn't so hot at doing other things in French. I tried to take a French cinema class, in which we watched and analyzed movies entirely in French (no subtitles). I failed it miserably. I was able to pass a French folklore class, but not particularly well. It became pretty clear that my future was not in French.

I had needed to fill a spot in my schedule, so on a whim I had registered for 20th century European history, figuring that it was one of the few disciplines I could manage without having much of a background in it. I surprised myself by loving the class, and discovered at the end that I was good at it too. Apparently, I had a talent for essay writing. I switched my major to history, mostly because I had very little choice at that point, and I never looked back. It was the best decision I made in my academic career.

At the end of my six year undergraduate adventure, I applied to library school and was accepted (I'll save that choice for another post). It was about as far from my eighth grade vision of myself as I could possibly be. However, as messy as the journey was, I don't regret it at all. Experiencing failure, and learning how to deal with it, was something I needed to do. I also (hopefully) got the wildness out of my system. I have some great stories and memories, but I can't see myself ever wanting to go to another frat party kegger again.

I also learned not to count on anything, when it comes to my future. My vision of myself and my future has been completely overturned time and time again, and so while I have a general idea of where I'm going, I won't count any chickens. I take everything one day at a time.

Today, as it happens, was a very good day. More on that later, maybe.

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