A gem I found while looking through emails

Soon after I stopped blogging last year, I realized that I had a lot of things I wanted to say, just as before, and I had deprived myself of a channel for them. So I did the next best thing: I published notes on Facebook. For the first few days of this new blog’s life, I will simply cross-post those notes here, so if you’re already my friend on Facebook, you won’t be seeing any new material for a while; but I’m going to get through these one per day, so you won’t have long to wait.

In the 2007/2008 academic year, when I was a grade 10 student in Ms. Plachta’s grade 11/12 enriched computer science class, an interesting incident occurred, the details of which I never fully learned.

In that class, students were divided into three groups: Group A, Group B, and Group X. The placement of a student in a group depended on Ms. Plachta’s expectations of that student, so that, for the most part, Group A consisted of students who had just taken grade 10 computer science and were now in grade 11; Group B consisted of students who had taken grade 11 enriched already and therefore had a year of hardcore algorithmic experience already; and Group X consisted of some of the best coders at Woburn.

The grading scheme in that class took into account which group you were in. If I recall correctly, provided that all mandatory assignments were completed (and there weren’t very many of those), and a certain minimum points threshold was reached, the highest-scoring member of each group would receive 99% in the course, and other members of the same group would be graded relative to that top-scorer, using some kind of “logarithmic” scale that Ms. Plachta never really clarified. The points threshold for Group B was (I believe) 1200 points.

The result of this grading scheme, unfortunately, was that all members of Group B except one formed a “pact”, or, as I like to call it, “points cartel”—a mutual agreement not to earn more than 1200 points. This would allow some members of Group B to earn 99 or close to it by reaching the 1200 point goalpost, and it would maximize the grades of everyone else in the group as well.

All was going well until one particular member of Group B (let’s use the name “Dakota”), “broke the pact” by submitting additional programs that took him/her beyond the 1200 point line. The other members of the group flamed Dakota for breaking the pact, so Dakota responded by sending copies of his/her programs to other members of the group, so that they could also solve some additional problems, again putting everyone on equal footing. Unfortunately for Dakota and the others, at some point in this exchange, someone accidentally sent an email to Jacob (a Group X member, Ms. Plachta’s son, and one of the graders for the class).

Needless to say, Ms. Plachta was very disappointed. Below is the email she sent to all students in her class (including a completely clueless Brian, as I was also in Group X and had never heard of the cartel). I do not include it here to complete the story I have been telling up to this point. Rather, I include it for the inspirational message it contains, and simply wished to provide the above background for curiosity’s sake.

You may not see it now, but I hope that some day you will see (as my students in the past did) that I gave you the opportunity of a lifetime – something very unique and not offered in any other course in your school. My course is not about learning algorithms and programming; those are irrelevant issues and serve only as a tool. There are more important lessons to learn in life. What I am trying to teach you I could teach in any other subject if I were a teacher of it: be it physics, or even English. The subject is truly irrelevant though computer science is a very convenient medium for my message.

I opened the door for you and invited you to walk through it and see: there is no limit of where you can go and what you can accomplish if you dare to try it, if you persevere and never give up. You can go beyond the limits you thought were your boundaries; there are no limits that a person cannot go beyond.

I had many students walking along this path – struggling, sweating, thinking it to be impossible and myself being insane – yet in the end discovering that anything was possible. They are now where they are in their lives because of that experience and hence they see the world with boundless possibilities. They were guided by a person with a vision and now they create and live their own visions. It all started with having the courage to take Plachta’s course.


About Brian

Hi! I'm Brian Bi. As of November 2014 I live in Sunnyvale, California, USA and I'm a software engineer at Google. Besides code, I also like math, physics, chemistry, and some other miscellaneous things.
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One Response to A gem I found while looking through emails

  1. Darrell says:

    Your graph of exponential decay is a surprisingly good advertisement as well :P Anyways, I just happened to stumble upon this, and it reminded me of my old self, back in the ninth grade, when I was taking Grade 10 advanced(?) computer science in Ms. Plachta’s class. I remember I was worse than pretty much anyone in the class, and back then, all that mattered were grades. Everything in my life was simple (minus the shift from coddled uniformed private-snooty-school to, in my eyes, “low-brow, ghetto” (past opinion) high school). But the only real challenge was the course, and she made it so that, even if you sucked, if you tried to strive and grow, you would get better grades. Whereas if you were decent but coasting (like in so many courses in high school), your grades would suffer. Thinking back now, it taught me an amazing lesson, and I regret dropping out of the grade 11 equivalent course when I went into grade 10 because it seemed “too difficult”. Even though we obviously weren’t very close, she did teach me things I can look back on, and I’m sure they helped me to grow.

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