Physics is an essential ingredient in the recipe of becoming an engineer. It’s the cheddar cheese to Mac n Cheese. With that in mind, I was strongly encouraged and advised during several occasions that it would be best for me if I were to take IB’s Higher Level Physics class during my last two years of high school. This decision, made with much hastiness, turned my life upside down ever since.
I stepped into the physics class on the first day of school. Mind you, it was my first day in a new school as well. I couldn’t help but to notice that most of the students here were already segregated into several groups, it seems like I was the only new kid. Our physics teacher, Mr. Brown, giant man indeed, was sitting on a stool, though I seriously thought he would break the stool anytime soon judging by the layers of fat hidden under his XXXL shirt. A brief introduction about physics was made and we plunged straight into the first chapter: Kinematics.
Before stepping into this class, I had zero knowledge about physics, except Newton’s Three Laws of Motion. Unfamiliar phrases and words and terms were thrown at me. My mouth gaped open while my hand was busy attempting to copy down the notes from the board, none of which I understood. The first few weeks of class was a huge struggle for me; I couldn’t seem to find a friend in that class, and worst, most of the time I couldn’t understand what Mr. Brown was babbling. On top of that, I was also trying to get use to other classes and the school as a whole.
Truth to be told, I broke down several times during the course of the first few weeks. I pleaded my mom to send me back to my old school in China, and the discussion would often end up with tears and anger. I carried the stress and discomposure onto my shoulder and moved forward. Within the month, we had our first unit test. I cannot emphasize enough how badly it went. I was struggling to finish the paper within the time limit, and I couldn’t even understand most of the questions. I spent more time staring at the paper than actually writing down answers that probably weren’t even correct. Mr. Brown returned our paper a week later, and unsurprisingly, I did bad, but not the worst in class (thankfully).
A couple months into the first semester was the dreadful Parent-Teacher Conference Day. I don’t loathe those parent-teacher meetings, but I had an ominous feeling about that specific meeting. I went with my mom that day. We were signed up for different time slots for different teachers. All of them went well, just short introduction and my progress in class so far. All but Physics. Mr. Brown greeted my mom with a smiley and kind face, and I thought quietly that maybe he would compliment me or something. I was most definitely wrong. He told my mom Physics is a challenging class (of course it is!), and that I might need some time to adapt it. He also kindly informed my mom that I was not doing good in that class - not failing, but not good enough. He suggested to my mom that I will have to go to him after school for extra classes, and if there’s still no improvements in my grades, he would have to call my mom in for a meeting and see what can ‘they’ do for ‘me’. Up till today, I still can remember precisely my mom’s words when we were both in the car: “That was the worst parent-teacher conference I’ve ever been to. Please don’t let me down again. Push yourself and work harder. Don’t be a failure”. After that day, my mom never got a call from Mr. Brown.
Harsh words. Very harsh. But those words did bring me to my senses. I started spending most of my after school time finding a corner in Mr. Brown’s room, fighting against the devilish Physics like so many others who were in the same room as I was. At home, I discovered the beauty of online learning. I started watching YouTube videos for specific parts that I couldn’t understand in class. Not to insult Mr. Brown, but personally, I do not like his teaching style, and often I had to relied on other classmates and online resources to help me prep for the unit tests and semester exams, and even for the actual IB exam. I fully utilize the textbook and other study guides and notes that I can find online, scribbling down the important information onto my own textbook and making several tables and venn diagrams along with other diagrams.
Meanwhile, I stopped going to after school help as I couldn’t really watch videos when Mr. Brown was sitting beside me; that would probably imply an insult to him. I did not want to take the risks of being kicked out of the class. And yes, he is the only available teacher who teaches Higher Level Physics, which left me extremely limited choices to seek asylum from other teachers.
IB courses are generally a two-year course, preparing students for the May or November exam. Onto the beginning of second year, there were only 17 of us who were taking the HL Physics May exam. Yes, it’s considered as a small class in my school that has more than 500 students in the high school department. Somehow, I managed to find a few close friends, who are heavenly smart during that year. Credits to them, my physics grade has improved immensely. I managed to scrap a few A’s during unit tests and for most of the quizzes.
As we slowly moved into the second year, I began to get the hang and tricks of getting good grades for Physics. The recipe requires endless practice on past year papers, numerous gigabytes of YouTube videos, several highlighters and pens and pencils to fill the blank spaces on the textbook, and constant breakdowns and tantrums. If you asked around, I can be seen with my Physics textbook almost every study halls and sometimes during breaks throughout the school year. I probably killed several hundreds of trees just printing out past year papers and online resources.
The class was so small, competition was strong. Every time Mr. Brown returned our quizzes, we would start to compare our scores, and even a 80% is not satisfactory in our class. I was forced to push harder in that class. I began falling into the routine of going to after school help the day before we take the unit tests, and gathered with other classmates to work on challenging, mind-tearing physics problems. We thought innocently and logically that if we can solve those problems, we should be fine during unit tests. But the problem was, we couldn’t solve those problems. Hence, the after effect was reflected on our grades - we never really got A+’s for unit tests.
As IB exam inched closer and closer, tension caused by pressure (see that physics pun) was building up in the classroom. We often asked for more practice problems from other textbooks as well as reading materials. A month before the exam, Mr. Brown had encouraged us to come to school on weekends for extra physics classes. Though it was optional, I still went every week. I wouldn’t say it was useful, but at least I was waking up early and doing practice instead of sleeping away my time and procrastinating. I found it easier to study with a group of people (those who wanted to study too) than studying on my own. We would push each other and have each other back at the same time. Through these extra classes, I began to enjoy studying Physics and doing past papers. Yes, indeed I must say it was frustrating whenever I couldn’t solve the questions, but I knew I have my classmates and teacher there to help me and provide me a somewhat clear explanation to clear my confusions.
The night before IB Physics paper, I stayed in school until 9:00PM along with several others to do the papers from 2015 that was not yet released publicly under Mr. Brown’s supervision. The deal was that after 9:00PM, we would stop studying Physics, and head early to bed. But lord, what a rebel I was. I stayed up till 2:00AM, trying to squeeze every little details as much as I humanly can into my brain which has an exceptionally tiny capacity. At the end of the last-minute-cramming-session, I was screaming on the inside and my head was like the active volcano in Pompeii, about to explode and cause severe destruction. I managed to get a few hours of sleep before waking up at 6:00AM to get to school early as the first paper was at 8:00 in the morning.
Needless to say, everyone including those in the standard level class was stressed. While we were waiting outside the exam hall, I was kneeling on the floor, leaning against the wall, biting my thumb, and my eyes were darting everywhere observing other’s behaviors. Most of them were forming groups trying to cram last minute by going through different concepts and calculations.
As I was taking the exam, which lasted for about 3.5 hours, my mind was constantly blanking out. My heart was in a tight grasp. Different numbers, symbols, diagrams, terms were running back and forth in my mind. I was applying so much pressure to the fingers I used to hold my pen such that my fingers went numb when the time was up. For a moment or two, I couldn’t let go of my pen and was having trouble to stretch out my fingers.
After our papers were collected, hysterical laughters exploded within the room. We literally had no clue what just happened. In my head I was telling myself, “It’s good. Everyone’s laughing madly, which means they probably didn’t do that great as well, the curve will be big.” When I went back to the library where my friends were, my legs went soft, and I collapsed into my friend’s arms. My mind went blank once again, and horror washed over me as my tears came pouring out. I must apologize to my friend, as I’ve probably wet her hoodie. There’s no need to ask how I did on the exam, as the answers could be found on my face.
That day, after I went home, I calmed myself down which took quite a long while and began to prepare for the last part of physics exam that fell on the following Monday. It was hard to concentrate, as subconsciously I have already given all my hopes up. I barely studied for physics throughout the weekend and spent 80% of the time studying for other subjects. The last part of the exam was not as bad as the first one, possibly because I was not holding onto high hopes anymore, hence the crush was not as severe.
After the physics exam ended, I dug out all my Physics materials all the way from first year and stacked them neatly in a pile. The pile, excluding my textbook, was almost 30 cm tall. I was taken aback by how much time I’ve spent on past years and other practice problems and studying Physics. I thought to myself, “Wow, how many trees have I seriously killed?”
For the next few weeks, Physics was not part of my brain at all. I never even brought up any Physics related topics, except puns, and poured all my heart into spending time with my dear friends before we part into different directions and pursue our own dreams. It was only up till a week or so before IB results were released that I began to start thinking about Physics again.
I spent several nights praying to all gods out there for a huge curve, and that my grades can be saved from a D+ to maybe a B or B+. Anxiety was building inside me, and blood was pumping fast as I logged into my IB Portal to check my results. My mouth shaped an “O” when I finally saw my score - I got a 6 out of 7 for Physics. That was a huge surprise as I thought I would probably end up with a 4 or 5. I went straight to my mom and told her, with dignity, “Mom, I’m not a failure anymore.”
Well, that’s my story of taking physics in high school. It’s not a beautiful or romantic or humorous memory, but the result in the end made everything worthy and memorable. I finally understood Mr. Brown’s only prep talk: Luck will visit the prepared individuals.