Grading on a Bell Curve

by Amber Spark

External Perspective

The top floor of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns held three important things: the astronomy tower, the Dean’s office and the Associate Dean’s office.
This was the only place in the school—aside from Records—where there was any sign of Professor Clear’s status within the school. On the right side of the intricately carved wooden door was a brass plaque with all of Clear’s current titles and degrees. Despite her status, she hated being called anything other than ‘Professor.’
Teaching for almost five decades probably makes a pony rather set in their ways, Sunset thought as she walked from the stairwell toward the door.
Cheerilee glared between the entrance of Professor Clear’s office and Sunset as they trotted across the hardwood floor. At the base of the stairs to the third level, Sunset had paused to write a quick note in her journal with Cheerilee staring at her quizzically. Halfway up the stairs—the moment she had figured out where Sunset was taking her—Cheerilee tried to stop. Sunset practically had to shove her the rest of the way up.
“What are you planning?” Cheerilee hissed for the fifth time as they came to a stop.
Sunset stifled another yawn, wishing she had had time for another cup of tea. Maybe then this plan would make more sense in her head. But right now, she was acting more on instinct, so she didn’t reply to Cheerilee. She only knocked on the door.
“Come,” the calm and muffled voice of Crystal Clear said through the thick wood.
Sunset gently opened the door and stepped into the sunlit chamber. As with most private offices in the school, it was lined with bookshelves.
Every bookshelf held at least one memento from Professor Clear’s days as a teacher abroad, be it an ancient book, a snowglobe, a piece of jewelry or some arcane artifact Sunset couldn’t identify. Despite all the knickknacks, there was a sense of perfect order to the room, all highlighted by the massive floor-to-ceiling windows that dominated the south side, looking out over the vast expanse of Canterlot lit by the afternoon sun.
The professor sat at her enormous wooden desk. A mass of neatly organized paperwork lay before her as she peered down half-moon spectacles. Her bushy pink mane nearly glowed in the sunlight, while her bright yellow coat made her seem to burn like a second sun. A pencil floated in the air beside her, and she scribbled something on a sheet of paper before putting it in the outbox. Finally, she looked up, and her normally hard eyes softened, a faint smile appearing where there was usually a stoic line. It wasn’t an expression Sunset had often seen on the professor.
It would have been nice if Professor Clear had directed it at Sunset, but it was directed at Cheerilee. Cheerilee didn’t see it. She was looking at the desk, the bookshelves and the windows. Anywhere but at Professor Clear.
“Miss Shimmer? Cheerilee?” Professor Clear blinked in surprise and consulted a Saddle Arabian timepiece on her desk. “What in the world are you two doing here at this hour?”
Sunset opened her mouth to answer when she felt a familiar buzz in her left saddlebag.
“Sorry, Professor. Just one moment.”
The look of warmth quickly shifted to a frown as Sunset levitated out the journal with her cutie mark on it. The moment she opened it, the bright pink glow and the loud buzzing stopped. She flipped to the appropriate page and found what she sought.
Fifteen minutes.
Sunset smiled, and the sun outside seemed just a bit brighter.
“Sorry, Professor,” Sunset repeated. “But you know one should never ignore a message from her.”
Crystal Clear had seen the journal before. She knew who had its counterpart. So the professor only nodded.
“What’s this all about, then?”
“Don’t ask me, Professor,” Cheerilee murmured, still not meeting Professor Clear’s eyes. “Sunset Shimmer wouldn’t tell me.”
This is probably a terrible idea. Oh well, that’s never stopped me before.
“Have you told Professor Clear about your concerns, Cheerilee?” Sunset asked.
Cheerilee immediately paled. “No! I’m not going to bother her with such… such…”
“What concerns are these?” Professor Clear’s eyebrow shot up her forehead. “If there is a problem, Miss Cheerilee, I expect you to notify me. I cannot have an aide who conceals important matters from me.”
“I-it’s really nothing,” Cheerilee stammered. “I’m sorry to have wasted your time, but I’ll leave you—”
Sunset was ready for Cheerilee’s attempt to bolt. Her horn was already glowing, jamming the door to the professor’s office. Cheerilee didn’t even bother trying to open it when she saw the magical aura. The earth pony just shot a look at Sunset that might have incinerated her on the spot if Cheerilee had been a unicorn.
“Do you mind if we sit down?” Sunset asked, not even acknowledging that she was casting a spell. “It is rather important.”
Professor Clear’s eyes narrowed. “I have heard good things about you from Professor Polish as of late, Miss Shimmer. I do hope the professor has not been exaggerating. You are playing at something, and I would know what it is.”
“Ma’am,” Sunset said slowly. “I think you’ll find there’s a very good reason for this.”
There’d better be,” Cheerilee growled under her breath, pitched so only Sunset could hear it. The ‘or else’ was implicit in the comment.
Professor Clear looked at the paperwork at her desk and then up to the two mares. She shrugged and gestured to the pair of chairs in front of her desk.
“It’s a Friday afternoon. I can spare a little time.”
Sunset took the left chair, leaving Cheerilee to either stand there awkwardly or sit. She eventually chose to sit.
“Professor, I know this is a little strange,” Sunset began, hoping that the rest of this half-formed plan would crystallize at the right moment. “But if you don’t mind me asking… could you give me your opinion on my performance under Professor Polish, specifically for last term?”
Crystal Clear stared at her. “Shouldn’t you be asking Professor Polish this? She is the one who has been doing the reports.”
“I’d like an outsider’s opinion. A second pair of eyes.”
After another glance at Cheerilee, the professor leaned forward and stared even harder at Sunset. Sunset did her best to keep herself steady. Professor Clear hadn’t only been teaching for nearly half a century, she also had a doctorate in psychology. She knew how to read ponies, be they students, faculty or aides. Which also meant she understood Sunset didn't want to have the events at the end of term brought up. At least, Sunset hoped so.
In the end, Sunset knew her only chance was the truth.
After nearly a minute, Professor Clear looked a bit less suspicious, though she was obviously still curious.
“If you had asked me that question at the start of last term, I would have said abysmal,” Professor Clear said bluntly. “You were decidedly hostile toward both Professor Polish and her class in general. That is not counting your school-wide attitude.”
Sunset winced. I had that coming. I needed to take that hit.
“I received four requests by Apple Polish to have you removed,” Clear continued in a dispassionate tone. “However, Princess Celestia appointed you to the position, and as she is the head of this institution, her word is law. She denied each request, despite what... others may have thought.”
Polish asked to have me removed four times? I didn’t know about that. Ouch.
“And then?” Sunset asked, doing her best to keep her voice even.
“While it would be nice to say there was a singular event during last term that caused an alteration in your decidedly poor attitude, Miss Shimmer, such an event did not occur. Over the course of a few months, I received fewer and fewer complaints. Then to my surprise, I received a positive report. The one of you deciding to tutor Miss Dancer, I believe. Since then, you have had your problems, but nothing near your previous issues, save for that incident at the end of the year, which we do not need to discuss. You have done fairly well for yourself, though I admit you still have not convinced most of the faculty you have turned over a new leaf.”
With a glimmer of her magic, Professor Clear removed her glasses. Her eyes bored into Sunset, an eyebrow cocked as she waited for an explanation.
At least no surprises there, Sunset sighed. Not fun, but deserved. Now, let’s shift the perspective.
“What is this about, Miss Shimmer? Why is my personal aide here? I would not think you would have wanted this information shared.”
“I know…” Sunset faltered. She had no idea if this was going to work or not, but she was too far in to back out now. “I know this isn’t standard procedure, but I was hoping you might be able to tell me your thoughts on your aide.”
Cheerilee muttered a curse under her breath and glared another disintegration blast at Sunset.
“Why?” The professor’s eyebrow threatened to leave her face altogether.
And here I thought I might be lucky enough to get away with you not asking that. Oh well, it was worth a shot.
“When I was a filly, I always worried my magic was… well, not good enough.” Sunset looked down at her hooves. “I had this voice in the back of my head telling me I was terrible, worthless and an utter waste of space. Why I had that voice in my head doesn’t matter. What matters was it was there. It hounded me, ate at me, made me doubt every second of every minute of every day. Every time somepony said how talented I was because of some new trick or spell, I never really believed them.”
Sunset finally looked at Cheerilee, meeting her gaze. Cheerilee was staring in open shock at her. Sunset’s expression was just earnest. At least, she hoped it was. Because this was turning out to be a lot more uncomfortable than Sunset had expected.
“That voice told me everypony around me was lying. That I really was as bad as I feared and nopony had the guts to say it to my face.”
Professor Clear coughed. “I’m sorry, Miss Shimmer, but you seemed to have lost me. How does that answer my question?”
Sunset’s eyes never left Cheerilee. “It wasn’t until my entrance exam and my acceptance to this school… that was the point that little voice was all but silenced.”
Yeah, that voice was silenced. Sunset mentally added. Now, I have a new one to keep me company. Yay.
“The faculty here didn’t ‘care’ about what I thought of myself,” Sunset continued. “They didn’t ‘care’ about my feelings. They cared about the results.”
Sunset finally looked back to Crystal Clear. For a moment, she knew Professor Clear was seeing the same thing Sunset was seeing in her mind’s eye: Sunset’s entrance exam. She’d been the Chairpony of the Examinations Board then too.
The flare of magic. The incredible warmth of the sun flowing through her. The world becoming a glorious rainbow of color, growing ever brighter until she cried out in pain—
Sunset swallowed and pushed ahead. “You asked why you should share your thoughts on Cheerilee as your aide. Well, I happen to know you were without an aide for five years before you took on Cheerilee. You picked her out for a reason.”
Sunset finally turned and looked at the wide-eyed earth pony. “I think Cheerilee needs to know that reason.”
Professor Crystal Clear looked at her aide. Cheerilee looked at her hooves. Sunset looked at both of them as the awkward silence filled the room.
Then an explosion of blinding crimson and gold over their heads grabbed everypony’s attention.
Philomena, you are always such a damn showoff. Sunset did her best to hide her smirk. Still, great timing and great entrance. Ten for ten.
The phoenix took one loop around the room and let out a musical cry. Crystal Clear had seen Philomena plenty of times before, so Sunset knew she wouldn’t be startled by the bird’s sudden appearance. Cheerilee, on the other hoof, almost fell out of her chair.
Philomena finally settled on Sunset’s back and nibbled at her ear affectionately. Sunset laughed a little, replying by way of scratching the bird under her fiery chin. The phoenix sang a little note in greeting then dropped the scroll she’d been holding. Sunset caught it in her magic and levitated it over to Professor Clear.
“This is for afterward, Professor,” Sunset said.
While Crystal Clear might have been familiar with Celestia’s pet phoenix, having a mythical firebird sitting in the same room can be somewhat distracting. It took a moment for Crystal Clear to get her brain back on track. Sunset stifled another chuckle.
“Miss Cheerilee.” Professor Clear coughed, pulling Cheerilee’s attention from the phoenix. “From what I gather from Sunset’s… unusual request, you have some doubt as to your place in this institution…” She paused and cocked her head. “No, that’s not it, is it? You’re having doubts as to your calling.”
Cheerilee, still sneaking glances at Philomena, just nodded.
“Considering this new information, I shall give you an abridged version of the report I have compiled for the Equestrian Educational Board of Directors. While there is still plenty of time left in the term, I drew up a draft from your behavior and conduct in my classes in addition to your performance while on your recent assignment assisting with winter admissions across Equestria.”
Cheerilee said nothing. She could have been a colorful statue for all the life she showed.
“It is my opinion you have the makings of an excellent teacher, Miss Cheerilee. The Board will make you fully accredited by the end of the term, of this I have no doubt. But beyond that, you will also receive something I have only given to a hoofful of aides in the last fifty years: my personal endorsement.”
Cheerilee let out a little squeak.
“Beyond your meticulous and well-crafted study plans for the various students, your constant drive, cheerful attitude and rock-solid work ethic, there is one unique characteristic I value more than any other. It is something I often find in very short supply in the field of education. Something I admit to struggling with myself.”
Crystal Clear placed her glasses on the desk, and the professor leaned forward. The formal mask dropped away, and she transformed from the stern Associate Dean of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns into a matronly mare doting on one of her favorite grandfoals.
“It’s your compassion for the students. I’ve seen you late to class because you were quietly comforting a sobbing filly out in the hall because of the actions of a bully. I’ve seen you carry a colt’s science project home in the pouring rain because his parents were called away for a shift at Canterlot Hospital. I’ve seen you help first-year and last-year students in the same patient, loving manner to which most educators can only aspire. Time and time again, I have received multiple reports about you going above and beyond to show kindness to those under your charge. More importantly, you’ve done this when you believed nopony was watching.”
Cheerilee’s eyes were as wide as dinner plates. Professor Clear coughed back something that might have been a hitch in her voice before continuing.
“In truth, Cheerilee, the Board of Directors has been watching you for years. They recommended I take you on as my aide, and I wanted to see you in action for myself. The Board is eager to see where you will apply your talents. You could surely gain tenure at some of the most prestigious universities in all of Equestria in half the usual time. Those whom you have helped love you… as have those you have served in your capacity as an aide. Myself included.”
“But… but…” Cheerilee stammered. “You’re… you’re a unicorn! I heard what the others said about me while on assignment! They don’t think—”
“Oh, not this old song and dance again,” Professor Clear scoffed. “I am so very weary of this stereotypical nonsense. It’s the whole earth pony thing, isn’t it?”
Cheerilee only nodded. Sunset could see tears in her eyes.
“Let me be frank with you, Cheerilee.” She leaned forward a bit more to make sure she had Cheerilee’s full attention. “It does not—and would not—matter if you are an earth pony, a pegasus, a unicorn, a griffon or a draconequus.”
“Cheerilee, you are simply adored within the halls of this institution. I haven’t seen a member of the faculty so loved by both students and staff since Professor Inkwell. By Celestia, if you so desire to teach here, I will personally make it happen.”
“That’s… that’s impossible.”
Professor Clear grinned. Sunset found herself liking this version of the professor.
I wonder why she doesn’t let this part out very often. Maybe it’s just for special occasions. I’m glad this qualified.
“In truth, it does not matter to me you are an earth pony. If you desire to teach here for mathematics, advanced astronomy, alchemy or any other field, you will have my blessing in full. No matter what field you wish to work in, you have my support. Indeed, I have even begun creating a revised and expanded curriculum designed to familiarize young unicorns with the magic of pegasi and earth ponies. While I already have a pegasus lined up as an instructor, the earth pony position is yours if you want it.
“However, if you take this assignment, you cannot take it as an earth pony. You may only accept it as a teacher. Your race does not matter to me, only your calling, your skill and your heart. I will not have you thinking you are GU’s ‘token earth pony.’ You are far too valuable to allow backward ideas to pigeonhole you into such a mindset.”
A grin broke out on Sunset’s face. She almost felt like dancing.
“Indeed, I had planned on offering you a position within this school after you passed your final accreditation courses, but it seems somepony thinks you need a bit of encouragement.”
Crystal Clear shot a sideways glance at Sunset. Sunset just smiled sheepishly. But there was no anger in the professor’s gaze. If anything, there was only gratitude.
Meanwhile, Cheerilee looked utterly lost. Her mouth just kept opening and closing over and over again as if her brain was misfiring. Sunset couldn’t help but chuckle at the aide’s behavior.
I don’t think she was expecting that. Celestia, I wasn’t even expecting that.
“Now, that concludes my preliminary report,” Professor Clear leaned back and broke the seal on the scroll, apparently taking no notice of Cheerilee’s current state. “Let’s see what this scroll has to say.”
Philomena’s head popped up. Apparently, she was curious too.
“Looks like a letter from the Princess,” Crystal Clear said in a casual tone that convinced absolutely nopony. “Hmmm… ‘To Miss Cheerilee, current aide to Professor Crystal Clear of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. In a recent meeting with the Equestrian Educational Board of Directors, your name came up several times, specifically concerning your excellent work during the latest series of winter admissions across Equestria. There have been some concerns raised over the admissions process by parents as of late, and the Board recommended you as an excellent point of contact for the potential revision of this program on a nationwide scale. Please inform Professor Clear I would like to see you on Monday at noon at Canterlot Castle to discuss any thoughts you might have. Yours sincerely, Princess Celestia.’”
Damn, Princess. When you’re good, you’re good.
The best part was Sunset knew Princess Celestia wouldn’t have made this up. If she just wanted to meet the mare to encourage her, she would have offered a ‘casual’ meeting over tea. The Board had recommended Cheerilee for this. Sunset had a sneaking suspicion Professor Clear might have had something to do with that.
“Well, it appears I shall have to handle one day of classes alone,” Professor Clear said with a deep and heavy sigh. “I suppose I’ll muddle by as long as I can find the chalk.”
Cheerilee still hadn’t moved, save for occasional blink and shift of her jaw.
Finally, Professor Clear dropped the act.
“Oh dear,” she commented. “Miss Shimmer, I believe we may have broken her.”