• Published 16th Aug 2016
  • 4,943 Views, 104 Comments

Grading on a Bell Curve - Amber Spark

After a minor magical mishap with Moon Dancer, Sunset Shimmer heads to the lounge for some tea to unwind. However, there she finds a young teacher walking down a path she once walked, giving Sunset a unique opportunity…

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The Grey and the Green

Before leaving the reading room—making sure to leave it in the proper condition—Sunset stepped over to the ink spot. Moon Dancer, in her efforts to fix the room after the small explosion, had moved the sofa to cover the spot again. For reasons even she couldn’t put a hoof on, Sunset shifted the sofa just enough so the spot was visible. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

She should try to remove the stain, but it felt… disrespectful, somehow. As if such an act would be intentionally forgetting what she had done to that poor filly.

After all, she did come in here a lot. And it was important she never forgot things like this.

“…a pony who isn’t powerful enough, somepony who could be great, powerful—”

No, Sunset snapped at the little voice she’d come to call her ‘angry little pony.’ Leave me alone.

I’m part of you, Sunset Shimmer. I always will be. You can’t deny it. One day, you’ll choose your destiny. I am that destiny. We were meant to rule. And we will.

Sunset hung her head and stared at the ink stain. But she couldn’t force herself to make the voice shut up. She needed it. She needed it to remind her of what she had once been. What she could be again if she wasn’t careful.

Who would have thought being made a teacher’s aide would change everything? Sunset—the real Sunset—thought to herself. Little moments in time.

She needed a drink.

Specifically, she needed a scalding cup of Earl Grey. And she needed it now. There were only two places to get such a thing. The first was the public dining hall. At this time of day, students would be there. She didn’t want to face any students right now. She needed somewhere quiet.

Which left only the lower teacher’s lounge.

As Sunset left the reading room and entered the vaulted hallways of the library for Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, she breathed in the heady scent of hundreds of thousands of books. One of the greatest smells in all of creation. Every aspect of scent filled her with a sense of calm that eased some of the frustration still bubbling inside her brain. She closed her eyes and allowed it to envelop her. She knew these corridors so well, she didn’t even need to have her eyes open to know exactly where she was going.

She turned the corner to enter the central atrium and immediately went sprawling to the ground.

Sunset’s eyes popped open in surprise at being on her back for the second time in an hour. A few feet away, a young lavender unicorn around the same age as Moon Dancer was squinting while patting the ground around her. Sunset blinked again when she realized the pony almost looked like Moon Dancer’s twin, only shifted into purple hues.

“Sorry,” Sunset said as she pushed herself to her hooves. “I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going.”

The other pony didn’t respond at first. She was too busy patting the floor until she found her glasses. Her magic flared and the pair of thick black glasses flew onto her muzzle. She took one look at Sunset and paled.

“Let me—” Sunset began and started reaching for the younger unicorn’s books, but the other pony cut her off.

“I-I’m sorry, Miss Shimmer,” the unicorn squeaked, scrambling upright with nearly inequine speed. “I promise… it won’t happen again!”

The lavender unicorn’s horn flared as her books and saddlebags instantly levitated into a giant ball of paper and cloth. Before Sunset could get another word out, the unicorn darted around the corner at a full gallop.

Sunset stared after her and wondered what in Tartarus had just happened. That unicorn had looked familiar. Maybe she’d been in one of Professor Apple Polish’s classes? Or maybe Sunset had just passed her in the hallway at some point? She knew her... but at the moment, the name just wouldn't come to her.

She shook her head, her ears drooping.

Great, another pony who’s terrified of you. And for once, you can’t even remember tormenting this one! You’re so awesome, Sunset.

She really needed that cup of tea.

The thought of slipping into the professor’s lounge to snag something a bit harder crossed her mind, but since she had a class with Celestia tonight…

…Yeah, showing up tipsy to a private class with the ruler of all Equestria was not a good way to start her evening.

Thankfully, the rest of the trip to the lower teacher’s lounge was uneventful. In fact, most of the school was deserted. It was a Friday afternoon, and most of the faculty had already left for the day. As for the students, they were probably enjoying the crisp winter air or huddled in the warmth of the dining hall.

Though Hearth’s Warming was still several weeks away, it hadn’t prevented from some of the more festive-minded students to start decorating. Sunset smiled faintly when she saw the wreath on the lounge door.

With a twist of her magic, she opened the door and her smile grew as her second favorite scent filled the air. This one was of old teas, dark wood and well-used furniture, with just a hint of ink. It reminded her a bit of home. At least the good parts of home, when she cared to remember that particular part of her past.

The lower teacher’s lounge had been both a gift and a necessity. While the professors had the safety and comfort of the Professor’s Lounge on the third story and the enormous Staff Room on main floor, the aides had been metaphorically left out in the cold. With nowhere to dig through the copious amount of homework, essays, thesis papers and other bits handed off to the aides, a few years ago, a large group of aides had all but begged for a space of their own. Considering how many teachers and professors made their academic beginnings as an aide at Gifted Unicorns, at the end of last year, the faculty had finally remembered their own time at GU, relented and allowed the all-but-forgotten lower teacher’s lounge to go to the various assistants and aides.

The lounge was designed in the same manner as the reading room of which Sunset was so fond. Dark wood paneling, slats on the window panes, bookcases lining the walls and plenty of couches, sofas and chairs along with a comfortable number of tables.

But most important was the immense magical hot water dispenser in the corner next to the coffee machine. Some days, Sunset would succumb to temptation and toss back a cup of black coffee, but that only happened when she was on a really bad study binge. And that usually resulted in Celestia threatening to take her off of caffeine for a month. Sunset didn't blame her, mainly because of what had happened at the end of last year. She wasn’t quite at that point today.

Today, she knew exactly what she wanted—scratch that—what she needed.

Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.

Those four words were all that mattered.

However, upon entering the lower teacher’s lounge, Sunset stopped short at the sight of another pony. Sunset had mentally prepared for the room to be occupied. She hadn’t prepared for the occupant to be an earth pony mare.

Earth ponies weren’t common in ranks of teacher’s aides. After all, the school was for gifted unicorns. Nevertheless, something overrode her curiosity about the pony’s race.

The fact the mare was quickly wiping away tears just as Sunset entered seemed far more important.

“Are you okay?” Sunset asked, thoughts of tea temporarily derailed.

“Oh,” she coughed in a sweet voice. “Oh, yes, I’m just fine. Sorry, I sometimes get really into my books.”

Sunset glanced down at the table where a book was propped up so the earth pony could easily read it.

The title was Grading on a Bell Curve.

Sunset knew the book. It had been required reading in her first year as an aide. Anypony working in education knew it. It was about different academic scoring systems. It was filled to the brim with statistical charts, dry data analysis and stuffy proclamations on the ‘proper’ way to grade a class of ponies.

Frankly, anypony who could get emotionally moved by data charts probably needed to have their head examined.

“I never found Glamour Bell’s work to be all that… engaging,” Sunset said casually as she levitated her saddlebags off of her back and onto the floor near an overstuffed lounge chair. “Theories on test results aren’t exactly riveting.”

Sunset walked closer and only by a quick application of telekinetic thrust did she avoid faceplanting into the carpet. At some point, part of the construction project that pinned her mane up had come loose, and she’d nearly tripped on the massive length of hair.

The other mare sniggered just a little, though her eyes were still red and her coat matted on her cheeks.

“You know, I’ve always found a more practical hairstyle to be in favor in teaching,” the mare pointed out. “Especially in a place like this where you occasionally need to move very quickly.”

Sunset sighed and plopped down into the chair across from the earth pony.

“Chaos surge,” Sunset said simply.

“Ah.” The mare smirked a little and nodded in commiseration. “Oh yes, those are so very wonderful.”

The other pony looked maybe a few years older than Sunset and had a soft magenta coat with a two-toned rose mane. Celestia had once taught her a pony’s manestyle could reveal a lot about pony. The first word that came to to Sunset’s mind at the sight of this pony’s style was ‘practical.’

And not somepony who usually sits in an old teacher’s lounge on a Friday afternoon crying over a book of grading techniques.

“Sorry, I don’t think we’ve met,” Sunset began. “I’m—”

“Sunset Shimmer.” The other mare nodded. “Oh, I know. I’m Cheerilee.”

“I can’t remember the last time I was able to actually introduce myself properly to somepony,” Sunset muttered.

“You’re the personal student of Princess Celestia.” The voice held no sympathy whatsoever. “Not to mention widely regarded as the most gifted and powerful unicorn born in… ohhhh I don’t know… centuries.

Sunset went scarlet in an instant. “That’s not true.”

Cheerilee cocked an eyebrow. “That’s not something the Sunset I’ve heard so much about would say.”

Now Sunset was blushing and slumping in her chair. “I’m trying to not be that pony anymore.”

Cheerilee looked like she was ready to throw another barbed comment at Sunset before she deflated. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for. You just… caught me at a bad time. I didn’t think anypony would be down here on a Friday afternoon.”

“I really just came for a cup of tea,” Sunset offered. “Tell you what, let me just get it. I’ll get out of your mane and—”

“No!” The protest was so sudden Sunset jumped. “No, that’s… that’s okay. Please, stay.”

It was Sunset’s turn to cock an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

Cheerilee nodded emphatically. “Yes. I… well, if it’s not too much trouble, I could use some company.”

“I’m not sure if I’m the company you’d want to keep right now.”

The other pony was quiet for a time, so quiet that Sunset felt a need to fill the empty space with something, anything.

“So the only reason you’d be in here is if you’re a teacher’s aide. Who’s your professor?”

“Huh?” Cheerilee blinked owlishly as if she had forgotten Sunset was there. “Oh, um… Professor Crystal Clear.”

Sunset gaped. “You’re the aide for the head of the psychology department, the Associate Dean and the Chairpony of the Examinations Board? How come I haven’t seen you around before?”

“I’ve been assisting with admissions process for various academies throughout Equestria for the last few months.” Cheerilee shrugged. “The professor’s had me going everywhere lately. I only came back to Canterlot a few weeks ago.”

“If you’re helping with admissions, you must be at the end of your apprenticeship, right?”

Cheerilee nodded. “Last year before I’m accredited.”

“Congratulations then!” Sunset beamed. “You must be thrilled.”

Cheerilee’s face fell. “Yeah… thrilled…”

“Ah.” Sunset winced. “That’s what’s wrong, isn’t it?”

“So!” Cheerilee suddenly grinned and jumped to her hooves. “You’re an Earl Grey mare, right? I’m partial to green tea, myself. I’ll go get us some!”

Cheerilee bustled over to the wonderful, magical water boiler and its enormous stock of teas from every corner of the world. With the practiced ease of an earth pony, she filled two teacups to the brim and dunked the appropriate teabags into them. She was going to bring them over when Sunset grabbed both in her magic, floated them out of the other mare’s reach and placed them next to Grading on a Bell Curve, still lying on the table where Cheerilee had been sitting.

Cheerilee just watched as the teacups settled and the teal glow vanished.

“I should have just gone home,” Cheerilee muttered.

“You didn’t,” Sunset pointed out. She might be new at this whole playing-nice-with-other-ponies thing, but there were some signs even she couldn’t miss. “That means you needed somepony to talk to. I’m probably not the best pony, but I’m here.”

“What would you know about it?” Cheerilee demanded, stalking back over to sit stiffly on the couch. “What do you know about questioning everything you are and everything you thought you knew about yourself?”

The question caught Sunset so off guard she did the only thing she could do. She laughed.

Cheerilee’s eyes narrowed. She looked ready to fling the cup of tea in Sunset’s face before Sunset raised a hoof and sputtered an apology.

“I’m so sorry, I wasn’t laughing at you,” Sunset gasped. “You just described my entire life for the last year or so.”

“Have you spit your bit or something?” Cheerilee snapped. “You’re the Princess’s prized student. You’ve had everything handed to you on a silver platter! All you need to do is show up somewhere, and everypony’s fawning over you. I’ve seen it. I remember the school’s Celestial Ball fundraiser a year ago. You played two dozens nobles like they were puppets and had them eating out of your hoof the entire time.”

Sunset blanched. She hadn’t thought about the Celestial Ball in months. Ironic, considering her old self thought it had been one of her crowning achievements. It had been a testament to her manipulative skill. A skill she wanted buried somewhere deep in the back of her mind.

“Yeah, well,” Sunset snapped back. “When you get put face to face with your own mistakes and realize that everything you’ve been doing for years has been worthless, it is sort of hard to take!”

Horseapples!” Cheerilee retorted. “I’ve heard the stories. I know what you’ve done. Some professors talk about you like you’re Celestia in miniature, and yet I’ve met students who cower at the sound of your name!”

I know! And I’d do anything to take it all back!”

Sunset hadn’t realized she’d been screaming until she swallowed and felt her raw throat. She took a drink from the teacup. It wasn’t as strong as she liked it yet, but the scalding liquid helped soothe her throat a bit.

“You want the truth?” Sunset asked after a moment. “I don’t want to be here. I asked Princess Celestia if I could stop being an aide a week after the start of term. She refused. Said there were still things I needed to learn. Things that were best learned here. How would you like to walk down the hall, bump into somepony and have them run off in terror the moment they get a good look at you? Because that happened less than fifteen minutes ago!

Cheerilee looked ready to respond, but Sunset cut her off.

“I remember when I was first assigned as an aide here. I found out two weeks after starting none of the professors wanted me. The only professor who was willing to give me a chance was Apple Polish. Only mare willing to give me a shot and that was only because Celestia herself asked her to do it. At first, that didn’t bother me, but in the last several months, it’s started to bother me a lot.”

Sunset laughed, though there was no warmth in her voice.

“I was forced to do this at the beginning of last term. I was miserable so I tried to make everypony else miserable. But… eventually I figured out I actually enjoyed being an aide. The downside? I started to see just how much damage I’d done. At least two students left GU because of me. And that wasn’t even the worst of it.”

Cheerilee’s eyes went wide at that little proclamation. Her jaw snapped closed.

“So… if you’re asking what it’s like to question everything you know… yeah, I’ve had some experience.”

Cheerilee was quiet a long time as the weight of Sunset’s confession hung in the air. Sunset wondered if she was going to have a lot of conversations like this. She had been a such horrible aide at the start of all this. And before that? She’d been an unholy terror to the students.

How many apologies will I need to make? How many ponies will I need to get forgiveness from? How many ponies will even bother forgiving me?

She wondered if the day would come when she forgave herself.

Probably best if it doesn’t.

“When I was first sent on these admissions consults,” Cheerilee began quietly. “I was delighted. Thrilled even. I got to see parts of Equestria I’d never seen before. I’d never even left Ponyville before coming here to get my teaching credentials. But the more places I went, the more I realized that me being an earth pony was considered a curiosity at best… and an aberration at worst.”

Sunset was about to say something, but the words wouldn’t come out. After all, even she had thought it odd an earth pony had been here just a few minutes ago.

Cheerilee didn’t miss the change in Sunset’s expression. “Exactly. Good job on hiding it, but I saw. Don’t apologize. You at least looked surprised, instead of disturbed.”

The earth pony paused to take a swig of her tea. Sunset did the same and noticed just how precise Cheerilee had to be with her hooves to take a sip from the teacup when Sunset could just use her magic.

“Did you know seventy percent of all teachers and professors in Equestria are unicorns?” Cheerilee said with a heartless laugh. “I’ve checked the numbers. It used to be a lot worse, actually. And it’s because unicorns can not only handle their own magic, but they’re better equipped to cope with pegasi and earth pony magic. Only ten percent of teachers are earth ponies and half of those live in rural areas in schools dedicated to ‘the earth pony way.’”

Another sip of tea. Cheerilee stared at her book again, not meeting Sunset’s eyes.

“After all the looks I got in all those schools, I got back and started to wonder… is that what the staff here think of me? Are they just too polite to say I shouldn’t be here? That an earth pony has no business being in education?”

Sunset took a gulp of the tea after using her magic to heat it a bit more. She’d intentionally left the bag in longer than usual and the taste kicked like a mule in addition to burning down her throat. She needed the punch to her senses right now, especially since a yawn right now would probably not be a good thing.

“You’re talking about racism,” Sunset began slowly. “Do you really think that Princess—”

“This isn’t about racism!” Cheerilee snapped. “I know all about Hearth’s Warming Eve! I know how the three tribes learned to work together. Every colt and filly knows the story. But you know what? Pegasi are still masters of weather control, even though a unicorn might be able to do the job. Earth ponies are still the best farmers, even if pegasi could control the rain for their crops. And unicorns…”

“Are the best teachers?”

“Maybe.” Cheerilee sighed. “I don’t know anymore.”

“What are you looking to teach anyway?”

Cheerilee shrugged. “At first, I was considering high school, but that was for only about six months after I first graduated. Now I’m aiming for grade school. Something small. Maybe I’ll just end up teaching ‘the earth pony way.’”

The earth pony put her teacup down and looked Sunset square in the eye.

“Everypony has a special talent. Now, that might not be what they’re destined to do occupationally, but it’s going to be woven into their lives at a fundamental level. Fighting against that would be like fighting the wind. Maybe this is the same thing.”

“And what about your special talent?”

“I used to think it meant guiding ponies to grow and help them bloom.” Cheerilee looked at her flank and the three smiling flowers. She didn’t smile back at them. “Maybe I was wrong. I won’t be the first pony to misunderstand her mark, and I definitely won’t be the last.

“The more I think about it, the more I realize this was probably all a big mistake.”

Sunset took a deep breath. This was out of her league. At the very least, Sunset knew her talent was magic. Her own mark showed an affinity for solar-based magic, but Celestia had told her clearly a long time ago there was nothing beyond her reach. She’d never questioned that. Being a unicorn was part of the core of her very identity. Even everything that had happened in the last several months hadn’t changed any of that.

She liked to think she could tackle any problem, handle any obstacle and overcome any challenge. But she was starting to figure out she couldn’t—and didn’t—need to do it alone.

It was hard for her to admit something was beyond her. But some things were simply too big for her to handle.

I probably couldn’t have accepted that last year, Sunset thought with a sigh.

You shouldn’t have to accept it now! You’re stronger than that! Your problem right now is you’re wasting time on this stupid filly! Just get up and walk—

Sunset downed the last dregs of Earl Grey and shuddered as the hot, bitter taste drowned the evil little voice and most of her hesitation.

Cheerilee watched her. The mare’s eyes were still red from tears. She looked exhausted. She’d probably been up for days struggling with this. Well, that was another thing Sunset could relate to. She’d had a lot of sleepless nights over the summer… and a lot more since coming back.

“Cheerilee, I don’t think I can help you,” Sunset confessed when she managed to find her voice. “But I might know somepony who might.”

Sunset had a lot of things to make up for. But this wasn’t one of them. For once, she didn’t have to undo the damage she had caused. For the first time in a long while, she had a chance to help somepony, not because of guilt or some selfish desire, but because it was simply the right thing to do.

“Come with me.” Sunset rose to her hooves and took a step forward to encourage Cheerilee.

That proved to be a mistake. In her haste, she had forgotten about her mane. So she tripped. Again.

And fell face-first into Grading on a Bell Curve.

Despite Cheerilee’s mood, the earth pony burst out laughing.

Author's Note:

In case you're wondering, no, Sunset does not know the scissors spell Trixie used in "Magic Duel."

For reasons. :trixieshiftright:

If you come across any errors, please let me know by PM!