So far, for the six and a half weeks I had been in Jeromeville, the weather had been perfect. Summer in Jeromeville is hot and dry; I remember that from that one summer day last year when I was with my family, and we visited the campus. Also, I had been to Bidwell during the summer to see Dad’s relatives there, and I knew that the weather in Jeromeville was similar to the weather in Bidwell. By the time I arrived in Jeromeville, in late September, the warm days had cooled off a little; it was still shorts weather, but the heat was not quite as intense. Also, evenings were cool, a nice break from the heat of the day.
All of that changed suddenly this week. Monday night, the weather became cloudy and windy, and by the time I woke up today, Wednesday morning, it was cool and windy and steadily raining. I went to breakfast and read the newspaper after I got back to my room. The weather was terrible, but I was in a good mood, because yesterday was Election Day, I was old enough to vote for the first time, and my candidate for governor won. This also meant I would stop hearing all of the annoying political ads.
I got on my bike and headed toward my math class in Wellington Hall, next to the Quad. I didn’t have a jacket, and now that I think about it, I really don’t know why. For some reason, I did not own a jacket in the fall of 1994. I guess I just never really thought about it. I didn’t go outside in the rain very often. So now, here I was, riding my bike across campus, in the rain, wearing a light gray hoodie that said UNIVERSITY OF JEROMEVILLE COLTS in navy blue, and a t-shirt underneath, and jeans.
I locked my bike outside of Wellington Hall and saw a group of frat boy types walking toward the door from the other direction. I entered the building first, with the frat boys behind me. As I walked down the hall toward the room where my math class was, I thought I heard them laughing, and I thought one of them mockingly said, “Nice stripe.” Their tone brought back flashbacks of elementary school, when the other kids in class were so cruel to me. I didn’t know what “nice stripe” meant, though, so maybe they weren’t talking to me.
I walked into my classroom and took off my backpack. A guy named Jack Chalmers sat behind me; in addition to math class, I had also seen him at the dining hall. I think he lived in Building F. I wasn’t sure where he was from, exactly, but I got the impression he was a beach bum or a surfer dude. He wore shorts and sandals even today when it was raining. Another thing I always remember about Jack is that he talked unusually fast.
“Greg,” Jack said quietly. “You got a stripe on your back.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I felt blood rushing to my face in a mixture of anger and embarrassment as I realized that the frat boys in the hallway had been making fun of me after all. “What?” I replied.
“You were riding your bike in the rain,” Jack explained. “Water on the road splashed and made a stripe down your back.” I took off my sweatshirt; sure enough, the stripe was there. I was cold, but I didn’t put the sweatshirt back on. Too embarrassing at this point. “You should put fenders on your bike next time,” Jack said. I was about to ask him more about this when Jimmy Best, the instructor, walked in and started teaching. I quietly started taking notes.
I was a lot quieter than usual in class that day, and I spent the whole fifty minutes trying to concentrate on math, but being less successful than usual because of my dirty sweatshirt. When class was dismissed, I waited until most of the class had left before I got up; I didn’t want to take the chance that someone else would see my dirty sweatshirt. Rebekah from upstairs and Andrea from Building B were both in this class, and I especially didn’t want them to see me like that.
Even though I was cold, I left my sweatshirt off as I walked upstairs to the classroom for Rise and Fall of Empires. I had that class back to back with math, and it was in the same building, so I got there before most of the rest of the class. I had plenty of time to hide my sweatshirt in a way to make the stripe inconspicuous.
By the time class got out, I had forgotten about the events of two hours earlier. But when I put on my sweatshirt, Mike was behind me, looking at me, and said in his naturally loud voice, “Greg has a Freshman Stripe!”
“Yeah,” I said bitterly, sitting back down and staring off into space. “I know.”
Taylor noticed what was going on and walked over. “Greg? You all right, man?”
“Sorry,” Mike said. “I didn’t mean it. Just get some fenders for your bike. Then the dirt won’t go flying up.”
“But how does everyone know about this but me?” I asked.
“I heard about it from my friend who’s a sophomore,” Mike answered.
“I got some fenders a few days ago from the Bike Barn,” Taylor said. “They weren’t very expensive.”
“I guess I’m going to have to do that, then.”
I put the dirty sweatshirt back on and got on my bike. There was no point in not wearing it at this point. I headed back home, the way I came, but I stopped at the intersection of Colt Avenue and Davis Drive. A cluster of buildings that had once been actual barns and silos had been repurposed; the area included a student union with tables and meeting places, a few fast-food express restaurants, and the Bike Barn. This was a full-service bicycle sales and repair shop, run by the Associated Students of the University of Jeromeville, the same organization that has the student President and Senate and runs a number of other student groups and business-like establishments on campus.
I looked around, trying to find fenders. I turned my back to the cashier for a minute, and he said, “Looking for fenders? Your back looks like it got splashed.”
“Yeah,” I said. He pointed out where the fenders were displayed and even offered to lend me a screwdriver to install them. I paid for them, brought my bike inside, screwed the fenders on, returned his screwdriver, and rode back to Building C.
I had one more class in the afternoon; by then it had stopped raining, so I didn’t wear the dirty sweatshirt, even though the air was still cold enough to make short sleeves uncomfortable. Later that afternoon, I went to the laundry room on the first floor and did a load of laundry, including the dirty sweatshirt. My laundry was still drying at dinner time, so when I went to the dining hall, I was still wearing just one layer of short sleeves.
I looked around to see if anyone I knew was eating. I saw Amy, the RA from the third floor, sitting next to three people I did not know: a guy with facial hair, who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent; a tall, thin Asian guy; and a girl of fair complexion with shoulder-length dark blonde hair. “May I sit here?” I asked, approaching them.
“Sure!” Amy said. “Do you know any of these people?”
Amy gestured to them from left to right. “This is Ali, Victor, and Megan. They’re RAs in Building E, G, and K. Is that right?” The three of them nodded and murmured assents. “And this is Greg,” Amy continued. “He’s in my building.”
“Hi,” I said to all three of them collectively.
“Aren’t you cold?” Amy asked me. “You’re just wearing a shirt in this weather.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but my sweatshirt is dirty. I have laundry going right now. Apparently your back gets dirty when you ride your bike in the rain.”
“Oh, yes,” Victor said. “The Freshman Stripe.”
I looked down at my plate, the humiliation returning to my face.
“It’s okay,” Megan said reassuringly. “We all went through it as freshmen too. Some things you just don’t think of until they happen to you.”
“I guess. I got fenders from the Bike Barn on the way home.”
“Good! See, you’re learning.”
“And I’ll give you another pointer,” Megan continued. “Slow down. A lot more bike accidents happen when it’s wet. I know from experience.”
“Thanks for the tip.“ I smiled at Megan, and she smiled back.
After I was done eating dinner with the other RAs, I walked back to my room; it was dark outside now. I took my laundry, now clean and dry, back upstairs. The dirt had all gotten out of my sweatshirt, so I put it on; it was nice and warm. I sat on the edge of the bed, thinking, putting off my math homework, as I heard the rain start again. Today was a little embarrassing. I’m learning new things, and sometimes you have to learn the hard way. The frat boys walking behind me in Wellington tried to put me down in order to make themselves feel better. Screw them. I don’t need people like that in my life. There are plenty of more helpful older students, like the cashier from the Bike Barn, and Megan, the RA from Building K. I’m learning and growing. And someday, hopefully, I will be that helpful older students, passing on pointers of value to freshmen.
But first, I needed to get a jacket and an umbrella.