The University of Jeromeville is on a three quarter schedule. My classes last for one-third of the school year instead of the traditional half-year. Year-long classes are still year-long classes, but split into three parts instead of two. Winter break falls one-third of the way through the year, which is why UJ starts and ends later than most universities. The spring break at the end of March, which had just passed, comes two-thirds of the way through the year, so that this coming Monday morning I would have new spring quarter classes. The terms are called quarters even though there are three of them.
Right now, it was early afternoon on the Saturday at the end of spring break. I had left my parents’ house in Plumdale around 11 in the morning and stopped for lunch at a McDonald’s in Irving just off Highway 6, where I had Chicken McNuggets. I hadn’t yet outgrown Chicken McNuggets at age 18; that would happen over the next year or so. I arrived back at Building C a little before two o’clock.
The entire South Residential Area was quiet. Most normal students waited until Sunday night to return to Jeromeville, because most normal students preferred to be at home on vacation and not back at school. I would rather be here. It was quieter here than at my parents’ house. I didn’t have friends in Plumdale. And, perhaps most importantly, my computer was here. I didn’t take my computer home, and there was no way to access the Internet from my parents’ house.
It wasn’t exactly correct to say that I didn’t have friends in Plumdale. Melissa Holmes was home for break the same week I was, and we had gone to see some of our old teachers at Plumdale High. I stayed until lunch time and saw many of my teachers and some friends from younger classes, including Rachel Copeland, the only younger friend at Plumdale High who had kept in touch with me consistently. That was a great day.
I checked my email, and today’s date on the incoming messages caught my eye: April 1. April Fool’s Day. I got an idea. I opened a new email and copied and pasted the list of email addresses for all 70 students in the IHP.
I have really enjoyed being part of the IHP with all of you these last two quarters. Unfortunately, some circumstances have changed back home, and I will be unable to finish out the school year here at UJ. I hope to stay in touch with all of you, and I might be back someday when everything gets sorted out.
APRIL FOOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 🙂 Gotcha!
After I sent my April Fool email, I replied to Molly Boyle, an online friend from Pennsylvania, telling her about my visit to Plumdale. I got to thinking about Plumdale High… I really needed another year there. Sure, I was done with classes, but I grew so much senior year, I made new friends and had so many new experiences, and then we all graduated and moved away, leaving what felt to me like unfinished business. I was the quiet kid who kept to myself and did homework at lunch, then all of a sudden I was performing in skits and working behind the scenes in the video yearbook club, and popular kids whom I barely knew were talking to me like old friends. But I never got the chance to get more involved with school activities. I never got the chance to find out if Jennifer Henson actually liked me, or if Annie Gambrell really meant anything when she told me to keep smiling. But I had a great story to tell. I decided I was going to make something of my senior year, and I did, even if everything I was building ended abruptly. It was the kind of story that could be made into a movie, or a novel.
Wait a minute, I thought. I opened Microsoft Word and started typing.
Roar Like A Panther
by Gregory J. Dennison
That was a dumb title. I would fix it later, when I thought of something better.
“Tom,” Mom called out to me. “Telephone call.”
I hated taking telephone calls. I have always been really shy on the telephone. I figured I knew who it was calling. I took the telephone into the next room. “Hello?”
“Hey, Tom. It’s Nancy.” As I had suspected.
“How’s your spring break going?”
“Fine. And yours?”
“I haven’t really done much,” she said. “I’ve just been hanging out with my family.”
“I saw a movie with Kate,” I said.
“How is she?”
“She’s doing fine. We didn’t really talk much, though, but it was nice to see her anyway.”
“So anyway, I was going to go visit Mrs. Jordan tomorrow. Do you want to come with me?”
“Sure!” I said. “At the school?”
“Yes. They’re still in school this week.”
“Right. What time?”
“Is 8:30 all right, or is that too early?”
“Yes. That’s fine.”
“Great!” Nancy exclaimed. “I’ll see you there.”
“Bye,” I said. I hung up.
I wrote for hours, telling about my senior year as well as I could remember, except that I changed most of the characters’ names. Melissa was Nancy; one time in high school, she complained that someone said she looked like her name should be Nancy, so I figured I’d go with it. Catherine became Kate; that one didn’t change as much. Mrs. Norton changed to Mrs. Jordan. That one didn’t really mean anything. My name in the story was Tom, because this was going to be the next Great American Novel, and I noticed once that so many great works of American literature that I had to read in school had a character named Tom. Tom Sawyer. Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath. Thomas Putnam from The Crucible. Tom Robinson from To Kill A Mockingbird. Tom Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie.
Every once in a while, as I was writing, I walked down the hallway to drink from the water fountain; I also used the bathroom on those trips down the hall if I needed to. I always tend to do this as I write. I’m not sure if it helps my brain work, or if it is more of a distraction. By the time I went to bed that night, shortly after eleven o’clock, I had already written the story of my senior year of high school up until mid-November, filming other classes’ projects for my computer graphics and video production class and meeting Annie Gambrell (or Laurie Hampton, as I called her in my novel).
Church on Sunday was emptier than usual, and I continued writing as soon as I got home. Later in the afternoon, I started to hear more people walking around. Around three o’clock, I got up to use the bathroom, and I walked around the rest of the building, starting on the first floor. The common area and study room took up almost half of the first floor, and the door of the room closest to the common area was open. I poked my head inside.
This room belonged to a short brown-haired girl named Heather Beck, but no one ever called her Heather. She always had other Heathers in her classes growing up, so her friends started calling her Beck, and that mutated somehow into Bok, which is the nickname everyone called her now. (Bok rhymes with rock.) Bok was good friends with Skeeter from the third floor; both of them were free-spirited artsy hippie types, although I never saw either of them wear the stereotypical tie-dye with Birkenstocks.
“Hey, Greg,” Bok said, looking up at me through her glasses. She and Skeeter were sitting on the floor, looking at what appeared to be old newspapers spread flat on the floor. “How was your break?”
“It was good. I visited my old high school. That was interesting.”
“I’m sure it was,” Skeeter said. “I got this over break.” She gestured toward the pile of newspapers, and I saw in the middle of them a large sheet of high-quality paper with abstract green, gray, red, and brown swirls on part of it, along with a fancy set of watercolor paints, a few small brushes, and a cup of water.
“Nice!” I said as Skeeter painted black dots with long tails floating in a spiral arrangement. “Is it bad that I can’t really tell what you’re painting?”
“I don’t know,” Skeeter shrugged, smiling, as Bok painted a blue-gray cloud shape at the other empty end of the paper. “These look like sperm. The rest of it is just stuff. By the way, that was a great April Fool’s joke. Good one.”
“What was the joke?” Bok asked.
“I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t seen it yet,” Skeeter explained.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how your painting turns out,” I said. “I started writing a novel yesterday.”
“Really?” Bok asked. “You write?”
“I don’t know. This isn’t really something I’ve done before. When I was younger, I used to make comic books and copy them on the copier at my mom’s work. I’d sell them to my brother’s friends for a quarter. But I’ve never really written prose… at least I’ve never finished a novel.”
“How long is it going to be?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s it about?”
“A coming of age story. Based on my life last year. I was thinking about this when I visited my old high school last week.”
“Makes sense,” Skeeter said. “Let me know when you finish it.”
“Me too,” Bok added.
Monday was the first day of class for the quarter. I had math first thing in the morning, as I always did, except this quarter it was nine o’clock instead of eight. I had a whole hour more to sleep in every morning. I recognized some familiar faces from previous math classes: Jack Chalmers from Building F, Tiffany from Building K, and a cute redhead from last quarter.
“Greg!” Jack said, speaking quickly as he always did, as we waited for the class that met an hour earlier in the same room to finish. “How was your break?”
“Good,” I said. “I went to visit my old high school. How was yours? You went to Santa Lucia, right?”
“Yeah! Did you say to take the 122 or 127 to Santa Lucia?”
“127. Why? What happened?”
“On the way down, we couldn’t remember, so we took the 122 instead. It was beautiful!”
“Really?” I asked. “That’s a really windy mountain road, from what I remember.”
“It was great! My friend has a brand new car that handles mountain roads really well, so we really enjoyed the drive. And on the way back we took the 127. That was so much faster! It was only five miles to cut over to the coast. Thanks again for the directions!”
“Glad you had a great drive!” I said. I was surprised at his reaction. My mother apparently had a bad experience with mountain roads once, so she raised me to believe that mountain roads were the most frightening thing ever, to be avoided at all costs. Apparently it was evident from Jack’s reaction that not all people think this way.
My math class that quarter was vector calculus. I also had chemistry and physics later that day. I was taking a class for the IHP called Psychology and the Law, but that class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, not today.
When I got back to Building C, Taylor, Pete, Liz, and Ramon were sitting on one couch in the common room, talking to Schuyler Jenkins and a girl named Jenn who lived next to Pete, sitting on another couch. I waved at them.
“Greg!” Jenn said. “You’re leaving us?”
I was confused by Jenn’s question, trying to process what she meant by leaving, but when Pete and Taylor started laughing, I realized what was going on here. “You didn’t read all of my email, did you,” I said.
“It was an April Fool’s joke,” Taylor explained.
“Oh my gosh!” Jenn exclaimed, laughing. “I can’t believe I fell for that!”
“Done with classes for the day?” Taylor asked.
“Yeah. It was a good day so far. I still have Psych-Law tomorrow.”
“Liz and I are in that class too,” Ramon said.
“I’ve been writing a novel for fun,” I said.
“Wow,” Taylor replied. “What’s it about?”
“It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s about my life last year.”
“Was your life really that interesting?” Schuyler asked in a dry deadpan tone.
“It was, actually. That’s why I decided to write about it.”
“I didn’t know you liked to write.”
“It’s kind of new for me too. I just felt like it. I’ve always had a creative side I don’t show much, but writing like this is kind of new for me.”
“Good luck with that,” Jenn said.
“Let me know when you’re done,” Liz said. “I’ll read it.”
“Okay. I will.”
I spent most of my free time during the first week and a half of spring quarter writing my story. On Friday, I got back from my last class in the afternoon, ready to write the chapter where we took our senior trip to Disneyland. But before I could get up to my room, I saw Skeeter and Bok in the common room working on two paintings. One of them was the one I had seen in Bok’s room a few days earlier, with the spiral of sperm, but the sperm had been painted over so that now they looked like crosses. Someone had written “the downward spiral” at the bottom of the page. I was vaguely aware of this phrase being the title of an album by the band Nine Inch Nails. I had no idea that this band, or their genre of industrial rock, even existed until a few months ago; no one listened to that back home in Santa Lucia County, at least no one I knew.
The other painting was a new one. The paper was in portrait orientation, the longer dimension vertical. A long light green stripe, almost straight, ran across the painting from left to right, with a dark green stripe just below it. The upper left corner had multicolored swirls, and something resembling a Venus flytrap was in the lower left, its mouth open to reveal red teeth. Directly above the Venus flytrap was a large orange circle, touching the green stripe. Skeeter was painting a pink swirly whooshy thing (I’m not good at describing abstract art) coming down from the orange ball.
“Hi,” I said in Skeeter and Bok’s general direction.
“Bok turned my sperm into crosses!” Skeeter said, sounding jokingly angry.
“I didn’t know you wanted them to be sperm!” Bok argued back.
“I think it’s interesting either way,” I said.
“Come paint with us,” Skeeter said, handing me a brush. On the right edge of the new painting, on top of a yellow spot, I painted twelve dark dots in a circle, with a thirteenth dot in the middle. I added some thin horizontal stripes to the left of this, just above the center of the paper.
“I like that Venus fly trap thing,” I said.
“That was my idea,” Bok replied. “So were the crosses.”
“They’re sperm,” Skeeter said.
“How’s your story coming along so far?” Bok asked.
“I’m getting there. I’ve been writing a lot.”
We continued talking and painting for about another hour. I added some abstract patches of color in the upper right, and Skeeter eventually painted a bunch of parallel diagonal lines on top of it. The pink swirly whooshy thing was extended toward the bottom of the page, where it split into several branches; other colored swirly whooshy things were added next to it, coming down from the parallel lines I painted.
When the page was filled with color, Skeeter said, “It needs a title.”
“Flytrap,” Bok suggested.
“I don’t know. That seems kind of obvious.”
I looked at the painting, the green stripe across its length, the horizontal lines just below now emanating from long curved strokes of different colors. I thought about the other painting, The Downward Spiral, how it had been named after a song and album. I had been listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall earlier that day, a rock opera about a musician who deals with trauma by isolating himself from society and eventually becoming delusional. Toward the end of the album, in a song called “The Trial,” the character’s life is presented as a judge accusing him of having human feelings, as if doing such is a crime. The song ends with repeated chants of “Tear down the wall!”
“How about Tear Down The Wall?” I asked.
Skeeter and Bok looked at me. “I like it,” Bok said. “I think it fits.”
“It’s got this wall separating the two sides,” Skeeter explained, tracing the green stripe in the middle. “And there’s all this tension building up against the wall here,” she added, pointing to the horizontal lines just below the wall. “Go ahead, Greg. Add the title.”
I painted TEAR DOWN THE WALL in black paint, in between the orange ball and the Venus fly trap. Later that night, when the paint was dry, Skeeter and Bok taped both Tear Down The Wall and The Downward Spiral to the wall in the common room, where they stayed for the rest of the school year for all of Building C to admire.
I finished writing my story the following Monday, after I got back from my classes. At 51 pages and about 33,000 words, it was a little short to be called a novel, but it was still the longest piece I had ever written, and it had only taken ten days. I loaded the printer with paper, but before I started printing, I went all the way back to the first page and deleted the title. Roar Like A Panther was a stupid title, and I knew it all along.
by Gregory J. Dennison
Graduation ceremonies are also called commencement ceremonies. To commence means to begin, which at first seems like a counterintuitive title since graduation is the end of school, not the beginning. But a commencement ceremony is the beginning of real life. And my senior year of high school felt like the beginning of something new in my life. This was definitely a better title.
When my hard copy of The Commencement finished printing, I punched holes in the pages and put it in a report folder with a clear cover. I wanted other people to read it, so I could find out what they thought of my story. I brought it with me to the common room after dinner, where I sat doing homework and waiting for someone with whom I felt comfortable sharing The Commencement. Liz and Ramon walked by about fifteen minutes later. “Hey, Greg,” Liz said. “What’s up?”
“I finished my story,” I replied, holding up The Commencement.
“That’s cool! Can I read it?”
“Sure. I’d like to know what you think.”
“Do you need it back in a hurry?”
“No. Just eventually when you’re done.”
“I don’t know how long it’ll take. But I’ll let you know.”
I smiled. “Thank you.”
“No problem. I think this is really cool. I hadn’t pictured you to be a writer.”
“Thanks. I don’t know if I had either.”
Skeeter and Bok were painting in the common room again three days later, and Pete, Charlie, and Liz were all on the floor painting too. Bok’s stereo had been temporarily moved to the common room, and a strange song played, with a vocalist speaking monotonous rhythmic lyrics over a bass-driven melody. It sounded like some kind of blend of rock, rap, and funk.
“Hi, Greg,” Liz said. “You like our painting?”
“I do.” This painting had four distinct quadrants arranged in a two-by-two grid, each with a distinct color scheme. One was shades of gray; one was pale pastel-like colors; one had swirls of simple, bright colors, like red and blue; and one had dark shades of brown, olive green, midnight blue, and black. The painting was almost finished, there was not much more to do, so I just made blobs and swirls of color, trying to stay close to the colors near what I was painting.
“What’s this music?” I asked.
“Cake,” Bok said.
“A local band from Capital City, called Cake. My friend and I went to their show the other day. Apparently they’re going to be the next big thing.”
“They sound different. But I kind of like it.”
“That’s how I feel about them too.”
“I finished your story,” Liz said. “I put it over there on the coffee table. I really liked it.”
“It sounds like you really enjoyed your senior year.”
“I did. I feel like I was really growing. And then it all suddenly stopped.”
“But now you’re here. And you’re still growing.”
“Yes, I am,” I said. Liz was right. Sure, I never got to be in another Homecoming skit, and I never got a date with any of those girls I liked back in high school. But instead of standing there looking through a door that had closed, I was now looking at new doors opening here at UJ.
“Does anyone have a good title for this painting?” Skeeter asked.
“Not really,” Pete answered.
“Maybe we should just look around somewhere and find some random title,” Charlie suggested. “Like, look at these newspapers on the ground and find something in there.”
“I like that idea,” I said. “Then the title will be something really off the wall and silly.” I scanned the newspaper. My eyes quickly fell on an advertisement for a furniture store, and I pointed to a phrase from this advertisement. “Like this one,” I added. “‘Everything 25% Off.’” The others laughed.
“I think it’s perfect!” Skeeter said. “Because there are four parts. Fourths, like 25 percent.”
“I think we have our title,” Pete said. I took a paint brush and painted EVERYTHING 25% OFF in a corner of the painting, and later that night Everything 25% Off joined The Downward Spiral and Tear Down The Wall on the wall of the common room.
By the end of the year, there were around a dozen paintings on the wall. When we moved out of the building, Skeeter and Bok let those of us who helped paint each keep one that we helped with. To this day, Tear Down The Wall hangs on a wall at my house.
After I printed The Commencement, I left it in the common room for about a week, in case anyone else wanted to read it. I’m not sure who all did, but Schuyler Jenkins pointed out a typo, and Skeeter told me it was a good first draft. I also sent it to Molly from Pennsylvania in eleven separate emails over the next month, and she said she really liked it and felt like she had gotten to know me better.
Skeeter’s comment seemed kind of disappointing at first, since I thought The Commencement was finished, but she was right. It was a good first draft. My writing style was too dry; I just listed things that happened instead of telling about them in a way that engaged the reader. I worked on The Commencement again for a while in 1996, and again in 2002; by that time, it was almost three times as long as the original. Interestingly enough, one of my friends who read the 2002 version said that the most relatable part was a chapter that I completely made up, something that never happened to me in real life.
I never considered writing for a career. I was a math guy. I didn’t write. And creative writing wasn’t something that could make a steady career. It is possible to make a living writing, of course; many writers and artists and musicians work on art in between working normal jobs, waiting to get discovered. Some of these actually make it. Bok’s friend who said that this local band Cake was the next big thing was right; Cake had several big hits over the next decade. But making a life out of art requires much patience and uncertainty, and that part of it didn’t sound appealing to me. I’d stick to writing for fun.
The Commencement was the first piece of fiction I wrote that was based on myself, and it felt good to open up and share my story with a few others. My own life has been my favorite inspiration for my writing over the years. I’ve written stories not based on me, but I do best when I write what I know, and I don’t understand others as well as I understand myself. I hope that someone out there can learn something from reading my story.