“Any other final thoughts from Matthew 20?” Joe Ferris asked the group.
“To be completely honest, I never really liked this passage,” I said. “It seems unfair. The workers who got there early should be paid more.”
“So you think that people who became Christians earlier in life and served God for longer deserve a better heaven than those who came to Jesus later in life?” Jonathan B. asked. “That’s basically what the grumbling workers thought.”
“No,” I replied. “I’m a new Christian myself. And I understand what Jesus is trying to say here.”
“It’s not a perfect analogy,” Jonathan G. said. “Just for salvation and grace.”
“I know. It’s not meant to explain how we should pay workers. It’s just making the point that God’s grace is for everyone who comes to him, no matter what we were like before that.” As I said that, I thought of something else, so I added, “And, also, none of us received God’s grace because of anything we worked for.”
“Good point!” Alison said.
“On that, it’s time to close,” Joe announced. “Any prayer requests?”
“I’m really missing home this week,” I said. “Pray that I’ll be able to get through the rest of the summer.”
“How much longer does your research program go?” Jonathan G. asked.
“This last weekend was the halfway point; this is week five out of eight. Then I have two weeks at my parents’ house after that. Then I move into my new house in Jeromeville, and I have a few weeks there before school starts.”
“You guys start late,” Alison commented.
“We’re on the three-quarter system. So Christmas comes one-third of the way through the year instead of halfway. We start at the end of September and go until the middle of June.”
“That’s kind of weird,” Jonathan B. said.
After we prayed for each other, I rode my bike home from the Ferrises’ house back to Howard Hall on campus. It was close to nine o’clock, and the sun was just setting. Grandvale, in western Oregon on the Willamette River, was the farthest north I had ever lived, and I was not used to the sun staying up this late. I had brought my battery-operated bike headlight just in case it got dark, but I did not need to use it. I had not used the headlight for the entire month I had been in Grandvale.
I always looked forward to the weekly Bible study for the college and career group at church. With how out of place I felt among the other math research students, it was nice to at least have one time a week around people who believed the same thing I did. Two times per week, actually, because some of them came to church Sunday morning as well. I did not see them enough to build a strong social life around them, though, and the group was mostly guys this summer, so I was not meeting any girls. I felt closest to the two Jonathans and Alison, but Alison was twenty-nine years old, not really a romantic option for my twenty-year-old self, even if my birthday was coming up in a few weeks.
“Hey, Greg,” said Marcus, one of the other math students, as he saw me getting out of the elevator on the third floor of Howard Hall with my bike. “Where’d you go?”
“Bible study,” I replied.
“Oh, that’s right. What did you say you were studying? Proverbs?”
“Parables,” I replied. “The stories Jesus told to make illustrations.”
“That’s right. I was close alphabetically, at least.”
“We’re all in Emily’s room hanging out if you want to join us. I’ll be back in a while.”
“Sure,” I replied. “Let me drop off my bike.”
When I was a freshman at the University of Jeromeville, I lived in a tiny single room in a dormitory that was reserved for students in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program. It was the perfect situation for me, because I had a built in community. If I wanted to be around people, I could just wander up and down the halls and see what people were doing, and if I did not, I could just go back to my room and close the door. Unfortunately, student housing at Jeromeville was so full in those years that students were only guaranteed one year of living on campus, so I did not have the opportunity to live in a dorm for any of my other years at Jeromeville.
Being in the summer mathematics research program at Grandvale State University gave me another opportunity to experience dorm life. Howard Hall was normally the dorm for graduate students. All of the rooms, at least on my floor, were single rooms, and they were much bigger than my freshman dorm at UJ. Being in a dorm again, I reverted back to my old habit of wandering the hall to see if anyone was doing anything, just to make conversation and not be alone in my room all the time. Emily’s room had become the one where the math research students often hung out. Tonight, Emily, Ivan, Julie, Marjorie, and Kirk were all there, along with Jason, a tall blond guy who was one of three students on our floor not from the math program whom I had met. I poked my head in the door and waved.
“Hey, Greg,” Emily said. “Come on in.”
“How are those research projects coming along?” Jason asked.
“Good,” I said. “We’re making progress. Ivan and Emily and I are on the same project. I wrote code to do the Monte Carlo integration that we’re studying.”
“I’m working alone, but on a very similar project as Jeannie,” Marjorie said. “There’s a lot of stuff out there on punctured toruses, but I decided to look at toruses with one puncture, and Jeannie is doing two punctures.”
“‘Toruses?’” I asked. “Or would that be ‘tori?’”
“Tori,” Ivan repeated as Marcus entered the room and sat next to me. “I like that.”
“Man, I’m an engineer, I’ve taken a lot of math, but I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jason said. “This math research stuff is out there.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I feel the same way.”
“Speaking of which, I need to go work on stuff. I’ll see you guys later?”
“Bye, Jason,” Ivan said. We waved as Jason left the room.
“Every time I read about what research my professors back home are doing, I feel like it doesn’t make any sense to me,” I said. “And that’s one thing I’m worried about if I do end up going to grad school in math. Like, maybe it’ll be too complicated for me.”
“I don’t think you’re alone in that,” Marcus replied. “You’ll spend the first two years taking more advanced classes and learning about those things.”
After the conversation reached a lull, Emily said, “You guys want to play Skip-Boo?”
“Sure,” Ivan answered, and the rest of us gave assenting replies too. Emily had brought with her to Grandvale a Skip-Bo card game, a longtime favorite in her family, except she always pronounced it like Skip-Boo. She said that that was how they always pronounced it back home in upstate New York; I wondered if it was a regional dialect thing, since she did pronounce other vowels differently from how those of us in the western United States did. I grew up playing Skip-Bo with my grandmother, but I had not played in probably close to a decade before meeting Emily.
Skip-Bo was a simple game, in which players had a stock pile that they were trying to get rid of, along with cards in their hands. Cards were played on piles in sequence from 1 to 12. I drew a 1 on my turn and started a new pile, but that was all I was able to do. It was not until my third turn that I was finally able to play off of my stock pile. Jeannie walked in at that moment. “Skip-Bo,” she said. “Can you deal me in?”
“Sure,” Emily said. “Who has the biggest pile right now?”
“I’ve only played one,” I said. Emily dealt Jeannie the same number of cards in my pile, so that she would not start with an advantage.
When my next turn came; I was able to play two cards from my hand, but nothing from the stock pile. I put down my discard, and the turn passed to Marjorie. She drew cards until she had five in her hand. “I can’t play anything!” she said, frustrated, as she put down her discard and ended her turn. “These cards are, like, so bad!” She drawled out the word “so,” holding the O sound for about a full second.
“Like, sooooo bad,” Ivan said, playfully mocking her pronunciation. “Yep, you’re totally from California.” The others laughed, and Marjorie blushed.
“Want to play again?” Emily asked. “Or play something else?” The others seemed to want to play again, so Emily handed parts of the large deck to me and to Julie to help shuffle.
“I was thinking earlier, does anyone remember how to play that card game where one player is the President, and one player is the asshole, and stuff like that?” Kirk asked.
“No,” Julie replied. No one else remembered either. I did not know the game Kirk described. (A few years later, I would learn a game that was probably the President-Asshole game Kirk was describing, but I have since forgotten it again.) Hearing those two words in the description, though, I said something that I thought was hilarious: “I don’t know that game, but these days, the President is an asshole.” Everyone in those days made fun of President Bill Clinton, and he was an arrogant elitist who looked down on common people like me and stood against everything I believed about how to run the country.
No one laughed. Ivan said, “I voted for the President.”
“Me too,” Marjorie added.
“I did too,” Jeannie said.
“So did I,” Kirk said.
“I did too,” Emily said.
“Me too,” Julie said.
After a pause of a couple seconds, Marcus added, “I voted for Ralph Nader.”
Emily drew five cards and took her turn, playing three cards from her hand before discarding. “I voted for Bob Dole,” I said, somewhat angrily and proudly. Apparently I was the only one in this room not responsible for the moral decay and high taxes in this country, yet this made me feel even more out of place among the six Democrats and the Green Party radical in the math research program. The conversation turned back away from politics as the game continued, but I did not say much the rest of the night.
Dr. Garrison, the professor in charge of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, had scheduled a meeting with me the following afternoon. In his email, he said that he was meeting with everyone this week, now that the program was half over, just to touch base on things. It did not sound like I was in trouble or anything, but I was still a little nervous as I entered his office.
“Hi, Greg,” Dr. Garrison said. “Come on in. Sit down.” I sat in the chair facing his desk, and he continued, “So how is the program going for you so far?”
I took a deep breath, trying to decide exactly how much to tell Dr. Garrison. I decided to just be honest and tell the truth. “I feel like I don’t fit in with the other students,” I said.
Dr. Garrison paused, probably not having expected me to say that. “Why do you say that?” he asked.
“I don’t have anything in common with them,” I said. “I’m a Christian. Most of my social life back in Jeromeville is church activities. And these guys talk about drinking and partying and… stuff like that.” I could not bring myself to say sex out loud. “And I really miss my friends back home.”
“Well,” Dr. Garrison said, “the REU program always brings students from all different backgrounds. It’s natural that some people might not get along.”
“I really don’t think they’re trying to be hurtful on purpose. I’m just different.”
“Well, if that’s the case, just look for any common ground you might be able to find. Have you had any good experiences with the other students?”
“Yeah. Tonight I think we’re going to Dairy Queen. We’ve done that sometimes.” I also told Dr. Garrison about playing cards in Emily’s room, and about our trip to the coast.
“There you go. Just make the best of those moments.” Dr. Garrison then asked, “How do you feel about the math you’re working on? You’re doing the quasi-Monte Carlo integration project with Ivan and Emily?”
“Yes. It’s been interesting. I’ve learned a lot, but I’m still not sure about my future. One professor back at Jeromeville told me about REU programs, another professor thinks I would make a good teacher, and I’m kind of using this summer to figure out if grad school is a real option, or if I should focus on being a teacher.”
“I see. Just remember this. If grad school isn’t for you, it’s better to learn that now than after you’ve given years of your life to a Ph.D. program.”
“That’s a good point.”
“I think you’re doing fine. And I think this is still a valuable experience for you even if you do end up a teacher. Most kids will never have a teacher who did math research. You’ll be able to bring them a different perspective on math.”
“That’s true. Good point.”
The walk from Howard Hall to Dairy Queen that night took about half an hour, a mile and a half straight down Pine Street. Dairy Queen was in downtown Grandvale, a few blocks from where we saw fireworks on the Fourth of July. We had made this walk as a group a few times already this summer, and on our last Dairy Queen trip, Ivan and I had found a way to pass the time while we made this walk.
“Michael Jackson guest-starred, they couldn’t put his real name in the credits, so what name was he credited as?” I asked.
“John Jay Smith,” Ivan replied. “That name just sounds fake.”
“What’s Nelson’s last name?”
“Crap, I should know this one,” I said. In all my eight years of watching The Simpsons, how could I not know one of the major recurring characters’ last names?
“Yes, you should,” Ivan said.
“But I don’t.”
“I know, I’m thinking.” I needed to come up with a good one to redeem myself for having missed the last one. “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?”
“That’s Bob Dylan,” Jeannie said. “Not The Simpsons.”
“Yeah. That’s a Simpsons trivia question?” Ivan asked.
“Yes, it is,” I answered.
“Wait. Did Homer try to answer that question?”
“Yes.” I laughed.
“I don’t remember what he said, though.”
“‘Seven!’ Then Lisa told Homer it was a rhetorical question, and he goes, ‘Hmm… Eight!’ It was the episode where Homer’s mother comes back.”
“Oh, yeah. And she was a hippie.”
As we stood in line waiting to order, Ivan asked me, “What does your shirt mean?”
I looked down to remind myself which shirt I was wearing today; it was a white t-shirt that said “Man of Steel” in green writing, with pictures of a Frisbee, a taco, and playing cards. “The Christian group I’m part of back home, the guys have a competition every year, with disc golf, a taco eating contest, and poker.” I turned around, so that Ivan could see the words on the back of the shirt: FRISBEE, TACOS, POKER, FAITH.
“That sounds awesome,” Ivan said. “And hilarious.”
“How’d you do?” Jeannie asked, having overheard the conversation.
“Not great. But the year before that, I was second to last, so I’m improving.”
“Maybe you’ll win it all next year,” Ivan said.
“I can’t throw a Frisbee straight, so I’d just need a lot of luck, I guess.”
I had not eaten dinner yet, so when I got to the front of the line, I ordered a cheeseburger along with my ice cream Blizzard. Music played in the background. When they called my number, I got up to get my food, and as I returned to my seat, the song “Lovefool” by the Cardigans came on. Emily quietly sang along to every word. I had never listened to the whole song all the way through, because I always found it annoying.
“This song is really kind of sad,” Jeannie said. “The guy is obviously not into the relationship, but the girl just can’t leave him. She deserves better.”
“I always thought it was kind of making fun of girls like that,” Emily replied. Granted, this was my first time hearing the whole song, but it did not sound mocking to me.
“If the guy is good enough in bed, I’d stay with him,” Julie said. “Who cares if he’s not the perfect romantic? He’s got it where it counts! Gimme some action!”
“Yes!” Emily exclaimed. The two girls laughed loudly.
“How’s your burger?” Ivan asked.
“Really good,” I answered. “A nice change from microwave food.”
“I tried the dining hall food here a couple times too the first week, I was thinking about buying a meal plan. But it wasn’t really worth it. It’s more expensive than fast food and just as mediocre.”
“This Blizzard is so good,” Marjorie announced.
“How good was it?” Jeannie replied, laughing.
“Sooooo good!” Marjorie said, exaggerating the word “so,” intentionally this time.
As we walked back home in the nine o’clock twilight, I came to realize that Dr. Garrison was right. I may not have a lot in common with these people, but I was still starting to build a social life with them, between the card game nights, these walks to Dairy Queen, and the outings we had taken as a group. We had started to develop inside jokes with each other, including Emily’s unusual pronunciation of “Skip-Boo” and Marjorie’s California beach bum accent. This was my group for the next twenty-four days, and I was a part of it, whether I felt like I fit in or not.
As I got back to my room, with Lovefool still stuck in my head, I thought about how God had put these people in my life for a reason. Maybe some of them had never really known a practicing Christian before. Maybe just by being honest, like telling Marcus about Bible study yesterday, or telling Ivan and Emily about Man of Steel, God would be planting seeds in their lives. Or maybe God had something to teach me about what the world was like outside of my Christian bubble. I spent some time before bed praying for my new friends in the REU program, praying that Jesus would find a way to reach them. I prayed that Emily and her boyfriend that she talked about often would make good choices in their relationship, and I prayed that Julie would find more meaning in her relationships beyond whether or not the guy was good in bed. And I prayed that God would lead me in making the most of my last twenty-four days here.
Readers: Have you ever been part of a group where you just felt different from everyone? How did you deal with it? Tell me about it in the comments!