August 12-15, 1997. My final week in Oregon. (#142)

“Any other thoughts about how Luke 18 is relevant to us?” I asked.

“I know, whenever I’m reading these Bible passages about the Pharisees, it’s easy to think of it like, this is something that happened in the past, we don’t have those kind of religious leaders occupying the same prominent position in today’s society,” Jonathan B. said.  “But, really, we do, in a way.  As Christians, we will look up to leaders in our church, or to famous Christian musicians or authors, so they kind of become like our Pharisees.”

“And when you’re in a position of leadership, it’s easy to want to put yourself on a pedestal,” Jonathan G. added.  “You have to remember to stay humble.  We are all sinners saved by grace.  Like the tax collector said here, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”

“Good point,” I said.  Being that this was my first time ever leading a Bible study of my peers, I quietly reminded myself to take Jonathan G.’s advice and stay humble.

“Anything else?” I asked nervously.  We had been discussing the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector for around half an hour now, and I really hoped that I had filled enough time.  We spent some time singing first, with Jonathan B. leading worship, and we would probably do prayer requests afterward, so hopefully this was enough. Joe Ferris, the leader of the college group at Grandvale Baptist Church, had asked a couple weeks ago if any of us wanted to volunteer to lead a Bible study, and I figured it would be good to try.  I asked for August 12;  if it went horribly, it was only for one week, there would only be around ten people there to see it, and it was my last week in Grandvale so I would not have to face them the following week.  I had considered being a Bible study leader for my upcoming senior year at the University of Jeromeville, but I chose not to pursue that when I got involved in youth ministry instead.

“Thank you for leading,” Joe said.  He then addressed the whole group and said, “In case you didn’t hear, this is Greg’s last week with us.”

“Back to Jeromeville already?” Alison asked.  “When do you leave?”

“Friday night.  But I’m going to my parents’ house for two weeks before I go back to Jeromeville.”

“Where do they live?” Jonathan B. asked.  “I think you’ve told me, but I forgot.”

“Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia, about an hour south of San Tomas.”

“Oh, ok.  I kind of know where that is.”

“Friday is also my birthday,” I said.

“Happy birthday!” Jonathan G. said.  “How old will you be, if I may ask?”

“Twenty-one.”

“Twenty-one!  All right!” Alison exclaimed.  “Any big plans?”

“Not this year.  My family will probably get me a few gifts, but I don’t really have any friends left back in Plumdale.”

“You should do something!”

“I’m okay with not making a big deal of this birthday.  Really.”

“What is going to stand out the most from your experience with this summer research internship?” Joe asked me.

“Honestly,” I said, “I hate to say it, but I think the biggest thing is that I don’t think math research is a career option for me anymore.”

“Really,” Alison commented, not voicing her statement as a question.

“Yeah.  I just didn’t really like it.  The kind of math that gets researched is hard to follow and hard to wrap my mind around.  A Ph.D. program would start with at least two years of studying all of this really advanced theoretical stuff that can’t even be pictured in the real world, then I would have to make new discoveries about how it connects to other stuff.  I can’t even picture what that is like, so it doesn’t seem smart to base an entire career around it right now.  But I’m glad I figured this out now, before I shell out thousands of dollars for a Ph.D. and devote years of my life to it.”

“Good point,” Jonathan G. replied.

“And honestly, I didn’t really click with the others in the program either.  That was also part of why I didn’t really like it.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Joe said.  “Can we pray for you, since this is your last time here?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Just jump in, and I’ll close.”

We all bowed our heads, and I closed my eyes.  I heard Jonathan B. begin speaking.  “Father God, I thank you for Greg.  I thank you for all the insight he brought to our Bible study this summer.  I pray that he will continue to seek your wisdom as he processes everything he learned from his research experience.”

A few others spoke in succession, praying that I would know God’s will for my career, for safe travels back home, and for a good upcoming school year.  After it got quiet for a while, Joe spoke.  “Father, I thank you for bringing Greg to Grandvale this summer.  I thank you for giving him a heart of service, that he jumped right in and volunteered to lead Bible study this week.  I pray that you will continue to open doors for him to get involved at his church back home, and anywhere else that he is part of.  I pray that you will keep him safe Friday night as he travels back home, and I pray for these last few days of his math program, as he and his colleagues present their research.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“It really has been wonderful having you be part of our group this summer.  Are you sure you don’t need a ride home?”

“I’m good.  I like going for long walks at night, as long as it’s not raining.”

“That’s another thing.  You were here in Oregon for exactly the eight weeks of great weather that we get here.”

“I got here a little too early,” I said, then explained about my first day in Grandvale when I got caught in a downpour.  “But it definitely was nice the rest of the time I was here.”

“Take care and keep in touch.”

“I will.”


I had met Joe Ferris and his family my first week in Grandvale, when I found a church close enough to walk to, and they let me borrow an old bicycle.  I rode it to Bible study tonight and left it at the house.  I would survive without it for my remaining three days in Grandvale.  The walk back to the Grandvale State campus took about half an hour.  Grandvale is far enough north that the sky was still just a little bit dusky when I left the Ferrises’ house around nine o’clock, but it was dark by the time I arrived back at Howard Hall.

Our research project was over.  Ivan, Emily, and I had submitted our paper that morning, neatly typed using LaTeX, software commonly used for mathematics publishing with powerful capabilities to format complex mathematical symbols.  I had learned recently that LaTeX was not pronounced the same as “latex,” the substance used to make rubber.  The first syllable of LaTeX was pronounced like the musical note “la,” and the second syllable was pronounced like the first syllable of “technical,” having been named after the Greek word from which “technical” is derived.  The English prefix “tech” looks like TEX when written in Greek capital letters.

Julie and Kirk presented their project first on Wednesday morning, with Marcus presenting his afterward.  I had a hard time following what they were doing; like I mentioned at Bible study, mathematics research involved topics beyond anything I knew or could visualize, even being three full years into a mathematics degree program.  After the presentations, we spent much of the rest of Wednesday hanging out in Emily’s room, playing Killer Monopoly and Skip-Bo.  Although the Monopoly board belonged to Julie, Killer Monopoly was my contribution, a game I made up with my brother Mark several years earlier and taught to this group last month.  In Killer Monopoly, players can acquire bombs and use them to blow up houses and hotels when they do not want to pay the rent.  It made for an interesting variation to the usual Monopoly game.

Ivan, Emily, and I gave our presentation Thursday morning.  Everything went smoothly, and while I was a bit nervous at first, I think I did fine.  After us, Marjorie and Jeannie gave separate presentations on their distinct but related projects involving punctured tori.  That word “tori,” the plural of torus, still made me laugh, as did most irregular plurals in general.  “Torus” was the technical term for a donut-shaped solid, and given our group’s frequent references to The Simpsons, we had jokingly begun referring to tori as “donuts,” followed by someone imitating Homer Simpson’s trademark catch phrase of “Mmm, donuts.”

After we finished presenting on Thursday, most of us began working on packing and cleaning.  At dinner time, we took one last walk to Dairy Queen.  It felt kind of surreal knowing that this would be the last time I would make this walk, having made it at least once a week for most of the summer.

“What’s Sideshow Bob’s full name?” Ivan asked me.  Quizzing each other on random facts about The Simpsons had become second nature to the point that Simpsons trivia needed no introduction or context.

“Robert… umm… I should know this,” I said, disappointed in myself.  “I don’t remember.”

“Terwilliger.”

“That’s right.”  I tried to think of a question to ask Ivan, and after a minute or so, I said, “When Mr. Burns goes after Homer’s mother in a tank–”

“Shhh!” Julie exclaimed.

I laughed, knowing that she was not actually being mean.  “When Mr. Burns–”

“Let me tell you a little story about a man named Shhh!” Julie said, laughing.  Two weeks ago, the eight of us had all gone to watch the movie Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.  Since then, some of the others had been quoting the scene where Dr. Evil keeps telling his son to “Shhh!” on a regular basis.

I waited for Julie to lose interest in what I was saying, then turned back to Ivan and asked, “When Mr. Burns–”

“Shhh!  I have a whole bag of Shhh! with your name on it!” Julie interrupted.  “I’m just messing with you,” she continued.  “Go ahead.”

“When Mr. Burns goes after Homer’s mother in a tank, Smithers taped over his battle music with what song?”

“Oooh,” Ivan said.  “Good one.  I remember that scene, but not the song.”

“‘Waterloo,’ by ABBA,” I replied.  “I remember that one because my roommate last year loved ABBA.”

“Oh, yeah.”

I ate a cheeseburger and fries and Blizzard at Dairy Queen, and when we got back to the dorm, I finished the rest of the packing and organizing.  There was not much left to do at this point, especially since my parents had taken everything nonessential home with them when they came to visit on Saturday.  The end of this tedious summer really did feel near, finally.


Our final class Friday morning did not involve math.  It was just a social event, one last going-away party before we all returned to our regular lives across the country.  The mathematics department provided snacks.  I filled a paper plate with as many donuts and cinnamon rolls as I could fit on it and sat in my usual seat as the others trickled in.

“Before we get started,” Dr. Garrison said, “we have an important announcement.  Today is a special day for someone.”  I felt everyone looking at me as Jeannie appeared with a cupcake topped by a lit candle.  Dr. Garrison continued, “As you probably know, today is Greg’s birthday.” I smiled as everyone sang to me.

“Make a wish!” Emily said as Jeannie handed me the cupcake.

I wish that I would meet a girl this year, I thought, as images of Carrie Valentine, Sadie Rowland, Erica Foster, and all the other girls who had caught my eye back in Jeromeville came to mind.  But this seemed like a selfish wish.  God, I pray that you will lead my career decisions, I thought as I blew out the candle.  Prayers are better than wishes.  Everyone clapped.

“These are your copies of the proceedings,” Dr. Garrison said.  Each of us received a book containing all of the reports that we had written over the last week.  I was honestly not sure if I was going to read about anyone else’s research; I was ready to be done with this experience, and as I had said before, mathematics research is so hard to follow for anyone who has not studied that one specific branch of math in greater detail than anyone ever sees outside of graduate school.

Dr. Garrison continued, “And I have your t-shirts too.  They turned out really good.”  He held one up and showed us the front, then the back.  The front had the logo for Grandvale State University on the upper right, with “Mathematics REU, Summer 1997” written below.  On the back, we had written what appeared to be a mathematical theorem and its proof, typeset with LaTeX just like actual mathematical papers.  The proof itself, though, was a nonsensical jumble of mathematics symbols and references to all of the adventures we shared that summer, and the inside jokes that came from them, along with a few words related to what we actually studied.  We also threw in a few quotes from The Simpsons and Austin Powers.  “This is hilarious!” I said excitedly, reading the back of my shirt, even though I was there for most of the writing of the faux theorem and knew what it said.


Theorem 1 Grandvale State University’s 1997 REU program was sooooo fun.

Proof:

We claim ∃A = {Emily, Greg, Ivan, Jeannie, Julie, Kirk, Marcus, Marjorie} ∋ A is uniformly distributed over the Towers of Hanoi.  Through a Monte Carlo process of random events such as Killer Monopoly, Hangman, and Dairy Queen, we see that E-Dog’s Skip-Boo Transform, ξ can be applied to Marcus’ Flip-Flop Lemma giving a set of deep and profound Giddyap tori.  Mmm… donuts.  Is there anything they can’t do?

Now, given a pre-emptive Shhh!, we find that Giddyup² (mod Lan) ≡ Wannabe.  Applying this to the space of Large Marge vectors yields a Whitehead automorphism of my freakin’ ears.  Note that the question of hard or soft remains open.  Applying the above tool to A yields eight precision bowlers having fun all summer. □


“Usually they just draw something related to the research projects on the shirt,” said Dr. Schneider, one of the other professors working with the program.  “I’ve never seen a group come up with this before.”

“This is sooooo funny!” Marjorie said.

“You said it again!” Julie exclaimed.  “You said ‘sooooo!’”  Marjorie giggled.

“What does ‘mod Lan’ mean?” Dr. Schneider asked.

“Once, someone with bad handwriting wrote my name so messy, it looked like ‘Lan,’” Ivan explained.  “Some of my friends back home call me that.”

“‘Lan,’” Dr. Schneider repeated.  “From ‘Ivan.’  Wow.  And ‘mod’ like modular arithmetic?”

“Yeah.”

“Greg,” I heard Jeannie say.  I turned and looked and saw that she was holding an envelope.  “This is for you.”

“Oh, thank you!” I said, smiling.  The card had an illustration of a frog on the front.  Inside Jeannie had written:


Greg,
Sorry you didn’t have a very good time this summer.  I had a blast!  I hope things start looking up for you soon.

Jeannie Lombard


I spent about another hour making small talk with the others.  I listened to their plans for the rest of the summer.  Marcus would be going hiking the rest of this weekend, then going straight back to Minnesota for school.  Emily was talking a lot about spending the weekend with her boyfriend.  I told them about Moport, the hybrid of football, soccer, and hockey that my brother and I played for fun, and the tournament we held last summer with his friends.  Hopefully we would have a Moport tournament again this year if he could get enough of his friends together.

I spent the rest of the afternoon finishing the cleaning of my room and saying goodbye to everyone.  The Research Experiences for Undergraduates program was finally over, and I was ready to get out of here.  Sooooo ready, as Marjorie would say in her California accent.  I wanted to get back to people who understood me and shared my values.  As I sat on the plane that night headed back to San Tomas, I wondered if I would ever see any of those people again.  I had no particular desire to stay in contact with them, since I had little in common with them outside of mathematics.  Now that I was pretty sure that graduate school in mathematics was not in my future, I had even less in common with them.

I did not make an effort to stay in touch, and none of them ever took the initiative to contact me.  The only contact I had with any of the people from the REU program again was a short email conversation with Dr. Garrison the following year, when I asked him a question about how to report the stipend I received for the REU program on tax and financial aid forms.

I did stay in touch with a few people from my summer Bible study; for a few months, I got emails periodically from Joe Ferris and Jonathan B.  Or it could have been Jonathan G.; I’m not really sure, now that I think about it.  I had lost touch with both of them by the end of 1997.

In hindsight, I think I was much too judgmental that summer, much like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11 that we had read about in this week’s Bible study.  I had spent most of my university days with a social life revolving around Christians, with little exposure to the sex and parties stereotypically associated with undergraduate life.  And while I knew on an intellectual level that Christians are sinners saved by grace, I still had a tendency to look down on those who had chosen the stereotypical undergraduate lifestyle, at least in my mind.

But, even if these people did not share my values, I had a life with them.  We had shared experiences.  We went on a road trip together.  We played games and went out to eat and watched movies, and we had tons of inside jokes that made for a hilarious t-shirt.  And they knew that I was not enjoying the summer; this was evident from what Jeannie wrote.  Knowing what I know now, as an adult, I wish that I had not been so negative.  I did not want to be seen as the only guy who was not having fun, and I certainly was not exhibiting Christlike behavior when I was aloof and judgmental.  At the time, though, I was not thinking about any of that.  I was just glad to get back to a life that felt familiar, an environment where I could be myself.  And I wanted to put Grandvale State and my seven classmates out of my mind.  I was heading home.


Readers: Tell me about a time you regretted not giving someone enough of a chance. Have you had times like that?

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4 thoughts on “August 12-15, 1997. My final week in Oregon. (#142)

  1. Another great episode. That was so nice they all sang to you and everyone in your bible study prayed for you. I hope you now see that everyone wished you well.

    I am the queen of giving people many opportunities, but there was one parent in my daughter’s class I discounted because she was terribly young. Her kid had lots of behavioral issues and I regret not offering more to help. I really judged her too harshly. On our last big party after being together as a class for 8 years she held me tight and told me she wished we could have been friends and how much she looked up to me. It was missed opportunity to show kindness. I’ll try not to do that again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was young and naive and from a sheltered background and hadn’t really had a lot of close exposure to normal 20-21-year-olds. Really, I think that was the biggest issue. Sometimes issues like this can still get in the way of connecting with people today, in some ways.

      Any chance you’ll ever reconnect with that other parent?

      Like

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