October 15-19, 1997.  Trying to figure out if I can graduate in June. (#149)

The weather in Jeromeville for most of October was typically what I could consider perfect.  Days were sunny, with afternoon temperatures in the 80s, still warm enough to be outside, but the nights were cool, so the days did not get blisteringly hot like they did in July and August.  I was still wearing shorts to class during the third full week of fall quarter, and I had some free time on that Wednesday afternoon, so I sat outside on the Quad.  I brought another book with me to campus in addition to my textbooks, and I was looking through this book when I saw Carrie Valentine walking toward me, coming from the direction of the library and headed toward the flagpole.  I waved, but she was not looking in my direction, so I quickly put my hand down, not wanting to look awkward.  I nervously watched as she approached and waved again when she turned her head toward me.  She stepped off the path and walked toward me.

“Hey, Greg,” Carrie said, smiling.  She put her bag down and sat on the grass facing me.  “Can I hang out here?”

Yes, I thought.  Of course you can.  It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve actually gotten to talk to you, and I’ll never make you fall in love with me if we don’t talk more often.  But all I said out loud was, “Sure.  What’s up?”

“I’m meeting with my Kairos leader,” Carrie explained.  “But I’m early.”

“You’re in Liz’s group, right?”

“Yeah!”

“We were in the same dorm as freshmen.  She was across the hall, one down from me.”

“That’s cool!  Whose Bible study are you in this year?”

“Joe Fox and Lydia Tyler.  The group is so huge, we usually read the Scripture together and then break up into three smaller groups.”

“How big is it?”

“Usually around twenty-five.”

“Twenty-five!  Why so many?”

“Honestly, I think it’s because, with all the Kairos groups, and all the specialized Bible studies for certain groups of people, there was only one group left for all the rest of us.”

“Interesting.  You couldn’t be in a Kairos group?”

“The Kairos ministry is for training future leaders.  You have to be asked to be in a Kairos group, and they don’t invite seniors.  Unless you’re leading a group as a senior and you were in one before, like Liz.”

“I see,” Carrie replied.  “Hmm.”

I decided not to share my exact thoughts about Jeromeville Christian Fellowship’s Kairos ministry, since Carrie was part of a Kairos group.  As I was thinking about what else to say, Carrie broke the silence and asked, “What are you working on?  Is that the course catalog?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I was trying to figure out if it’s possible for me to graduate at the end of this year, what classes I still need to take, stuff like that.”

“That’s exciting!  What are you doing after graduation?”

“I’m going to be a teacher.”

“That’s so cool!”

“I’m still trying to figure out if I’ll do my teacher certification through Jeromeville, or Capital State, or somewhere else.  I know Jeromeville’s program is one year, and it’s only fall through spring.  If I graduate in June, then I’ll be able to do that, but if I don’t graduate until December of ’98, then I’ll either have to wait until the fall of ’99 to start student teaching, or see if anyone has a program where I can start in the winter.”

“I hope you get all that figured out.”

“I got this Graduation Progress Tracker form in the mail last week, I guess they send it to all the seniors.  They list all the graduation requirements and what you’ve done and what you still need.  And I also have some prerequisites for the teacher certification program that I have to be able to fit in.”  I saw a familiar face out of the corner of my eye walk up to the flagpole.  “There’s Liz over there,” I said, pointing.

“Oh, yeah,” Carrie replied.  “I should go.  Good luck figuring that out!  Keep me posted.”

“I will!  Tell Liz I said hi.”  I watched as Carrie got up and walked to the flagpole.  She said something to Liz, who then turned in my direction.  I waved, and both of them waved back.


My new house on Acacia Drive was a quick three minute walk to church, and in addition to Sunday mornings, I was there every Wednesday night as a volunteer with The Edge, the youth group for junior high school students.  Before the students arrived, the leaders met to catch up, go over the events of the upcoming night, and share prayer requests.

“What’s up,” Taylor Santiago said as I approached the group.  I had known Taylor the longest of any of the other Edge leaders; he lived on the floor above me freshman year.  Taylor was also the one who first suggested I get involved with The Edge.

“Not much,” I said.  “I’m just trying to figure out if I can graduate in June.”

“I thought you said you were going to go four years plus one more quarter.”

“I just assumed I had to, with all the math classes I still have to take and the prerequisites for the teacher training program.  But I was looking at stuff earlier, and if I understand correctly, I think I will be able to graduate.  I wanted to take some more of Dr. Hurt’s New Testament classes, but I might have to skip those if I don’t want an extremely full class schedule.  They don’t fulfill any requirements at this point.”

“Have you filed your intent to graduate yet?” Noah Snyder asked, having overheard this entire conversation so far.  Noah was the youth group intern, being paid part time by the church to lead The Edge.

“Not yet,” I replied, “but I want to do that in the next few days.  I just hope I understand everything correctly, and that I don’t get to graduation day and someone tells me that I can’t actually graduate, that I have to take more classes.”

“That won’t happen,” Taylor said.  “I’m pretty sure someone will contact you if you file for graduation and you haven’t met the requirements yet.”

“Kathleen Sutton works with the office that handles all that stuff,” Noah added.  “You could probably ask her to look over your form.”

“That’s good to know,” I said.  Kathleen Sutton was a youth group parent; the Suttons occasionally hosted lunch socials for the church college group at their house. Kathleen’s daughter was in The Edge last year, and she had an older son in high school and a younger son in the preteen youth group.  “When I got that Graduation Progress form, it had a number to call.  I’m sure between that person and Kathleen Sutton, I can get all of this figured out.”

“Are you going to stay at Jeromeville for your teacher certification?” Noah asked.

“If I can, I’d like to.  I know the professor who does math education, and I’d be able to stay here and keep working with The Edge.”

“I’m going to stay in Jeromeville, but commute to Cap State for mine.  It’s cheaper, and it just works out better for me.  They have a really good program for elementary school teachers.  I’m not sure what they’re like for high school teachers, though.”

“If staying in Jeromeville ends up too complicated, I’ll look into Cap State too,” I said.  Capital State University was about twenty miles from Jeromeville on the other side of the Drawbridge, and Noah’s mention of their program being cheaper started to give me doubts about my tentative plan.  However, Mom always told me not to worry about money, that we would find a way to pay for things.  My grandmother had started a college savings account for me when I was very young, and with the academic scholarships I had received, we had hardly had to use that money so far.  I would also have to find a way to pay for school if I stayed at UJ for part of a fifth year as an undergraduate, so I would keep that under consideration if any options that did not include graduating in June were still on the table.


When I got home, I went straight to my backpack, in the large bedroom that I shared with my roommate Sean.  Sean was sitting at his desk typing a paper on his computer; a cluster of helium balloons, including one that said “Happy Birthday” and another that had the number “22” written on it in black marker, was rising from the floor next to him, anchored by a weight at the end of a ribbon a few feet long.

“It’s your birthday?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Sean replied.

“I didn’t know that.  Happy birthday!  Did you do anything fun?”

“I went out to dinner with some friends from the wildlife bio major tonight.  We just got back a little while ago.  And I’m flying home tomorrow to spend the weekend with my family.”

“That’ll be nice,” I said, excited for Sean that he will get to see his family, but also excited that I would have the bedroom to myself all weekend, able to flirt with girls on Internet Relay Chat and not worry about someone looking over my shoulder.

I got out my course catalog and the Graduation Progress form.  I had completed my general education requirements and the classes required for everyone regardless of major.  The only requirement remaining was for the major itself, and I needed three more upper-division mathematics classes, including 150B, the continuation of my current abstract algebra class.  With two quarters left, I had plenty of time to take those.  I was limited in which classes I could take, since not all classes were offered every quarter, or even every year.  But I was sure I could find three that would work with my schedule.  Math 150B was offered every year in the winter, and at this point I did not really care what the other two classes would be.

The tricky part would be preparing for the teacher training program.  In my state, universities do not offer education majors; instead, teacher training is a one year graduate program taken after completing a bachelor’s degree.  I would have to reapply to UJ by the end of November, this time as a graduate student applying to the School of Education.  I was missing three classes for that program’s requirements: Educational Psychology, a lecture class offered by the physical education department called Healthful Living, and one more English class of my choice.  I looked up to see which quarters those classes were offered, and I came up with a plan.  In the winter, I would take Ed Psych, Math 150B, and some other math class that I could fit into my schedule, and in the spring, I would take Healthful Living, one more math class, and Fiction Writing for the English class.  Fiction Writing was a lower-division class, but it sounded the most fun and interesting out of all the English options, and I would still have enough total upper-division units to graduate.  Healthful Living was only a two-unit class, so I would need one more class in the spring in order to be a full-time student.  I would be able to take one more of Dr. Hurt’s New Testament classes after all; he taught Christian Theology in the spring.  For the winter, I would have just barely enough units to be a full-time student, so maybe I could look at doing another two-unit internship tutoring at Jeromeville High School, as I had done last spring.

At that moment, something caught my eye at the bottom of the Graduation Progress Tracker.  A few lines of small print at the bottom informed me of a number to call if I had questions.  Apparently, as fourth-year student, I had been assigned to a specific person, the one who had filled out this form, and that person would process my application to graduate, as well as answer any questions I might have.  The lower left corner of the form said, “Completed by,” with a blank for that person to initial, and in that blank were the handwritten initials “KS.”  I remembered Noah’s words a few hours earlier, telling me that Kathleen Sutton worked in the office that processed these forms.  Could Kathleen Sutton be the “KS” who filled out my form?  Did I just happen to get assigned to the one person in that office whom I knew personally?  How many of these graduation processing specialists were there, and what were the chances of that?  It was probably a coincidence; there were plenty of people in the world with the initials K.S.  I had nothing more to do at this point for graduation planning, and I had finished everything I needed to do for tomorrow’s classes, so I went to bed.


I saw the date on Sunday morning’s newspaper; it was my brother Mark’s birthday, sixteen years old now. I reminded myself to call home this afternoon, although I had already sent him a card with a fart joke on it.

I had not yet turned in my application to graduate.  I was nervous.  What if I was not ready to graduate?  I would apparently have my requirements done by the end of the school year, but what if I was misinterpreting the requirements?  And was I really ready to finish my undergraduate time and move on to the next phase?  A few weeks ago, when I thought I would need another quarter or two to graduate, I was looking forward to staying in Jeromeville longer.  Jeromeville was my home now.  I had a community here.  Advanced mathematics was getting weird and abstract, I did not enjoy it as much as I used to, and I was ready to be done with school.  But filing for graduation would bring closer the inevitable day when I would leave Jeromeville and go out into the world.

All of this was still on my mind when I got to church that morning.  The worship team played a fast song to begin the service, and when they played a slow song later, I sat and prayed about these things.  I asked God to give me peace about my plan to graduate at the end of the year and do my student teaching through UJ.  Send me a sign that this is your will for my life, I asked silently.

God often speaks to me through odd coincidences.  Some people have told me that I pay too much attention to this sort of thing, but God knows that it will get my attention.  The sign that I prayed for came quickly, as I was wandering aimlessly on the patio after church mingling with others.  I saw Kathleen Sutton ahead of me in the direction I was walking; she turned and looked at me, and I waved.  “Hello,” I said.

“Greg,” Kathleen replied.  “I’ve been meaning to tell you something.”

“What do you mean?”

“I work in the office that processes graduation applications.  We were doing this year’s Graduation Progress Trackers, and I recognized your name on one of the forms I filled out.”

“Oh, wow,” I said.  Kathleen Sutton was “KS” after all.

“I saw your transcript,” Kathleen continued.  “A 3.9 grade point average, and all As in all those hard math and science classes.  You have a pretty impressive academic record.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

“What are you planning to do after you graduate?”

“I’m going to be a teacher.  I didn’t think about being a teacher until just last year, but I was planning out the rest of my year this year, and I’ll be able to do all the requirements for the teacher certification program before the end of the year.”

“Good for you!  We definitely need good teachers who know their subject matter.  I’m sure you’ll do great.”

“Thanks.  Oh, by the way, if I’m misunderstanding something, and I file for graduation but I don’t actually have all the right classes, will someone let me know?”

“Definitely.  But I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

When I got home, I changed into an old pair of shorts and went to the small shed in the backyard.  Our house only had a covered carport, not a locked garage, so I typically left Schuyler, my bicycle, in the shed.  I had a long ride I would occasionally do around the entire perimeter of the city of Jeromeville, and with the October days getting shorter, I wanted to do my long ride again before it got too cold and gray.  I had sat down once with a ruler and a map and estimated the ride at fifteen miles, and the fastest I had ever completed the ride was just a few seconds short of an hour.  I rode west on Coventry Boulevard across Highway 117, worked my way through the neighborhoods of West Jeromeville, then headed back east on Fifth Street along the row of walnut trees that separated the city of Jeromeville to my left from the university’s agricultural research fields to my right.  After crossing back to the east side of 117, I cut through campus, past the North Residential Area and the Rec Pavilion, and emerging into downtown Jeromeville next to the Death Star building on Third Street.  Although I was trying for record time, pedaling as fast as I could, I slowed down a little bit through downtown, with its many cars, bicycles, and people.  I worked my way to the Cornell Boulevard underpass, still too narrow for its traffic volume, southeast past Murder Burger and across Highway 100.

I had learned quickly as a freshman that I would feel a bit out of place in a university town like Jeromeville with its hippies and extreme politics.  But now, as a senior, I was on a timeline to graduate eight short months from now, and I did not want to leave.  Jeromeville had grown on me.  It was the place where I found friends, and the place where I found Jesus.  I had gotten involved with youth ministry at church and built meaningful connections beyond the campus bubble.  Jeromeville, in all its quirkiness, was home.

I continued along the southernmost neighborhoods of Jeromeville, through the neighborhood where Eddie, John, Xander, and Lars had lived when I first met them sophomore year, and into a section of the Greenbelts where those guys had held the Man of Steel disc golf competition.  I continued east all the way to Bruce Boulevard, the easternmost of Jeromeville’s north-south thoroughfares, and turned to the north.  About a mile north, I crossed back over Highway 100, where a new neighborhood was under construction, rare in a city like Jeromeville where suburban sprawl is so hated.  I turned west on Coventry Boulevard and rode for almost three miles, then turned into the Greenbelts of north Jeromeville, emerging on Maple Drive about half a mile north of my house.  I looked at my watch when I got home: 58 minutes, 57 seconds, a new record for me.

Time moves forward.  Children grow up and become university students, who then go out into the real world and have children of their own.  But, although time was definitely moving forward, maybe I did not have to leave Jeromeville yet.  I would still have one more year at UJ in the teacher training program, so I would be a registered student through June of 1999.  If I did not get into UJ’s program, Jeromeville was close enough to commute to Capital State.  After that, there were plenty of high schools in commuting distance from Jeromeville where I could work; maybe I could even teach at Jeromeville High.  If I did leave Jeromeville eventually, as I would do in 2001, it would happen when the time was right, when I felt ready to move on.


Readers: Did your education and career end up happening according to your plan or projected timeline? Did you even plan these things in advance? Tell me about it in the comments.

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March 29-April 3, 1997.  A montage of the new quarter. (#126)

“Now remember, Boz,” I said.  “When Brian finds out that you’re a Star Wars fan, he’s gonna test you and ask if you know the number of the trash compactor that Luke and the others almost got smashed in.”

“I don’t remember,” Boz replied.

“It’s ‘3263827,’” I said.

“‘3263827.’  I’ll remember that.”

I had just spent four days at my parents’ house for Spring Break, returning to Jeromeville on the Saturday morning before classes started.  Mom, my brother Mark, and his two best friends Boz and Cody followed me up for the day in a separate car.  Mom had gotten the idea that it might be fun for the boys to come visit, and with all three of them in high school now, it was never too early to start visiting universities.  We had met at McDonald’s for lunch, and now we were on our way back to my apartment.

“Hey,” Brian said when the five of us walked inside.

“This is my brother Mark, and his friends Cody and Boz,” I said to Brian.  “And you’ve met my mother before.”

“Boz?” Brian asked.

“Short for Matthew Bosworth,” I explained.

“Yeah,” Boz said.  “You can call me Boz.  Or Matt.  Either one.”

“Boz is as big of a Star Wars fan as you,” I said.

“I have a question I always ask Star Wars fans,” Brian explained, “to see if you’re a true fan.  What is the number of the trash compactor on the Death Star where they were stuck?”

“3263827.”

“Very good.”

“I have to admit, though, Greg prepared me, because he told me you would ask that.”

“Ah,” Brian replied.  “Do you have any obscure Star Wars trivia you ask people like that?”

“Sure.  Who is the director of photography?”

“I don’t know that one.”

“Gilbert Taylor.”

“Nice!  I don’t have all the obscure credits memorized.”

“I would just leave the credits on and watch the names sometimes.”

“That’s cool how each of us pays attention to different details,” Brian said.

The rest of the day went well.  I showed the boys around campus.  They came back to the apartment and played basketball in the common area.  I like to think that something from that day really made an impression, because Cody and Boz would both end up attending the University of Jeromeville after they finished high school.  My brother did not; he went to community college for a few years and then transferred to the State University of Bay City.


Sunday was Easter, my first since I began attending Jeromeville Covenant Church.  Church was more crowded than usual, but it was not as dramatic of a difference as Catholic Easter masses back home at Our Lady of Peace were compared to ordinary Sundays.

My first class Monday morning was not even on the University of Jeromeville campus.  I rode my bike along my usual route as far as the intersection of Andrews Road and 15th Street, then turned left on 15th and parked at the bike rack of Jeromeville High School.  I walked through the entrance to campus and found Mr. O’Rourke’s class toward the back of the school.  Mr. O’Rourke had told me to just sit at the table in the back, and I could help students work on problems later in the period.

Mr. O’Rourke was an older man with short gray hair and a no-nonsense personality.  After the students had arrived, he gestured toward me.  “This is Greg Dennison,” he said.  “He’s a student at UJ, and he’s going to help out in our class for the rest of the year.”  Some of the students turned around to look at me, intrigued; I waved at them.

As Mr. O’Rourke lectured, I looked around at what I could see of the class.  The class seemed very large to me; I counted forty-one students.  I was used to high school classes of around 30 students at most.  I would learn later that Mr. O’Rourke was semi-retired, only teaching the one class, and he was such a popular teacher that students would sometimes ask to be in his class even when it appeared full.

After Mr. O’Rourke finished explaining and demonstrating relationships between sine and cosine functions, I walked up to his desk.  “So, just walk around and help students now?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Mr. O’Rourke said.  “That would be good.”

My first few times up and down the rows in the classroom, no one asked me anything.  This was a precalculus class, so these were mostly honor students; maybe none of them needed help.  Eventually, though, I saw one student who was leaving most of the work blank on his paper.  “Do you need help?” I asked.  “Do you understand what to do?

“I don’t get it,” the student said.

“What do you know about sine and cosine?  Can I see your notes for today?”  I pointed out what he had sloppily written in his notebook and showed him what he could use to solve the problem in front of him.  I could not tell how well he understood.

“Is there anything else I have to do?” I asked Mr. O’Rourke when the bell rang.

“No, not really,” he said.  “At the end of the week, we’ll talk about how it’s going so far.”

“Sounds good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

As I walked toward the school entrance, past a row of lockers, I heard a female voice say, “Greg!”  I instinctively turned and looked, although as I did so I realized that I did not know anyone at Jeromeville High School.  This girl was probably talking to some other guy named Greg.  Maybe it was a student from Mr. O’Rourke’s class whom I just met this morning, but why would she need to talk to me now, outside of math class?  I saw a familiar face reaching into a locker as I turned around, and I realized that I did know someone at Jeromeville High School: Erica Foster from church.

“Hey,” I said.  “What’s up?”

“What are you doing here?” Erica asked.

“I’m doing a Math 197 tutoring class,” I said.  “I’m TAing in Mr. O’Rourke’s first period.”

“That’s awesome!  Everyone says Mr. O’Rourke is a great teacher.  I never got to be in his class, though.”

“He seems like the kind of teacher I would have liked.”

“So you want to be a teacher?  Is that why you’re doing this?”

“I’m still trying to figure that out,” I said.  “I’m looking at different options for the future.  One of my professors asked me if I had ever thought about being a teacher, and he set this up for me.”

“That’s cool.”

“What are you doing next year?  You graduate this year, right?”

“Yeah!  I’m going on a mission trip to Turkey for part of the summer, and then I’m still waiting to hear back from some schools, but I’m probably going to stay home and go to UJ.”

“That’s cool,” I said.

“I need to get to class, but it was good running into you.”

“Yeah.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”


A few hours later, back on campus, I had Data Structures, a computer science class.  A lower-division computer science class, Introduction to Programming, was a requirement for the mathematics major.  In addition to the upper-division mathematics units required for my major, a small number of courses in statistics and computer science, including this Data Structures class, counted in place of upper division math units.  As a kid, writing code in BASIC on a Commodore 64, I enjoyed computer programming as a hobby.  I chose against majoring in computer science, though, because my computer knowledge was out of date, and I did not want a hobby to turn into work.  But I wanted to take this class, so I could learn more about programming while working toward my mathematics degree.

Technology-related majors were very popular at Jeromeville, especially in 1997 with the Internet just emerging as a consumer technology.  Because of this, computer science and computer engineering majors had priority to register first for most computer science classes.  This was my third attempt at taking Data Structures.  The first time, I was number 19 on the waiting list, and the professor said that no new spots would open up.  The second time, I had moved up to first on the waiting list by the first day of classes.  I was hopeful, but the professor said that they had already expanded the number of spaces in class beyond what they should have.  The number of computers in the labs was too small to support this many students, so no new spots would open up.  For the other computer science classes I had taken, I did most of my work at home, dialed up to the campus Internet late at night so as not to tie up the phone line.  I suspected that lab space was not as much of an issue now that working from home was possible.  But the department had not changed their rules.

This quarter, the professor gave the usual bit about the class already being too full, and no one else being admitted from the waiting list.  But this time, it did not matter, because I already had a spot in the class.  When I called in to register last month, I expected to get put on the waiting list, but it said I had successfully registered.  This might have been my only chance to take the class, so I took it.  I told this to Eddie from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship at the retreat last week, and he said this was God opening up a door for me.  Definitely.

After Data Structures, I had chorus.  As I walked toward the bass section, Danielle Coronado, who lived down the hall from me freshman year, came up to me and gave me a hug.  “Greg!” she said.  “You’re back!”

“Yeah.  I wanted to do chorus last quarter, but it was the same time as Dr. Hurt’s Writings of John class.”

“That’s right.  Well, I’m glad you’re back.”

“Thank you.”

I walked toward the bass section and sat next to a guy I recognized from fall quarter when I was also in chorus.  “Hey,” he said.  “Welcome back.  It’s Greg, right?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  I did not know this guy, I thought he was a music major, and I did not know the music majors very well.  I was surprised that he recognized me.

About fifteen minutes into class, after explaining some procedural matters, Dr. Jeffs, the conductor, said, “The pieces this quarter are Schubert’s Mass No. 2 and Brahms’ Neue Liebeslieder.  The sheet music is at the bookstore; hopefully you all have that by now.  We’ll start on the Schubert today.”  As he began playing and demonstrating part of Schubert’s Mass, Dr. Jeffs explained that Schubert was from Vienna, so we would be using Viennese Latin pronunciations instead of Italian Latin.  When performing Schubert, the word “qui,” for example, was pronounced “kvee” instead of “kwee.”  I had never heard of such a thing.  The Brahms piece was also entirely in German, a language I did not know how to pronounce.  I was sure I would get used to it.

The spring of 1997 was an unusual quarter for me; it was the only quarter that I did not have any actual mathematics classes.  Helping in Mr. O’Rourke’s class at Jeromeville High would go on my transcript as a two-unit math class, but I did not sit in a lecture or do homework out of a textbook.  Data Structures counted as a major requirement, but was not technically a math class.

This quarter was also my lightest load by number of units; I only took as many units as were required to maintain my status as a full time student.  But it certainly did not feel like a light load, because the two actual classes I was taking, besides Mr. O’Rourke’s class and chorus, were both extremely difficult and time-consuming.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I had Philosophy and Social Foundations of Education.  I had not made a final decision about my future, but I was now seriously considering the option of becoming a teacher, so I figured it would not hurt to start working on prerequisites for the teacher training program.

I could tell after ten minutes of class on the first Tuesday that this class would be a lot of work.  As a math major, I was not used to classes with this much reading and writing.  But the subject matter looked interesting, investigating some of the difficult questions about why education is important in society, and why schooling is done as it is.  As a possible future teacher, it was important to answer these questions, and I had to take this class at some point if I were to become a teacher.  Good thing I took it in a quarter when I had a light schedule.


Wednesday evening I had The Edge, the junior high school youth group at church, for which I was a volunteer.  The staff and volunteers arrived an hour before the students, and the meeting before the kids arrived felt a little different because Taylor Santiago was not there.  Taylor had been my friend since Day 1 of freshman year, and he had encouraged me to get involved with youth ministry after he noticed some boys from the youth group take a liking to me after church.  He left last week for six months of inner-city ministry in Chicago; he would be back for the start of the school year in the fall.

As the students walked in, we usually had music playing, typically some Christian artist.  Having only been a practicing Christian for a little over a year, I was just scratching the surface of the vast world of Christian contemporary music.  Whatever this music was that played today, I found it intriguing.  It sounded like rock with horns.  I only knew of one other band that sounded remotely like this, although that other band was not Christian music; this was definitely not them.  At the Spring Picnic freshman year, I had been told to go watch a local band called Lawsuit that played there every year.  Lawsuit was a unique blend of rock with horns that some people described as “ska,” the first time I had ever heard that word.  I went on to see Lawsuit play three more times in the two years since.

I was checking in students at the entrance that day, along with Erica Foster, the girl I saw at Jeromeville High after Mr. O’Rourke’s class.  Her younger brother was one of the teen boys who had taken a liking to me.  “What is this music?” I asked Erica.

“Five Iron Frenzy,” she said.  “My brother has been listening to this a lot at home.”

“I don’t know them,” I said.  “I just got excited that there’s a Chrsitian band that sounds like Lawsuit.”

“Is this what Lawsuit sounds like?” Erica asked.  “I’ve heard of them but I don’t know anything about them.”

“Sounded like,” I corrected.  “They broke up.”

“Really?  I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah.  This last New Year’s Eve was their last show.”

“That’s too bad.  I heard they were good.”

“They were!  They sounded like nothing I’d ever heard.  But now I’m gonna have to check out this Five Iron Frenzy.”

Jeromeville had a small Christian bookstore, and I went there as soon as I was done with classes the next day to find that the Five Iron Frenzy album, called Upbeats and Beatdowns, was in stock.  I brought it home and listened to it while I replied to a few emails in my inbox.  In November, I was saddened to receive a flyer from Lawsuit announcing their breakup.  I did not attend their final show, on December 31; I was halfway across the country at the Urbana conference on that day, and the show was for ages 21 and up, which I would not be until next August.  But now I was excited to discover a Christian band that sounded like Lawsuit.

I learned a few songs into the album that I had been mistaken; Five Iron Frenzy did not sound particularly like Lawsuit, beyond being rock with horns.  They had a much faster and more aggressive sound, more like punk rock with horns, a genre called ska-punk that was emerging at the time.  But it was catchy, and I could hear references to Christianity in the lyrics, at least when I could understand lead vocalist Reese Roper’s high-pitched, fast singing.

 A few minutes later, a song called “Anthem” came on, and I immediately began to regret my decision to buy this album.  Reese called America a hollow country, and sang about how he did not care about the American notion of freedom.  If the members of Five Iron Frenzy were Christians, why were they spewing this anti-American liberal crap?  As far as I knew, Christians were conservatives who loved their country.  Maybe this was not entirely true, I realized, as Reese sang about true freedom being from Jesus Christ.  But I still loved my country and did not find patriotism inherently at odds with Christianity.  Two other songs on the album besides “Anthem” directly criticized the sins of the United States and the shallow nature of the American church, but if I must be honest, these criticisms were certainly justified.

I liked most of the rest of the album.  In addition to songs praising God, the album also contained some songs that were just silly, like one about the old TV show Diff’rent Strokes and one about how Jesus is better than superheroes.  Other songs explored deep philosophical topics of interest to Christians living in this world, like one about colorful characters waiting for a bus.

The album did eventually grow on me, although to this day I still always skip “Anthem.”  I have had a complicated relationship with Five Iron Frenzy over the years, one that has featured some very personal experiences.  I sang one line on Reese Roper’s solo album in 2004, and I had an hour-long personal conversation with saxophonist Leanor Ortega-Till in 2020.  And in addition to recording some of my favorite songs ever, Five Iron Frenzy has also recorded many other songs in the same vein as Anthem that I did not particularly care for.

Currently, I have mixed feelings about Five Iron Frenzy.  They released an album in 2021 of all angry political music, with none of the Christian or silly songs.  Ultimately, though, I have always said that Five Iron Frenzy did a great job of bringing together Christian and secular fans, liberals and conservatives, just by being real.  I understand now that Christianity is not by any means limited to Americans or conservatives, and it should not be.  Paul writes to the Corinthians that different people have different gifts that are all part of the body of Christ.  Just as Boz and Brian had discovered their different takes on Star Wars trivia when they met a few days ago, people with different cultural and political backgrounds have different experiences with Christianity.  I may not agree politically with all Christians, but we are still one in Christ, each with a role in the global Church.


Hello, readers!  What’s an obscure fact about your favorite movie that you like to remember and tell people about?

If you like what you read, don’t forget to like this post and follow this blog. Also follow Don’t Let The Days Go By on Facebook and Instagram.

Also, the Five Iron Frenzy music video below comes from an unofficial source on YouTube.  Just in case it gets taken down, I’ll include an official audio as well.


February 21, 1997. A productive day, in more ways than one. (#121)

“So when Jesus said, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am,’ the people he was speaking to would have recognized ‘I am’ as what God said to Moses,” Dr. Hurt explained.  “Where’s Lorraine?  I feel like she would have something to say about this.”

Lorraine Mathews was a religious studies major, specializing in Christianity; I knew her from Jeromeville Christsian Fellowship.   I was not a religious studies major.  I took this Writings of John class, and its prerequisite the previous quarter, because I wanted to learn more about the Bible.  I had gotten involved with JCF sophomore year, through friends, and a year ago this month I made a decision to follow Jesus.  I grew up Catholic, where Bible reading consisted of a couple of paragraphs from three different books read aloud by the priest each Sunday, and I wanted to know more about the Bible.

I did not know why Dr. Hurt thought Lorraine would have something to say about this passage, but I did know exactly why she was not in class today.  In a somewhat uncharacteristic move for me, I spoke up, drawing attention to myself and hoping to get a laugh.  “She’s watching Empire Strikes Back,” I said, loud enough for all 150 students to hear.

“Oooooooh,” a few students said, as others chuckled.

“She skipped class for The Empire Strikes Back?” Dr. Hurt repeated.  “Hasn’t she seen that a bunch of times already?”

“This is the new one!” an unidentified student said.

“There’s a new one?”

“Yeah!  With added scenes.”

“Really.  Well, that’s too bad she missed class today.”

After the fact, I felt a little bad.  Maybe I should not have said that.  Maybe Lorraine would be unhappy with me.  She can be a bit feisty sometimes.  But I said what I said.  I wished that I had been watching The Empire Strikes Back with them.  Lucasfilm, the Star Wars production company, was in the middle of rereleasing the three movies with added and changed scenes to better match director George Lucas’ original vision.  The Star Wars movies were not a large part of my childhood, but my roommate Brian was a huge fan.  Brian had watched the new Star Wars multiple times in the last few weeks.  Today he and his friends were watching the next movie, on the first day it hit theaters.  I had seen Star Wars with my friend Barefoot James a few days ago, but Brian said that I could tag along the second time he saw Empire Strikes Back, and James could too.

After the John class ended, I wandered over to the Memorial Union to find a table and get homework done.  It was sunny but cold, so the indoor tables were crowded, but not as crowded as they would be on a rainy day.  I saw Ajeet Tripathi and Brent Wang from JCF sitting at a table.  Ajeet had a book open but did not appear to be actively reading it. 

“‘Sup, Greg?” Ajeet asked.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Just looking for a place to sit for a couple hours.  May I join you?”

“Sure,” Brent said.  “How many more classes do you have today?”

“None–”

“Why are you still here, dude?” Ajeet interrupted.  “It’s Friday afternoon!”

“I need to go to office hours for geometry.  We have a midterm Monday, and I have a few questions.”

Todd Chevallier, another of Ajeet and Brent’s housemates, arrived at the table and said, “Greg.  How’d you beat me here?”  He was coming from the John class also.

“I don’t know.  I guess I just walk fast?”

“Maybe.  Oh, yeah, I had to pee too,” Todd said.

“Greg, did you say you’re taking geometry?” Brent asked.  “Like we all took in high school?”

“It’s a lot more advanced than that,” I explained.  “In this class, we get a lot into the theory behind it, and how to construct a proof.  We also learned about the undefined terms and the foundations of geometry as a logical system.”  I looked up and saw the blank stares on the others’ faces, a familiar sight when I explained anything I learned as a third-year mathematics major to non-mathematics majors.  “It’s the theory behind what you do in high school geometry.”

“Uhh, sure,” Todd said after a pause.  The conversation went into a lull, and I got out my geometry book to work on homework.  Ajeet started singing, “Da da,” followed by some clicking noises, then “Da da da da da da,” six notes of equal duration with the two notes in the middle a minor third lower than all the other notes.  Ajeet repeated the riff, and Todd joined in; I recognized it from a song I had heard numerous times on the radio.

“What are you guys doing?” Brent asked.

“I’ve had that song stuck in my head all day,” Ajeet explained.

“What song?”

“‘Santa Monica,’ by Everclear.  ‘We could live beside the ocean, leave the fire behind…’”

“I’ve never heard it.”

“Really?  It’s on the radio all the time.”

A while later, I looked up from my studying to see Alaina Penn walking by.  Alaina was involved with University Life, another Christian group on campus, and I knew her through mutual friends.  Alaina saw me and waved, walking toward our table.

“Hey, Greg,” Alaina said.  “Mind if I pull up a chair?  If I can find one?”

“I actually need to get going,” Brent said.  “You can have my seat.”

“Thanks!”

“See ya, Brent,” Ajeet said.

“Have a great day,” I added as Brent said goodbye to us and walked away.

I was about to introduce Alaina to Ajeet and Todd, but I was quite well acquainted with the embarrassment of trying to introduce people who already know each other, so first I asked, “Do you guys know Alaina?”

“No,” Ajeet answered as Todd shook his head in the negative.

“She goes to U-Life.  I met her through mutual friends.”

“Were you at U-Life this week, Greg?” Alaina asked.  “I didn’t see you.”

“No,” I explained.  “I had other plans on Tuesday.”

“That was the night you went to see Star Wars with James, right?” Ajeet asked.

“You ditched us for Star Wars?” Alaina asked.  “It’s okay, I’m just messing with you.”

“Wait,” Todd said.  “Greg?  You go to U-Life too?”

I’ve been once.  Two weeks ago.  Alaina and her friends invited me, and I thought it might be nice to check it out.”

“I went a couple times freshman year.  Their large group meetings were a lot like JCF.”

“I noticed that too.”  I did not tell Todd or Ajeet the complete reason why I wanted to try out U-Life, that I felt frustrated at being on the outside of the cliques within JCF.

“Spring training is starting soon!” Ajeet announced.  “Do you guys follow baseball?”

“No,” Alaina answered.

“I used to,” I replied.  “I went to maybe three or four Bay City Titans games every year with my family.  I moved out right when the players went on strike, and I never got back into it.”

“Bummer,  But at least you like the right team,” Ajeet said.  “Baseball is of God.”

“Whoa,” Todd replied.  “Blasphemy?  ‘Baseball is a god?’”

“I said baseball is of God, not a God.  Baseball is God’s gift to us.”

A while later, I heard a new voice say, “Hey, guys.”  Ben Lawton and Whitney Felton, two of Alaina’s friends from U-Life, approached.  “Mind if we join you?”

“Go for it,” I said.  The table next to us was now empty, and I moved aside so that they could push the empty table next to us and make more room.  Whitney introduced herself to Ajeet and Todd; Ben had met them before, since he occasionally attended JCF also.  It was Ben who had first introduced me to Alaina.

“What are you up to the rest of the day?” Ben asked me a bit later.

“I’m going to a professor’s office hours.  What about you?”

“I have a class at 3.”

“A class Friday at 3,” Todd repeated.  “That’s brutal.  It’s bad enough that Ajeet and I have class Friday at 2.”

“We should probably get going for that,” Ajeet added.  “It was nice meeting you guys.  Greg, I’ll see you tonight at JCF?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Have a good one.”

I continued working on homework.  A few minutes after Ajeet and Todd left, Alaina said, “So Whitney and I had this great idea the other day.  We’re gonna throw a coffee house party.  We’ll make all kinds of special coffee drinks, and we’ll decorate the house like a coffee shop.”

“And we’ll have poetry readings, and we’re hoping someone will play live music for part of the night,” Whitney added.  “And we’ll make art to put on the wall.”

“That’s a great idea,” Ben said.  “When is this?”

“Oh, not any time soon.  We’re too busy this quarter.  We’re thinking maybe April.”

“Sounds like fun!”

The three of them started discussing who they could ask to play music and make artwork, naming people I did not know.  At one point, Alaina asked, “Greg, what do you think?”

“Oh,” I said, unaware that I was included in this discussion since it seemed to revolve around U-Life people.  “That sounds like a lot of fun!  Keep me posted.”  I left out the detail that I did not like coffee; it still sounded like fun even without coffee.

At around quarter to three, I stood up and said, “I should probably get going.”

“Me too,” Ben replied.

“You know what’s really funny?” I added.  “When I sat down here two hours ago, it was all JCF people at this table.  And the table gradually transitioned into U-Life people.”

“That is funny!” Alaina said.  “Greg, you just have a lot of friends.”

“I guess I do.  Have a good weekend, you guys!”

“Thanks!” Whitney replied.  “You too!”


For the last year, I would have said that Dr. Thomas was my favorite mathematics professor, but now it was a toss-up between her and Dr. Samuels.  Dr. Samuels was a much better teacher than most of the professors I had.  His was the only math class I ever took that did not feel like just a lecture.  He called on students at random, like a high school teacher might, and he would pause class a few times each hour and tell us to turn to our neighbors and summarize what we just learned.  This helped, especially on days when I could not stay awake.

Four other students came to Dr. Samuels’ office hours that day; apparently I was not the only one who needed refreshing on these topics.  From this class, I was beginning to see geometry in a new light.  My high school geometry textbook had said that every logical system had to begin with undefined terms, and that “point,” “line,” and “plane” were undefined terms in Euclidean geometry.  Why were they undefined, I thought?  It seemed lazy.  One could at least describe the concepts of points, lines, and planes using English, right?

After Dr. Samuels’ class, the concept of undefined terms made more sense.  Geometry begins with basic postulates, such as that two points determine a line.  The terms are undefined because these assumptions determine all the properties that a geometer would need to know about points and lines.  Furthermore, one could construct a geometric system where “point” and “line” were understood to mean something else, and all of the theorems would still apply in that system, since they were based on those basic assumptions.  If “point” were understood to mean what would normally be called a line, and “line” were understood to mean what would normally be called a point, some of the basic postulates would still be true.  Two lines, in the real world sense, determine one point.  This thought blew my mind.

After Dr. Samuels answered my question, he said, “By the way, Greg, can you stick around for a while?  I want to ask you something after we’re done here.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I was going to listen to everyone else’s questions anyway.”  I felt a little nervous over the next twenty minutes, wondering what Dr. Samuels wanted to talk to me about.  Was I in trouble?  I did my best to concentrate on what my classmates were asking.

After the last person left Dr. Samuels’ office, he said, “So, Greg.  What are your plans for after graduation?  I always ask this of strong students like you.”

“I’m not really sure,” I replied sheepishly.  If Dr. Samuels thought I was a strong student, I should have a better answer than that.  “I’ve been trying to figure that out.  I went to the Math Club’s career fair, and nothing really stood out to me.  Dr. Thomas told me about REU programs, so I’m thinking about that for this summer, to get a sense of what grad school would be like.”

“Have you ever considered being a teacher?  I’ve done some work with secondary education, and I’ve heard the way you explain things to others in class.”

Of all the reasons Dr. Samuels might have wanted to talk to me individually, this was not what I was expecting.  For years, I had said that I would never be a teacher, because of the politics involved in public schools.  Many of my high school teachers were active and outspoken politically, with views that I disagreed with.  I had always assumed that I would stay in school forever and become a mathematician, but my disillusionment with the career fair had left my future plans undecided.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I didn’t think much about teaching at first, but everything feels up in the air now.  And I work as a tutor at the Learning Skills Center, and I do enjoy that.”

“If you ever want to give it a try, you can get two units on your transcript as Math 197.  You’ll help out in a classroom at Jeromeville High for the quarter, and at the end you’ll write a short paper about what you did and what you learned.  If you’re trying to figure out your career plans, it would be a great way to immerse yourself in the world of teaching.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It sounds like it.  When do I have to let you know by?”

“Sometime next week should be good.  Think about it.”

“I will.  Thanks for letting me know about this.”

“You’re welcome.  This state is always looking for good teachers, especially ones with strong mathematics backgrounds.”

“Yeah.”

I left Dr. Samuels’s office and walked toward the bus stop.  This was a new wrinkle in the fabric of my life.  Could I be a teacher?  I tried to picture myself in a classroom with thirty sullen teenagers who called me Mr. Dennison.  I was sure it would be challenging, but it could be fun and enjoyable as well.  I enjoyed my tutoring job, I always enjoyed explaining math to people, and I had been spending a lot of time around younger people through volunteering with the youth group at church.

“Greg!” an enthusiastic female voice shouted as I approached the bus stop.  I saw Yesenia Fonseca, one of the first students I ever had as a tutor, waving at me.  “What’s up?”

“Just thinking,” I said.  “My professor just asked me if I had ever considered being a teacher.  I’d never really pictured myself as a teacher.”

“You’d totally be a great teacher!” Yesenia replied.  “I had another tutor last spring quarter, and she wasn’t good at explaining at all, like you were.”

“He said I could get units for helping in a classroom at Jeromeville High.  I’m thinking I might do it.”

“You should!”

Yesenia’s bus arrived just seconds before mine; we said goodbye and headed home.  Shawn, one of my roommates, was studying to be a math teacher.  He was doing his student teaching at Laguna Ciervo High School, across the Drawbridge in a suburban neighborhood just outside of Capital City.  When I got home, I told Shawn about what Dr. Samuels had said.

“You should go for it,” Shawn said.  “I think you’d be a good teacher.  We definitely need good teachers.  The teacher I’m working with is terrible.”

“Oh yeah?”

“He’s just mean.  He keeps telling kids, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’  I mean, I get you have to establish authority, but there’s got to be a better way.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t see you like that.  I think you should try it.”

All weekend, I could not get this off my mind.  This had been a productive day, in more ways than one.  I had gotten a lot of work done sitting in the Memorial Union.  I had learned of an upcoming party at Alaina and Whitney’s house, another connection with a new group of friends.  And Dr. Samuels had given me something to think about regarding the future.  Me, Mr. Dennison, teaching high school kids about algebra and geometry.

Sure, Shawn was not having the best experience with student teaching.  But I was not Shawn.  Hopefully I would have a better experience.  Yesenia had told me that I would make a good teacher, and as a former tutee, she would know.  I would tell Dr. Samuels on Monday that I wanted to help out at Jeromeville High; the worst that could happen was that I would discover that I would not like it.  I would still get two units for it.  It was an option to explore, and that was what I needed right now.


Author’s note: Who was your favorite teacher, and why?


January 23-28, 1997. Time to start thinking about the future. (#116)

I walked into Kerry Hall and pressed the Up button for the elevator.  As I waited for the door to open, I noticed a flyer for the event I was going to on a bulletin board.  I walked over and read the flyer, even though I already knew the time and place of the event; we had discussed this upcoming event in detail at this month’s Math Club meeting.

MATHEMATICS CAREER FAIR
Presented by the University of Jeromeville Math Club
January 23 – 3-5pm – 450 Kerry

Kerry Hall, home to the offices of the mathematics and statistics departments, was easy to navigate; each of its six floors consisted of one straight hallway about two hundred feet long. Room 450 would be at the low-numbered end of the fourth floor.  The first digit of the room number was the floor, but for some reason the numbering on each floor started in the 50s at the end close to the elevators and ended in the 90s at the other end.  I wondered if this was because each floor of adjacent Wellington Hall only had room numbers ending between 01 and 30, so that way the two buildings would not repeat room numbers.  I also wondered if I was the only person on the Jeromeville campus who actually thought about such things.

I got off on the fourth floor and turned left, where I expected room 450 to be.  A sign next to an open door said 450 – GRADUATE STUDENT STUDY ROOM.  I did not know that this room existed, probably because I was not a graduate student.  On the other side of the door, a sign that said MATHEMATICS CAREER FAIR had been taped to the wall.  I cautiously walked inside.

I recognized several students I knew from Math Club.  Sarah Winters was picking up brochures from a table; she looked up and saw me in the doorway.  “Greg!” she said, waving.  Although Sarah was also a mathematics major, and one of my best friends, we had never had a math class together.  I knew her because she had lived downstairs from me in the dorm freshman year, and I also knew her from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and from my church.

“Hey,” I said to Sarah.  “How are you?  What table is this?”

“School of Education,” she replied.  “I don’t know yet if I’m going to stay in Jeromeville for my teacher certification program.  I’m thinking I’ll probably move back home, but I may as well look into all the options.”

“Good idea.”

“Are you still not interested in being a teacher?”

“Probably not,” I replied.

“You’re still working as a tutor, right?  Why aren’t you interested in teaching if you like tutoring?”

“I like helping people learn math, but I don’t want to get involved in all the politics involved in public education.”

“Yeah, that’s one thing I’m not looking forward to.  What about private school?”

“Don’t private school teachers make less money?”

“Yeah, but if you really love what you do, money shouldn’t be an object.  Would you want to teach at a community college, or a university, or something like that?”

“If I stay in college forever, I’ll probably end up being a professor and having to teach.”

“That’s true.  Is that what you want to do?”

“I always kind of thought so, but I’m starting to realize I need to explore my options.”

“Well, you came to the right place.”  Sarah gestured across the room.  The UJ School of Education table where we were now was the first in a row of four manned exhibits.  At the far end of the room, the rest of the furniture that was usually in this room appeared to have been pushed to the side, to give fair attendees room to mingle.  I was not sure exactly how many exhibitors I expected at a career fair, but the answer was definitely more than four.  This was disappointing.

“I need to go,” Sarah said.  “Enjoy the rest of the fair!”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “I’ll see you around.”

After Sarah left, I walked to the next table.  “Are you interested in being an actuary?” a man in a business suit asked me from behind the table.

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “I’m kind of just gathering information right now.  I hear a lot about actuaries when people talk about math careers, but I’m not sure exactly what you do.”

“Basically, we predict the future,” he explained.  “We use mathematical modeling to make predictions, which are used by insurance companies to determine rates and risk assessment figures.”

“I see.”

“I represent the Casualty Actuarial Society.  We give the exams that actuaries have to pass.”

“Do you go to grad school to get a degree to be an actuary?”

“Usually not.  You get hired first for an entry-level position, and your job training includes prep for the exams.  Then you get promoted after you pass the exams.”

“I see,” I said.  “I’ll think about that.”  I took his brochure and put it in my backpack, although from his description, being an actuary sounded incredibly boring and unfulfilling.

I next went to the table for Sun Microsystems, a computer company big enough for me to have heard of it.  “Hi,” the woman at the table said.  “We’re looking for applied math majors with computer programming or computer engineering experience.  Is that you?”

“Not really,” I said.  “But can I have a brochure, in case I change my emphasis?”

“Sure!”

I took the Sun brochure and put it with the others.  I had chosen not to major in computer science, because I did not want a hobby to turn into work.  I also knew that most of my technology skills were vastly out of date.  I had grown up with only my childhood Commodore 64 until I got my current computer as a high school graduation present, years after the Commodore had been discontinued.  I had taken two computer science classes sophomore year and learned to code in Pascal and C.  Computer Science 110, Data Structures, counted in place of an upper-division mathematics class toward my major; I had registered for the class this quarter and got put on the wait list, but I did not get in.

The fourth and final table was for Graduate Studies in the UJ Department of Mathematics.  I took their brochure as well to learn about the different programs offered, although much of that information I already knew from the course catalog.  This career fair felt like a giant disappointment.

An older student named Brandon, whom I knew from Math Club, asked me as I was leaving, “So what did you think?”

“It was a little disappointing.  Nothing really stood out to me.  I still don’t know what I want to do.”

“Don’t forget, the Engineering Career Fair is coming up on Tuesday.  You should look at that one too, if you’re looking for what you can do with a math degree.”

At that moment, a familiar woman’s voice said from behind me, “Greg? I just overheard what you were saying; can I talk to you for a minute in my office?  I have something you might be interested in.”

“Dr. Thomas,” I said, turning around.  “I didn’t see you here.”  I had taken Combinatorics from Dr. Thomas sophomore year, and she was my favorite mathematics professor so far.  She explained things clearly, in non-broken English, and she made an effort to get to know students more than most of my professors had.  She also attended Math Club meetings sometimes.

“Sure,” I said.  I followed Dr. Thomas upstairs to her office on the far end of the fifth floor.

“Are you familiar with REU programs?  Research Experiences for Undergraduates?”

“No,” I said.

“The National Science Foundation has programs that you can apply to and do research in your field.   Some of them, you can get credits for, or you get paid a stipend.  I’m trying to start an REU here at Jeromeville, but there are programs like this at schools all around the country.”

“I see.”

“A colleague whom I’ve worked with runs the program at Williams College in Massachusetts.  And three are others much closer if you don’t want to travel that far.  It’s a good way to get a sense of what graduate school is like.  Being that you’re an excellent math student, wondering about your future, I think it would be good for you to apply to REUs.”

“Sure,” I said.  “What do I have to do?”

“Here’s the brochure from the NSF,” Dr. Thomas said, handing me a paper.  “They have a website with links to different schools’ programs, and you can find all the instructions on how to apply there.”

“I will look into that,” I said.  “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.  And whatever happens, with how well you do in math, I know you’ll figure out what you want to do.”


The Engineering Career Fair was much larger than the Mathematics Career Fair; I expected it to be, since it was being held on the floor of the Pavilion, where the UJ Colts basketball teams played.  Engineering was also a much more popular major, and one more directly connected to industry.  A sea of tables, probably close to a hundred of them, covered the floor.  The region around San Tomas, Sunnyglen, and Willow Grove, a little over a hundred miles to the south, was a hub of technology companies; I expected that many of them had representatives here looking for people with computer experience.  Surely someone here would have a career option for pure mathematics majors.

I had not brought résumés to the career fair.  Next year, when I would be close to graduation, it would be more important to do so, but today was still mostly about gathering information.  Of course, if I found an internship for this summer that I wanted to apply to, I would still need to make a résumé and send it in.  We had discussed making résumés at this month’s Math Club meeting, and I mostly just felt frustrated and unaccomplished.  “I don’t know what to put on my résumé,” I said to Brandon at one point.  “I don’t have any work experience, or skills.”

“Sure you do,” Brandon replied.  “Just put what you can do.  On my résumé, I put ‘problem solver.’  Because when you give me a problem, I’ll solve it.”

“Hmm,” I said.  I was not a problem solver like Brandon.  I had tons of unsolved problems in my life, and padding my résumé with vague embellishments that I could not back up with action or experience would not help solve any of them.

I walked to the first table in the row closest to me.  A pile of mechanical pencils lay on one end of the table.  “May I have one?” I asked.

“Sure,” the woman behind the table said.  I read the pencil: NNC DATA SOLUTIONS, INC., SAN TOMAS.  “What’s your major?” she asked.

“Math.”

“Pure math?”

“Yeah.”

“We’re looking for computer science majors with experience in coding.  I don’t think we have any positions or internships for pure math.  Sorry!”

I continued up and down each row of tables, picking up lots of free pens, pencils, notepads, and foam balls to squeeze for stress relief purposes, each with companies’ names and contact information printed on them.  And I got the same story from each one of them: they were looking for computer science or engineering majors, not me.

At one point, I walked to a table I had not visited yet, for a company in Sunnyglen called West Coast Technologies.  I grabbed their free pencil and notepad.  “Do you have a résumé?” the woman behind the table asked.

“No,” I said.

“You need a résumé to apply for a job,” the woman replied, in a condescending tone.

“I’m just gathering information this year,” I explained, trying to hide my shame and frustration.

“What’s your major?”

“Math.”

“We’re looking for computer science majors.  But, hey, maybe ten years from now, when you’re wondering why you chose math for your major, you’ll go back to school for computer science, and we might have something for you!”  She made an amused chuckle.

I walked away without saying another word to the West Coast Technologies lady.  Who does she think she is?  How exactly does mocking an applicant to his face help your company recruit employees?  If I did go back to school in ten years, I thought, I certainly would not apply to work for West Coast Technologies.  Hopefully they would be out of business by then.

I continued past the next table.  I had only three tables left to visit, and I could tell from the names of the companies represented that they were looking specifically for engineers.  I turned toward the exit, not watching where I was going, and almost bumped into someone who was facing away from me.  As I looked up at this guy, who was about an inch taller than me, I realized that I recognized this tall guy with curly dark blond hair, and I became even more embarrassed.

“Sorry, Todd,” I said as he turned around.  “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

“Hey, Greg,” Todd Chevallier replied.  “No problem.  What are you up to?”

“Looking to see if there are any options for math majors here.  There aren’t.”  I told him about the condescending lady from West Coast Technologies, as well as the unsuccessful Mathematics Career Fair from the previous week.

“Well, what do you want to do with your math degree?”

“I’m not sure.  I always assumed I would just stay in school forever and become a professor, but now I don’t know anymore.  And I’m starting to stress about it.”

“Have you thought about going into teaching? It seems like a lot of people with math degrees do that.”

“I don’t want to be a teacher,” I explained.  “I don’t want to deal with the politics involved in education.”

“Yeah, I get that.  Don’t stress, though.  You have time to figure things out.  You’re only a sophomore.”

“I’m a junior.”

“What?” Todd exclaimed, with a puzzled look on his face.

“I’m a junior.”

“But I thought you and I were both new at JCF last year.  Freshman year.”

We were.  But it was my sophomore year.  I didn’t go to JCF freshman year.”

“Really.  Wow.  It’s weird that I never knew that.  I guess you do need to start thinking about your future.”

“I know.”

“Good luck.  Pray about it.  I’ll see you Friday?”

“Yeah.”


I rode my bike home more slowly than usual, feeling disappointed and discouraged.  I pulled a random CD from the shelf; it was New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the recently released album from R.E.M.  More disappointment; I did not like this album as well as their previous ones, although it did have a few good songs. I played it anyway.

I looked through the brochure that Dr. Thomas gave me.  I connected the computer to the dial-up Internet and went to the main website for the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.  I found the list of schools offering REUs for mathematics; there were quite a few, but none were nearby.  If I ended up doing this for the summer, I would have to travel, but that was not necessarily a bad thing.

School was what I was good at, so I always assumed I would stay in academia forever.  However, even that felt uncertain now.  And unless I changed my mind about being a teacher or an actuary, I had no other career options.  The good news was that, with my future so wide open, I could try different things and see what I did and did not like.  But this would require some work, and I always felt anxious about possibly making the wrong decision.  I got out my homework for tomorrow’s Advanced Calculus class and worked on that, putting aside my career uncertainty for now.  I knew that God had a plan, and I felt encouraged that Dr. Thomas believed in me, but all of this still felt overwhelming.  It was time to start thinking about the future, but none of this was imminently urgent, so planning my future career could wait.


Readers: Have you ever been told anything unusually cruel when being turned down for a position, or for something else?

Disclaimer: None of the corporations or organizations mentioned in this story were involved in its writing or production, and this is not a sponsored post.  Some of the corporations and organizations are fictional.