Early May, 1996. A stressful week. (#82)

A few months before every Olympic Games, the Olympic torch is lit by the sun on Mount Olympus in Greece and brought across Greece and the country hosting the Games that year.  In 1996, the upcoming Summer Olympics would be held in Atlanta, on the opposite side of the United States from Jeromeville. The torch would travel across the United States by way of a relay.  Thousands of people would carry the torch for a short distance, then pass it to someone else, with crowds of onlookers watching as the torch made its way across their parts of the country.

On the day before the torch passed through Jeromeville, I sat alone at a table at the Memorial Union, eating a burrito and doing the crossword puzzle in the Daily Colt.  I had work to do, I had a combinatorics midterm coming up in a few days, but I was not in the mood to do work, given everything on my mind.  I had been looking for a house for next year, with no luck so far, and I was starting to worry about this.  (This was before I talked to Shawn about looking for an apartment instead.)

I walked into combinatorics class about five minutes before it was scheduled to start; this was the last class before the midterm.  I was a quarter ahead in math entering the University of Jeromeville, so I did not take freshman calculus in large lecture halls with people who were taking math on schedule.  Because of that, this combinatorics class, with about eighty people, was the largest math class I had taken at UJ so far.  I looked around the room and saw Andrea Briggs, who had been in a few classes with me before and lived in the dorm next to mine last year. She sat next to an open seat, so I walked up to it and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Sure,” Andrea replied.

“How are you?”

“I’m great!” she said.  “Jay came to visit this weekend, and he proposed!”  Andrea held up her left hand, with the third finger now bearing a diamond ring.

“Congratulations!” I said awkwardly.  Was that the right thing to say in response to this?  I was not sure.  As far as I knew, she was the first of my friends to get engaged.  This was a completely new experience to me.

“What about you?” she asked.  “How are you?”

“My week hasn’t been nearly as exciting.  I had a quiz in my other math class this morning.”

“Which class?  How’d you do?”

“167, with Dr. Ionescu.  I’m getting an A in that class, but I feel like I’m not learning anything.  Most of what we’re doing is just review from 22A.  And the entire grade is based on surprise quizzes every three or four classes, so there’s no reason to remember anything.”

“Yeah, that’s weird.  But at least you’re getting an A.”

“Yeah.”

Gabby, the combinatorics professor, began lecturing about generating functions for recurrence relations, so I stopped talking and began taking notes.  Dr. Gabrielle Thomas was my favorite math professor at UJ so far.  She was fairly young, I would guess in her thirties; she spoke English clearly; and she told us to call her Gabby, which seemed refreshingly informal to me.  That made her feel more like a human being, whom I could relate to, compared to many of my other professors.

I tried to focus on what Gabby was saying, because of the upcoming midterm.  I still had not mastered recurrence relations, but I thought I would probably do fine once I took the time to study and practice the material.  However, I had a hard time concentrating today.  I kept wanting to sneak glances at Andrea’s left hand, not because of any particular curiosity about what her ring looked like, but because she had one in the first place.  I was over Andrea as a possible love interest; I found out over a year ago that she had a boyfriend.  But it just felt weird, and discouraging, that I was at the age when my friends would be getting married.  Andrea would soon be committing herself to one man for life, probably starting a family with him after she finished school, and I had still never kissed a girl.

After class, as I headed back to the Memorial Union where my bicycle was parked, I saw Danielle Coronado and Claire Seaver from church sitting at a table talking.  Danielle was one of the first friends I made at UJ; she lived down the hall from me in my dorm last year.  “Hey,” I said as I approached them.

“Greg!” Danielle said, smiling and waving.

“Hey, Greg,” Claire said.  “Have you started your project yet?”

“Kind of.”

“Which math class do you two have together?” Danielle asked me.

“Anthro 2,” I explained.  “Not math.”  Danielle’s assumption was warranted, however, because Claire was a music major with a minor in mathematics.

“That’s right, anthro,” Danielle said.  “With that professor who did a class for the IHP last year.”

“Yes.  Dick Small.”  I still found that name hilarious, because of my extensive background in dirty jokes.  “I’m going to observe and write about the IRC channel FriendlyChat,” I continued.

“Is that that thing where you talk to strangers on the computer?”

“Yeah.  Internet Relay Chat.  I was in FriendlyChat earlier today, and there’s some kind of complicated leadership structure with who gets to be a channel operator, and all these rules that they get mad at you for not knowing.  And when I kept announcing that I was doing an anthro project, as the ethics of anthropology require, some of them got mad at me for spamming.  So I’m off to a frustrating start.”

“Well, hopefully you’ll figure out a way to get your project done.”

“I hope so.  I’m just stressed about a lot of things.”

“Sounds like it.”

“I want to go see the torch tomorrow, though,” I said.

“Oh yeah!  When is that supposed to be?”

“It’ll be passing along Fifth Street between 1 and 2.”

“I have class,” Danielle said, feeling slightly disappointed.  “But have fun!”

“I will!  I’m going to head home now, but I’ll see you guys soon.”

“Bye, Greg,” Claire said.

“Bye,” Danielle added, waving.

I waved at the girls as I walked to my bicycle and went home.  I was riding a little more slowly than usual.  I felt weighed down by my upcoming midterm, the anthro project, looking for a house, and my fear of being left behind now that people I knew were getting married.


I had most of the next day free.  After I finished my one class, I planned to stay on campus and get work done until around noon, eat lunch, then go find a place to watch the Olympic torch.  I walked into the Memorial Union after class and looked for a table.  I saw Sarah Winters, whom I knew both from the dorm last year and from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, sitting by herself at a table, reading, with a notebook and textbook open.  I walked to her table and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Yeah!” Sarah said.  “How are you?”

“I’m stressed,” I said.

“What’s going on?”

“I’ve been trying to find a house for us next year, I’ve looked at a bunch of places, and I haven’t heard anything back yet.  And I have a big midterm for Math 145 tomorrow.  And I’m frustrated in general with Applied Linear Algebra, Math 167.  That class is a waste of time, and I’m not learning anything.”  Sarah began writing something as I continued speaking.  “And I just found out that someone I know, her boyfriend proposed.  I’ve never even had a girlfriend, and now I have friends who are getting married.”  As Sarah continued writing, I wondered if I was bothering her, if I should let her work on whatever she was doing.  “And I have this big project for Anthro 2 that I need to work on, and what I wanted to do hasn’t been working out so far.”  I stopped talking now, because Sarah was clearly busy with whatever she was working on.  I got out my combinatorics textbook and began looking over the section that would be covered on the test tomorrow.

“This is for you,” Sarah said, as she placed the paper she had been writing on top of my textbook. I read what she wrote:


“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.”
Proverbs 3:5-6


I looked up and saw Sarah looking at me with a peaceful, contented smile on her face.  “Thank you,” I said, attempting a smile in return.

“Everything’s gonna be just fine,” Sarah said.  “Really.”

“I know,” I said.  “But–”

“You’ll be okay.”

I took a deep breath.  “I’ll be okay.”

We sat there for the rest of the hour studying, occasionally making small talk.  “What are you doing the rest of the day?” Sarah asked at one point.

“I’m done with classes for the day.  But I’m gonna go see the torch.”

“Fun!  I can’t.  I’ll be in class during that time.”

I looked again at the note that Sarah wrote.  God had a plan for me.  My grades, my house for next year, my future wife, all of this was in God’s hands.  Trust God.  The second verse, from Proverbs, was a little bit familiar to me already, because there was a song we sang at Bible study sometimes based on that verse.  I had made a decision that I was living my life for Jesus, and now it was time to trust him to make this all work out somehow.  

Sarah left to go to class a bit later.  As I continued studying combinatorics, I really did begin to feel better about tomorrow’s midterm.  At noon, I got out the sandwich I had packed that morning, and when I finished that, I headed toward Fifth Street at the northern edge of campus.  Crowds waiting to see the torch were already beginning to line the street.  I found a spot next to an aged olive tree and leaned against the tree, waiting.  I had my backpack with me, so I continued studying combinatorics while I waited for the torch to arrive.

After I had been waiting for about forty minutes, I saw police cars approaching slowly, stopping drivers and pedestrians from entering or crossing Fifth Street.  This must be it.  Behind the police cars were a number of official vehicles with US and Olympic flags; a truck from Coca-Cola, the event’s sponsor; and finally someone wearing running shorts holding the Olympic torch.  I did not know if the torchbearer was someone famous or not.

I looked up at the torch in wonder.  That flame was ignited on the other side of the world and brought all the way here, continuously burning.  That felt kind of surreal.  This was a symbol of one of the biggest athletic events on Earth.  In two months, the world would be watching athletes from every inhabited continent competing for Olympic glory, and this same flame would burn over the shiny new stadium that Atlanta had just finished building for these Games.  People cheered at the moment that the torchbearer passed in front of them, and I joined in as he passed me.

A few minutes after the torch passed, when the entire entourage had moved beyond where I was standing, I turned around to go back to the Memorial Union, where my bicycle was parked.  “Excuse me?” a man asked me.  He had a fancy camera on a strap around his neck and a small Coca-Cola logo embroidered on his shirt on his chest to his left.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Can I get a picture of you holding this?”  The man handed me a full, unopened Coca-Cola plastic bottle.

I was confused.  “Why me?” I asked.

“No reason.  I’m just looking for people to photograph with Coke bottles, for our promotional materials.”

“Okay,” I said.  I smiled at the camera, holding the drink up, as he clicked the shutter a few times.

“Thank you!” the photographer said.  “You can keep the Coke.”

I walked back toward my bike as I drank my free Coca-Cola.  To this day, I never saw my picture in any Coca-Cola advertisements, so I do not know if they ever ended up doing anything with the picture.  But I got a free drink out of it.


When I got home that afternoon, I turned on the computer and connected to the campus Internet, listening to the whirs and clicks of the modem dialing the access number.  I opened a text terminal and connected to Internet Relay Chat, then entered the FriendlyChat channel using my usual screen name, “gjd76.”  About a minute after I joined, I copied and pasted the same message I copied and pasted every fifteen minutes while I was working on this: “I am working on a project for an anthropology class, making observations of the culture in this channel.  I will not use your actual names or actual screen names.”

“gjd76, u might not wanna tell us that, people might act different if they know ur studying them,” one person typed.

“true, but my professor says it’s unethical not to tell people they’re being studied,” I replied.

“Let me know if I can answer any questions for you,” one of the channel operators said.

“i will,” I typed back.  So far, this was going much better than yesterday; people were actually being helpful.

As I reached for my notebook in my backpack, I found the note that Sarah had written to me, with the Bible verses on it.  I read it again.  Plans to prosper you and not to harm youTrust in the Lord with all your heart.  Good advice.  I took two push pins and attached Sarah’s note to the bulletin board above my desk.  That way it could be a reminder for me while I was sitting here at the computer; I could look up and see those Scriptures.

I spent about an hour and a half in the FriendlyChat channel, and this time I was able to make much more meaningful observations and have more meaningful interactions with the people in the chat than I had yesterday.  If I had a few more days like this, I would have plenty of material to use to write my paper.  I also felt much better about my midterm for combinatorics, after having studied today.  I had still not heard from any of the houses I was looking for, but the more I thought about this, I decided I would talk to my roommates for next year and find out if they would be willing to look for an apartment instead.  They were fine with living in an apartment, and we did end up getting one, as I told before.  And while I was still discouraged with my own lack of romantic relationship in light of Andrea being engaged, the Lord had a plan for her that was not his plan for me, and I was not ready to begin thinking about marriage with anyone right now.  I was better off trusting in His timing.

I would learn later in life that the quote from Jeremiah is often derided as one of the Bible verses most frequently taken out of context.  Reading the chapters around it reveals that God declared those words to a specific group of people at a specific time, not to everyone reading them throughout all of history.  However, statements like that reveal the character of God, and although Jeremiah was not writing to me, the God who had a plan for his people thousands of years ago did also have a plan for me in 1996. The precise concept of “prosper” may not have involved material wealth in my case, but I just had to trust that God knew what was best for me.  Those two verses became ones that I have known from memory ever since.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding,” I began singing under my breath.  I liked that song, the one I had heard at Bible study before.  I did not know any of this at the time, but the original vocalist of that song was the same age as me, and still a teenager when the song was recorded.  The guitarist, who actually wrote the song, was not much older.  The two of them and their band would go on to have a major pop hit a few years later, which would confuse me a little in a time when I tended to draw very strict lines between Christian and secular music.  But that is a story for another time.

December 2-4, 1994. Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the Newman Center. (#15)

I walked around the dining hall with my tray of food, looking for a place to sit.  I saw some people I recognized at a round table that did not look full, so I sat with them.  Rebekah was to my left, then Rebekah’s roommate Tracy, Mike, Ian, David, Gina, and an empty seat.

“What’s everyone up to this weekend?” Mike asked

“I have to study,” Gina said.  “I’m so behind in all my classes.”

“I’m going home,” David said.  “I’m leaving tonight.”

“I’m going to a party tonight,” Tracy said.  I took a big bite of my hamburger and began chewing just as she asked, “What about you, Greg?”

“I hmmf turr-rahhh a vay-vah urr Rye mm Faah,” I said, chewing.

“What?” Tracy asked.

“He has to write a paper for Rise and Fall,” Rebekah said without missing a beat.

I swallowed and looked at Rebekah.  “How did you understand that?”

“I don’t know,” she said, smiling.  “I just did.”

“You’re good.  I’m impressed.”

“Thanks!  It’s one of my many talents.”

“I can’t believe we only have one week of classes left before finals,” Gina said.  “This first quarter seemed to go by fast.”

“We survived!” Mike shouted.  “We survived one quarter of college!”

“I’m nervous,” I said.

“Why?” Rebekah asked.

“Because of finals.  What if I fail? I’ve never taken a college final before.”

“Relax. You’ll do fine.”

 

The next few hours were uneventful.  I read for a while. I checked a few online newsgroups I was following.  I had a good talk on IRC chat with a girl from Florida. She signed off around 9:30, because it was after midnight where she lived and she had to go to bed, but she gave me her email so we could keep in touch.  After she left, I decided to walk around and see if anything exciting was happening.

On the first floor, I noticed that the door to room 116, the big four-person suite, was open, and I heard voices inside.  I poked my head in the door. “Hi, Greg!” Sarah said. “Want to come in? We’re just hanging out.”

“Sure,” I said, sitting on the floor against a wall.  Sarah, Krista, Pete, Taylor, Caroline, Liz, and Ramon were all squeezed into the room; four of them sat on chairs, and the rest on the floor.  Two other people I did not recognize were also there, a tall guy with wavy sandy-colored hair and a dark-haired Asian girl with a name tag that said “Tabitha.”  I knew everyone in Building C by name and face by now, and I knew that these two did not live in Building C.

It seemed that these people had come from some event where people wore name tags, because Tabitha was not the only one who hadn’t taken hers off.  Taylor wore one that said “Taylor,” and Krista wore one that said “Christa.” I pointed at Krista’s name tag and said, “There’s a typo on your name tag.”

Krista looked down at the name tag.  “Yeah,” she said. “I noticed that earlier.”

“Is it really a typo if you’re not typing, though?” Sarah asked.

“I don’t think so,” the tall guy said.

“So there’s a writo on my name tag,” Krista said, laughing.  “Is that a word?”

“Writo,” Tabitha repeated.  “Nice.”

“Greg?  Have you met them?” Krista asked, gesturing toward Tabitha and the guy I didn’t know.

“No.”

“This is Tabitha.  And this is Mike. Tabitha lives in Building B, and Mike lives in J.”

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

Mike, or more specifically its full form Michael, was the most popular name for males around my age.  There were already two Michaels in Building C, Mike Adams whom I saw at dinner and Mike Potts from the second floor.  And now I had a third one to remember, Mike From Building J. Sometimes I think that if I ever forget a guy’s name, I should just guess that his name is Mike, because there’s a pretty good chance I’d be right.  And I could do the same thing for girls by guessing Jennifer; there were two Jennifers in Building C. I didn’t know either of them very well, though.

“How do you guys know Tabitha and Mike?” I asked the group, not directing the question at anyone in particular.

“From JCF,” Sarah explained.  “Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.”

“Oh,” I said.  “That’s like a church group?”

“Yeah.”

“What church do you go to?”

“I go to Jeromeville Covenant, but the people at JCF come from different churches.  We have a large group meeting on Friday nights, where we sing worship songs, and someone gives a talk.”

“That sounds nice.”

“And we have a small group Bible study one night a week,” Taylor added.  “They have a couple of groups in each dorm area, and a bunch of them off campus too.”

“You should come to JCF large group sometime,” Krista suggested.  “Do you think you would want to?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Maybe.”

“You’re Catholic, right?” Caroline asked in her mild Australian accent.  “Didn’t Danielle say you go to church with her?”

“Yeah.”

“Let us know if you ever want to come,” Krista said.  “Everyone is welcome.”

“I will.”

The group in Sarah’s room stayed there for almost another hour, just talking about life and school and the upcoming end of the quarter.  After that, I went to bed, thinking about tonight. Mike From Building J and Tabitha both seemed nice. But I really didn’t know what to expect from this JCF group.  I remember learning at some point that there were other churches that followed Jesus besides the Catholic Church; Mom probably mentioned that at some point when she was talking about someone we knew who was Christian and not Catholic.  In 10th grade world history class, I remember learning about the historical reasons behind this. I should be glad that I learned anything in that class, because Kim Jensen was in that class and I spent a lot of time daydreaming about her and ignoring the fact that she was dating an older jock.

I wasn’t the type to go out and say that one church is more right than others.  But I didn’t really know what other churches were like. Is JCF the kind of group where people dance around and clap their hands?  Do they convulse on the floor and speak in tongues? Are they going to recruit me to go door to door and try to convert people? Were they a cult, where I would have to leave everything I knew and isolate myself and pledge myself to them for life?  I didn’t know. But I did know that all of my friends who were in Sarah’s room tonight didn’t seem like cultist types, at least not on the outside.

 

After an uneventful and damp Saturday spent studying and doing homework, Sunday morning was dry, although still mostly cloudy.  Back in September, Mom told me that once I got to Jeromeville, I should look for the Newman Center. A Newman Center, named for the 19th-century priest and theologian John Henry Newman, is an organization for Catholic students at non-Catholic universities, although there was no standard for exactly what each Newman Center at each university was like.  It didn’t take me long to find the Newman Center in Jeromeville, because they had a table in the Quad during the first week of school. I took their flyer and found that, in addition to being a student club-like organization, they also had a priest who gave regular Mass services twice every Sunday morning and once more in the evening.

Back home, Plumdale does not have a Catholic Church.  Gabilan has three, and my family went to the one in Old Town, called Our Lady of Peace.  I should rephrase that to say that Mom went every week, but I went maybe once a month, and Dad and Mark even less often.  I grew up going to Catechism through about sixth grade; the other kids were really mean to me, just like at school, and Mom eventually let me stop going because I wasn’t really getting much out of it.  By the last half of high school, though, I had started going to Mass more often, although not every week, and there were two reasons for this.

First of all, Catholic Masses are pretty boring when you’re a little kid and you have no idea what is going on.  I thought about how much more difficult it would have been for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations to attend Mass as children, because Catholic Masses were said entirely in Latin until the 1960s.  By my mid-teens, however, I had a little bit more of an idea of what all the words and prayers and songs meant. I got more of a sense of peace of being there, like it just felt like something that was right to do.  But also, Melissa Holmes from school, who was my next major crush after I had moved on from Kim Jensen, started going there, and I wanted to see her. Most Catholics from Plumdale went to Good Shepherd on the north side of Gabilan, because it was closer, but Melissa and her mom liked Our Lady of Peace better.  I remember mentioning all of this once in front of one of the JCF people, I think it was Sarah, and she said that this was God knowing exactly what would get me interested in going to church. She was probably right, because I didn’t stop going to church once Melissa moved to San Angelo and I moved in the opposite direction to Jeromeville.

I had been to Mass at the Newman Center pretty much every week since taking their flyer at the table in September.  The Newman Center met three blocks from campus in downtown Jeromeville, on East 5th Street, in a beautiful old brick chapel-like building.  I would learn later that this building was the original building of St. John’s Church, the main Catholic church in Jeromeville. At some point, St. John’s had built a new, larger building and an elementary school half a mile away, and the old building became the Newman Center.

Danielle, who lived right down the hall from me in 216 in the same four-person suite as Caroline, was the only other student from Building C who attended the late morning Mass at Newman.  She was already there when I got there, but Mass had not started yet. I sat next to her.

“Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Guess what?”

“What?”

“Next week I’m going to start singing in the choir at Mass.”

“That’ll be fun.”

“Claire, you know Claire?”  Danielle gestured toward an older student setting up music stands.  I knew Claire by face, but I didn’t really know her. “We’re both in the school chorus, and she’s been encouraging me to do this all year.”

“Nice.”

“I’ve heard you sing.  Have you ever thought about singing in the choir here?”

“I can’t sing in front of people,” I said.  “I only sing in the car.”

“I think you sing well.  Don’t sell yourself short.”

“I don’t know.”

“Think about it.  It looks like they need more strong male voices.”

“We’ll see.”

I had a good ear for music.  I played piano for a few years in elementary school.  I don’t remember exactly why I quit; Mom said it was because I wanted to be cool and I thought piano was for nerds.  That sounds exactly like something that ten-year-old Greg would have said. But I also think that part of the reason I gave up music was because Mom would never leave me alone about it.  We had an old out-of-tune piano in our house; it had belonged to Dad’s mother, who moved out of state after all her children were grown and whom I had only met twice before she passed away a year ago.  Every time we had company over, Mom would make me perform for them. She would record me playing on tape and send it to relatives sometimes. And I really wasn’t that good compared to musical child prodigies.  I just wanted to be left alone to play without an audience and without Mom having to make a big deal of it.

I thought about this as the choir began singing for Mass.  Here, they sang some of the same songs that I grew up with at Our Lady of Peace; today’s opening song, “Here I Am, Lord,” was one I was very familiar with.  They sounded nice, but singing in the choir just wasn’t for me.

I kept thinking about this as I rode my bike back to Building C after the service.  I went to Mass. I prayed about passing my classes and any sick relatives I knew about, and I asked God to help me meet a girl.  But I wasn’t the type to get super-involved in church stuff. There was nothing wrong with it, I didn’t have a problem with people who did, but that just wasn’t my style.

And looking back now, it’s amazing to think about my thoughts on that afternoon all those years ago, and how unaware I was of the direction my life would take over the next few years.