July 12, 1996. Thinking about the future.

Everyone has those experiences of seeing a familiar face in an unexpected place or situation, and usually, such a moment turns out to be awkward.  Kids see their teachers grocery shopping and freak out, because it never occurred to them that teachers eat like normal humans and do not live at school.  In 1996, Kevin Johnson was playing basketball for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, and in 2007, I saw him ordering at Chipotle, but I was too afraid to say anything.

I had one of those moments one Friday afternoon in the summer of 1996, when I was taking Computer Science 40, Introduction to Software, at the University of Jeromeville.  It was five o’clock, and I was still wearing the same old pair of shorts that I used for pajamas.  I had no class on Fridays, so I had not showered today.  I spent the morning in an IRC chat talking to a girl on the other side of the country, then I had worked on homework for a while, then I read a few chapters of a book for fun, and now I was going to go for a bike ride.  I put on a pair of real shorts and walked my bike out to the parking lot.  I looked up and saw Joe White.  “Hey,” I said.

Wait a minute.  Joe White, the teacher’s assistant for my computer class, does not live at Las Casas Apartments.  Or does he?  I had never seen him around here before.  He appeared to have just gotten out of the pool, and he was holding hands with a girl in a black bikini whom I had seen around the complex.

“Hi, Greg,” Joe said.  “You live here?”

“Yeah.”

“My girlfriend lives here.  It seems like a pretty nice place.”

“It is.  I like it.”

“How are you?  You seem to be doing really well in class so far.”

“I’m good.  I tend to figure out computers pretty easily.”

“Are you a CS major?”

“No,” I said.  “I’m a math major.”

“Do you need CS 40 for the math major?”

“No, but I needed 30.  And 110 counts in place of math units toward the major.  I’ve always liked computers, I want to learn more about programming, and 40 is a prerequisite for 110.”

“That makes sense.  Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you, you were in Math 145 last quarter with Dr. Thomas, right?”

“Yeah.  Were you in that class?”

“Yes.  I’ve been wondering if all the math professors at Jeromeville are as bad as Gabby Thomas, or if that was just her teaching style.”

This comment caught me completely off guard, since Gabby Thomas had been my favorite math professor so far, and I was not sure what it was that Joe found so abhorrent about her teaching style.  I liked her class.  Not wanting to debate this, I simply said, “Every professor is different.  I’ve had good and bad experiences.”

“That makes sense,” Joe said as I nodded.  He continued, “So what do you want to do with your math degree?”

“I’m not really sure,” I explained.  “Math is just what I’m good at.  I’ll probably just stay here and go to grad school.”

“A Ph.D. from Jeromeville doesn’t really mean much if you’re going to be a serious academic.  But if your math grades are anything like how you’re doing in CS so far, you could probably get into a really prestigious program.”

“Hmm,” I said, nodding.

“I should get going,” Joe said.  “Enjoy your ride, and I’ll see you in class.”

“Thanks!  Have a good weekend!”

I pedaled out toward Andrews Road and headed south toward campus, thinking about what Joe had said.  It had never crossed my mind how degrees from different universities with different levels of prestige might affect future employment opportunities.  As a kid, I just went to whatever school was in my neighborhood; I never had to consider the school’s prestige, reputation, or history.  Apparently, a career in academia was a bit more complicated.  It also rubbed me the wrong way that Joe seemed to have a very low opinion of the University of Jeromeville.  He thought my favorite professor was awful, and that an advanced degree from here was worthless.  If he thought so lowly of UJ, why was he getting his degree here?  For all I know, maybe he did not get accepted anywhere else.

I rode my bike past the North Residential Area and Thong Bikini Hill, which was full of sunbathers and swimmers today, to the oak grove at the west end of the Arboretum.  I continued along the path on the south bank of the creek for the entire length of the Arboretum, emerging downtown on First Street.  I turned right on Cornell Boulevard, crossing under the railroad tracks near Murder Burger and then over Highway 100.  Another trail followed the dry creek bed on this side of the highway; I worked my way to this trail and followed it east to where it ended.  The grasses between the trail and the dry creek bed had turned brown in the dry summer heat, but the trees lining the trail were full of green leaves.

At the end of the trail, I turned around and headed back to the west, until I got to the greenbelt that led to the park at the end of Baron Court, where I turned right, away from the creek.  In May, I had been playing disc golf in this Greenbelt as part of the Man of Steel competition, an annual event among the men of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship involving disc golf, an eating contest, and poker.  I was looking forward to next year, hoping that I would not finish close to last place for a second time in a row.

As I pedaled past trees and a small playground, I got an idea.  Although I lived alone at Las Casas, part of the reason I chose that apartment was because thirteen of my friends from freshman year lived within a short walk of me.  I occasionally walked to one of their apartments just to visit.  During sophomore year, I got involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and two households full of my new JCF friends lived on Baron Court.  What if I dropped in on them just to say hi the same way I did for my friends who lived near me?

I stopped my bike in front of the closer of the two houses and walked it up to the door, nervously.  During the school year, Haley, Kristina, Kelly, and Jeanette lived here, with two other girls whom I did not know as well.  I was not sure who would be here today, except that I knew that Haley would not, since she went home for the summer.

I took a deep breath and looked back out toward the street, contemplating getting back on my bike and going home.  This was a bad idea.  Maybe none of my friends would be here.  Maybe they had other roommates in the summer who did not know me; what would I say if one of them answered the door?  Which roommate was I looking for?  Would it be weird to say that I knew multiple girls who lived here and I just dropped by to say hi to whomever was home?  Why was I even here?  If I was looking for a chance to talk to Haley, she was not in Jeromeville, so that would not happen.  I knocked on the door before I could talk myself out of this.  The thirty seconds that I waited for a response felt like several minutes as I played out all the scenarios in my head.

Kelly answered, wearing a t-shirt and running shorts.  “Greg!” she said.  “Hi!  What’s up?”

“Nothing,” I explained.  “I was just out on a bike ride, out your way, and just wanted to say hi if anyone I knew was home.”

“Come on in!  I’m the only one here right now.  You want some water?”

“Sure.  And I’m sorry that I’m all sweaty.”

“It’s fine,” Kelly said, walking toward the kitchen.  I followed her.  “I just got back from a run a little while ago, and I haven’t showered yet.”  As Kelly got a glass out of the cupboard and filled it from a pitcher in the refrigerator, I noticed something frying in a pan on the stove.  “I’m making a hamburger,” Kelly explained, handing me the glass of water.

“I see,” I said, drinking about half the water in my first sip.  “How’s your summer going?”

“Pretty good.  Two classes during a summer session is a lot of work, though.  But I’m keeping up with it.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a lot of work.  I’m only taking one class, and that’s a lot of work by itself.”

“Which class?”

“Computer Science 40.  Intro to Software.”

“That does sound like a lot of work,” Kelly said, chuckling.  “What are you learning about?  Intro to software, like making your own?  I’m not really a computer person.”

“Yeah.  We’re programming in C, which is a structured programming language.  A lot of more entry-level programming classes use languages that are simpler for humans to understand, but a lot less powerful.  Like last quarter in CS 30, when we learned programming in Pascal.”

“I see.”

“I don’t like working in the computer lab in the basement of Kent Hall, though.  I work better from home, with music playing and stuff.  But I have to be connected to the computers in Kent, and I don’t want to tie up the phone line.  So I’ll dial in around 10 at night, and stay up late getting my work done, and it works out because I don’t have to be up early in the morning.”

“That makes sense.”

“And I’ve trained myself to sleep in a little.  I don’t usually sleep in very well.”

“I… have the opposite problem,” Kelly said, chuckling.  “I sleep through my early morning classes.”

“I’ve found that most people do have the opposite problem.”

Kelly flipped over the hamburger patty with a spatula.  “So what else have you been doing this summer?  Did you go home at all?”

“Yeah.  The week in between spring quarter and summer session.  My brother and I turned all of our silly inside jokes into a board game.”

“That sounds fun!  How old is your brother?”

“Fourteen.  He starts high school this year.”

“Oh!  I was picturing older.  Is it just the two of you?”

“Yeah.  What about you?”

“I have an older sister.  She’s in grad school in California.”

“Nice,” I said.  “That’s about it for my summer.  I’ve just been going to my class, and going for a lot of bike rides, and going to the Bible study on Thursdays at Lillian’s– Oh!  And I mailed off my payment for Urbana!  I’m going, for sure!”

“That’s exciting!  I’ve heard such great things about Urbana!  I really wish I could go.”

“Why can’t you?” I asked, hoping it was not too personal of a question.

“Did I tell you what I was doing next year?”

“I don’t think you did.”  I hoped that I had not disrespectfully forgotten some key piece of information that Kelly had told me before.  I first wondered if she could not afford the trip to Urbana, then I wondered if she was going on a mission trip, the kind of thing I would learn more about at Urbana, like what Taylor and Pete and Charlie were doing in Morocco or Xander was doing in India right now.  Neither one was correct.

“I’m going to Hungary,” Kelly said.  “To study abroad.”

“Oh!” I said.  “That’ll be exciting!”

“Yeah.  I always wanted to study abroad.  I wanted to be an exchange student in high school, but it never worked out.  This time, the opportunity did work out.”

“When do you leave?”

“After first summer session ends, I’m going to go home for a little over a week.  I leave in the middle of August.”

“Will you have email?  Or is there an address I can write you?”

“Yeah!  I don’t think I’ll have email, but I’m keeping an address book so I can write to people.  I’ll send you my address once I get there.  Lemme go get it.”  Kelly left the kitchen and came back a minute later with the address book; she turned to the page for the letter D and said, “Will you be at the same place next year?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ll give you my new address.”  I wrote in the address book, Greg Dennison, 2601 Maple Dr. #K-5, Jeromeville (after Sept. 1).

“Who did you say you were living with next year?”

Shawn Yang, Brian Burr, and Josh McGraw.”

“So this is Brian’s address too?  I’d been meaning to get his address.”

“Yes!  And I will definitely write you.”

“Great!”  Kelly turned off the stove and put her hamburger on a bun, which she had on a plate.

“I should probably let you eat that,” I said.  “I need to get home.”

“Yeah, I need to eat and then get in the shower.  But thanks for stopping by!”

“Yeah!  Good luck with the rest of your classes!”

“Thanks!  You too!”

I left Kelly’s house and rode down Baron Court.  I thought about stopping by the house down the street where a bunch of guys I knew lived, but at this point I was ready to get home and make something to eat, so I did not stop.  Kelly’s hamburger smelled good.

I turned right on Valdez and right again at Cornell Boulevard.  I saw tractors and backhoes on the other side of Cornell from me; I had read that a shopping center was being built here.  Shopping centers always brought controversy in Jeromeville.  The city was run by aging hippies who fought tooth and nail to keep the city feeling like the small town it was forty years ago, in complete denial of the population growth brought on by the large and growing university adjacent to the city.  The construction of a shopping center always renewed debate about what kind of stores belonged in a proper small town like Jeromeville.  I thought the city council should just mind their own business and let the free market decide, because this was America.

I turned left on Willard Avenue.  This was my first time on this stretch of road.  An overpass had just opened a few weeks earlier, connecting Willard Avenue with Power Line Road on the other side of Highway 100.  In typical Jeromeville fashion, the overpass was controversial; new roads would bring more traffic, which would bring more crime from other cities, according to the very shaky logic of the people who ran this city.  Currently, only two two-lane roads connected the part of Jeromeville south of 100 with the rest of the city, and horrible traffic jams plagued both of them, especially Cornell Boulevard heading into downtown.  This new overpass in between those other two was desperately needed, in the eyes of anyone who could think logically and unemotionally.

When the need for the overpass became apparent, the people planning it decided that it would be a uniquely Jeromevillian overpass, with a landscaped median full of planters with trees.  Trees on an overpass made no sense to me.  Trees grow, and trees have roots, which would crack the concrete and dangle over the freeway below.  The trees and planters also would add weight to the overpass.  As I crossed Highway 100, riding past the trees, I thought about how the local newspaper columnist Bill Dunnigan had said the same thing I did about them.  But someone thought this was a good idea, and as if not to be shown up, the city of Nueces, 15 miles west on Highway 100, built their own overpass with trees a few years later.

North of the freeway, the overpass crossed a railroad track and Second Street, then passed between two undeveloped grassy areas.  One had a pond fed by storm drains that was full for most of the year.  The city paid thousands of dollars to design a tunnel under this road so that wildlife could cross the road, a move which many pundits from other cities in the region made fun of.  A local artist built some miniature buildings called “Frogville” which he placed near one end of the tunnel.  What makes this situation even more messed up is that much of the land was paved over within a few years, and no frogs or other animals were ever seen using the tunnel.  I always said that Tunneling Frogs would make a good name for a band.  Had I done more research into the quirky left-wing hippie local politics in Jeromeville before I came to UJ for school, there is a good chance I would not have chosen UJ.  However, after making so many friends here and discovering how much I loved bike rides, Jeromeville was definitely starting to grow on me.

As I continued riding home, north on Power Line Road, west on Coventry Boulevard, and then right on G Street into the Coventry Greenbelt, I thought about that afternoon’s conversations.  Joe White had brought into question my plan to stay in school forever, with his comment about the importance of getting into a prestigious graduate program.  Kelly Graham clearly had a plan for her year in Hungary.

What was my plan?  Was I really planning on staying in school forever?  What would I do then?  I would become a mathematician, teaching college classes while doing mathematics research.  Was that what I wanted?  What were my other options?  I was pretty sure I did not want to teach middle or high school.  If I changed my major to computer science or something involving computers, I would be competing with others who were much more knowledgeable than me about computers from this decade.  I also enjoyed fiddling with computers, and I did not want something fun to turn into work.  By the time I got home, I found that I was more frustrated than I had been when I started on this ride.

I stopped at the mailboxes on my way back to the apartment and took a deep breath.  I knew that I did not have to decide my future plans right now, but it felt more urgent than it had a few hours ago.  I opened the mailbox and saw a letter from Sarah Winters.  She was at home in Ralstonville for the summer.  I went home and read the letter before I got into the shower.  In my last letter to her, I had mentioned that the weather had been uncharacteristically cool.  I had also told her about my class, my week at home, and how I needed to coordinate with Shawn and Brian and Josh about moving into the new apartment and storing my things for a few days after I moved out of this apartment.  Sarah told me that she had been in a wedding for one of her high school friends, and that she had been going to the college group at her church.  She was going to Disneyland later this month, and she would be talking to her pastor about missionary opportunities over the next couple of years.  She closed her letter saying, “I hope your plans for next year fall into place and that the sun comes out soon.  Take care!”

The sun did come out; temperatures this week had been in the 90s.  And Sarah was referring to the moving plans falling into place, but after today, I felt like I had many other plans that needed to fall into place.  I still had time to figure out my future.  Or did I?  I had been at UJ for two years, and I had made virtually no progress in choosing a career.  I would graduate in another two or three years, and it would be better to come up with a plan soon, so that I could choose the right classes.

I seemed to remember the Math Club talking about career opportunities sometimes; maybe I should pay attention to those.  Or I may end up doing something entirely different.  In December, I would be attending the convention in Urbana, Illinois, to learn about Christian mission opportunities and ways I can serve God.  Maybe I would discover an entirely new career opportunity there.  The world was not an easy place, but I was learning, and I would figure out my future when I was ready.  Things seemed scary and confusing now, but my sun would come out soon.