Mid-December 1994. My first finals week at UJ.

Finals week… two words that strike dread into the heart of every student.  The final exam alone makes up a significant portion of the grade in most classes, and there was always a lingering fear that one bad day during the final can derail your grade for the whole class.

The schedule for finals week at the University of Jeromeville was different from the rest of the quarter.  The last day of fall quarter was Friday, December 9, and finals started the following Monday. Finals week lasted six days, so the latest possible final was Saturday, December 17.  Finals week was the only time during the quarter that classes could possibly fall on Saturday.

I later heard stories from people at other universities with more traditional semester-based schedules that there was a “dead week” in between regular classes and finals, a period of about a week without classes when students prepared for finals.  UJ didn’t have that, with the faster pace of a three-quarter schedule. We got a weekend, and in some quarters we didn’t even get that.

The length of time I would have to study, however, varied depending on which days my finals actually were.  The finals schedule didn’t match the normal daily schedule of classes. The quarterly schedule of classes, which was a booklet that we had to pick up every quarter, had a list of all possible class times and the times for the final depending on the time the regular class met.  So, for example, my math class was Mondays, Tuesday, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 8am, and the schedule said that finals for classes at that time were Tuesday morning at 9:00.

I had spent most of Monday sequestered in my room, studying for the math final.  I reread every chapter that we covered. I looked at old homework to make sure I knew how to do the problems.  I redid some of those problems. I recalled from memory the integral table in the back of the book, at least the parts that we went over.  My whole day, like much of the previous weekend, was consumed with u-substitution, integration by parts, trigonometric identities, and word problems about area and volume and work done and distance traveled.  I took a break for lunch, I took a few breaks to check my email and reply to a girl in Texas I’d been talking to online, and I took a break for dinner.

After I got my tray of food, I looked around the dining room to see if anyone I knew was there.  I saw Rebekah and Tracy from the big room on the third floor, with another girl from a different building who I knew of as Rebekah’s friend from high school.  I think her name was Christine or something like that. I walked over and asked if I could sit with them, and Rebekah said sure.

“You ready for the math final tomorrow?” Rebekah asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I’ve been studying all day.”

“You’ll do fine.  I don’t get why you’re so stressed about this.”

“Are you guys in the same math class?” Christine asked.

“Yes,” Rebekah said.  “Greg has the highest grade in the class, by far.  The professor even assigned this really hard extra credit assignment, and right in the middle of class, he points at Greg and says, ‘Greg, don’t even think about doing the extra credit.  You have the highest grade in the class, by far, and you don’t need the extra credit.’”

“You guys got extra credit in your class?” Tracy said.  “I didn’t have extra credit in any of my classes this quarter.”  Tracy was right. That was the only time I had ever had the option of extra credit in any of my university classes, ever.  And even though Jimmy Best specifically told me not to do the extra credit, I did start to work on it. It was a very challenging problem that appeared to require researching some advanced math, though, so I didn’t finish it.

“What are you doing the rest of the night?” Rebekah asked me.

“Studying for math.”

“Me too, for a while, but Christine and I are going to hang out too.  We need a study break.”

“I’ve been taking too many breaks all day.”

“No you haven’t.  You’ve been in your room all day.  Just take the night off and relax.”

“I’ll have plenty of time to relax at home next week.  I have a final tomorrow. And so do you.”

“I’ll be fine.  And you will too.”

“I hope so.”

 

After dinner, I went downstairs to check my mail.  I had a letter from Melissa Holmes from back home. I took it back to Building C and climbed the stairs, where I found a cluster of second-floor residents standing in the hallway next to my room.  Aaron, my next-door neighbor was there, along with Caroline, Keith, and Liz and Ramon. Well, technically, Ramon lived on the third floor, but now he was spending so much time in Liz’s room that it felt like he lived there too.  Ramon had even moved the sign on the door with his name on it from his actual room upstairs onto the door of room 222 next to Liz’s sign and her roommate’s.

“Some of my friends back home got us tickets to see Live,” Keith said.  “It’s going to be a great show.” Live was the name of a band that had a few big hits in the mid-1990s.  I knew a couple of their songs. They were catchy, although their music seemed to be very critical of organized religion, and something about that kind of bothered me now that I was going back to church regularly.  But their music was good.

“Tickets for what?” Aaron asked.

“The Live concert.”

“You said that.  What band are you going to see?”

“Live,” Caroline said.

“Yeah, but who is playing live?” Aaron asked.

“They’re going to see the band Live.”

“I don’t get it!  What band are they going to see live?”

“Live,” Ramon said.  “The name of the band is Live.  You know, they sing that song ‘I Alone.’  And ‘Selling the Drama.’”

“Oh,” said Aaron, finally understanding.  “I haven’t heard of them.”

“You might recognize the songs if you heard them.”

“Maybe.”

“Hey, Greg,” Liz said.  “What are you doing over break?”

“Just going home with my family,” I said.  “Nothing special.”

“Same for me,” Aaron said.

“I need to go study,” I said.

“I should too,” Caroline replied.

“Good luck!” Liz told me as I went back into my room.  I chuckled at having witnessed a real-life version of Who’s On First.  Aaron had acted like he really hadn’t heard of Live, and that he hadn’t just been messing with them.

A couple hours later, I remembered that I hadn’t read Melissa’s letter yet, so I took my final study break of the night to read it.

 

Dear Greg,

How is school going?  I’m doing well in all of my classes so far.  I have some papers to write, and then it will be time to study for finals.  Are you keeping your grades up? Are you still getting the highest grade in your math class, like you always did in high school?

I loved your stories about all the people you’ve met in the dorm.  I’m really glad to hear that you’re enjoying dorm life! That’s one thing I haven’t gotten to experience, since I live with relatives off campus.  I’m trying to get involved in things. There is a club for pre-med students, and I have been to some of their activities.

When will you be in Plumdale for the holidays?  Call me after you get home. We’ll make plans to hang out and catch up.  I’d like to hear more about how you’re doing.

 

Melissa went on to write about her classes, what her family would be doing for the holidays, and something funny that her younger brother heard from a teacher at Plumdale High who remembered Melissa and me.  It was nice that I didn’t completely lose touch with all my friends back home.

I spent the rest of my night in much the same way as that entire Monday: studying math.  I eventually went to bed a little after 11, fairly confident in my mathematical abilities, but still uncertain of what to expect from the final.

 

“You ready?” Rebekah asked me as we waited in the hallway for the math final to start.

“I hope so,” I said.  “I just don’t know what to expect.  What if the questions are all really hard?  Or what if he asks about things we didn’t spend a lot of time on in class?  What if I run out of time?”

“Seriously, Greg.  What is your problem?  You’re gonna do great. We both know that you’re really good at math.”

“Thank you.  I just wish I knew more of what to expect.  This is my first college final.”

The final wasn’t really anything unexpected.  It wasn’t super easy, but in terms of the kinds of things we had studied, it was relatively straightforward.  I worked every problem thoroughly. I checked and double-checked my answers. For the problems where the answer was an algebraic expression instead of a number, I made up a number for x so I could use my calculator to see that I had done it correctly.  When I was confident that I had completed the test to the best of my ability, I handed it in and left. There were about ten people still working, out of around forty or fifty in the class. Among the people in the class that I knew, Rebekah had left already, and Andrea from Building B had left just a few minutes earlier. I handed in my test and walked out of the room… no going back now.

As soon as I got back home, I started reading through all of my notes for Rise and Fall of Empires.  I reread as many chapters in the book as I could, or at least skimmed through them. I went through all of my handwritten notes.  The first time I read through them, I typed them on the computer, thinking that I would have to pay attention to them as I was typing, and this would help me remember.  Also, that way I would have a more legible copy of the notes to read through in my later studies. Nothing eventful happened the rest of the week, just a lot of studying.  And, since I didn’t have any finals on Thursday morning, I stayed up really late on Wednesday night chatting on IRC. I met this girl from Missouri who wanted me to write her back, and the girl from Texas whom I had been emailing was online.

 

Friday was an overcast but dry day.  I got back to the building a few minutes before noon, having just finished my last final of my first quarter of college.  When I got back to Building C, I put my backpack in my room, and I immediately left to go to lunch. I got a cheeseburger and a huge plate of French fries, to celebrate being through with finals.  I was planning on spending the afternoon relaxing, taking a nap, walking around the dorm to tell people that I’d see them in a few weeks, and emailing the girls I’d been chatting with to tell them that I wouldn’t have access to email for a few weeks.  Then, later that day, I would pack and head home. The dorm didn’t close for the holidays until Sunday at noon, but I didn’t particularly feel a need to stay for very long. I was ready to go home.

At some point during the afternoon, I decided to walk around before I did any packing.  I found Taylor Santiago’s door on the third floor open, so I poked my head in and said hi.

“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said.  “How’d finals go?”

“I think I did okay.  I’m trying not to worry too much about it.  How were yours?”

“Uhhhhh….” Taylor paused and laughed.  “Well, there’s one I’m pretty sure I did well on.  The others, not so much.”

“Hopefully you did better than you thought,” I said.

“What are you doing over break?”

“Just going back to Plumdale to be with family.  I don’t think I’m doing anything special. One of my friends from high school who goes to San Angelo wants to hang out and catch up sometime.  That’s about it.”

“Does your family do anything special for Christmas?”

“We all meet at my grandma’s house.  And we’ve had a long-running tradition of playing Trivial Pursuit on Christmas.”

“Interesting.  Are you guys trivia buffs?”

“Some of us are.  I am. People have told me for years that I should go on Jeopardy.”

“I can see that,” Taylor said.  “Our family just has a big dinner together.  I think we’re hosting it this year. But a lot of people show up.”

“That’ll be nice.”

“When do you leave?”

“Later tonight, probably.  I’m not really in a hurry, but I don’t want to wait too long.”

“Sounds like a plan,” he said.  “So in case I don’t see you again before you leave, drive safely, and have a great Christmas!”

“You too!  Do you want the door open or closed?”

“Open just a little.”

“Sounds good.”  I left the room, left Taylor’s door open just a little, and walked all the way down the third floor hallway to the other end of the building.  I noticed that the door of room 316 was open; this was the four-person room where Rebekah and Tracy lived. I was ready to go back to my room and start packing, though, so I didn’t stop or look toward the open door.  But as I was between that open door and the stairs, I heard Rebekah call out, “Hey, Greg. You got 99 percent on the calculus final.”

I stopped.  I turned around.  I walked to the open door of Rebekah’s room.  I looked at her, and she looked back, smiling.  “What did you say?” I asked.

“You got 99 percent on the calculus final.”

“But… how do you know?”

“Jimmy said he was going to post the grades this morning.  Remember?”

I hadn’t remembered; in fact, I had completely forgotten.  Was my grade just plastered on the wall for everyone to see?  No… the grades weren’t supposed to be posted by name. “The grade printout only has us listed by ID number, right?  So how did you know which one was mine?”

“I remember what you got on all of the other midterms.  So I could see which one was you.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty brilliant.”

“I know.  I surprise myself sometimes with my brilliance,” Rebekah said sarcastically.  “I was only brilliant enough to get a B-plus on the math final, though.”

“That’s not bad.”

“You know what I’m going to do differently next time?”

“What?”

“I’m going to freak out and go crazy like you did.  Because maybe then I’ll get a 99 percent. It worked for you!”  She laughed. I laughed back.

“Thanks,” I said.  “I needed a good laugh.”

“Any time.  Are you leaving soon for break?”

“Tonight.  I’m going to go start packing now.”

“Well, then, have a good break!  I’ll see you in a few weeks!”

“You too!”

 

I drove home that night, going the long way down the Valley to avoid traffic in San Tomas and the other cities that way.  It was dark by the time I left Jeromeville, so I didn’t see much on the way home. I just put on some good music and sang along like I didn’t care who was watching… except I did care, because if anyone actually had been watching, I wouldn’t have been so loud, or switched back between singing high and singing an octave down, since a lot of rock vocals are above my vocal range.

I did it.  I had finished one quarter of college, and I had survived my first finals week.  I had learned a lot over the last three months, both classroom learning and life lessons brought on by being on my own for the first time.  And although I didn’t realize it at the time, something about today has stood out in my mind for years.  Rebekah had playfully pointed out that I had freaked out over a final exam in a class that I was doing very well in.  I could have avoided all of that stress just by believing in myself and not letting the unknown seem so scary. Rebekah had been much more relaxed all week than I was, and she had still gotten a B-plus. If I had gotten a B-plus on that final, I still would have finished the quarter with an A because my grade was so high going into the final.  Studying is important, sure, but I probably didn’t need to study quite so hard, especially in classes that came easy to me to begin with. I could have had a little more time to relax, or to spend with friends, during finals week, while still getting good grades. And the fact that I was still so obsessed with getting the absolute highest grades possible, at the expense of time with friends and possibly my own mental health, was proof that I still had many more life lessons to learn.

October 21, 1994.  Good things come in threes.

Another week done.  Another sunny and warm Friday afternoon.  I didn’t know if it was normal to still be sunny and warm this late into October.  I grew up in a different part of the state, and with the ocean and all the mountains nearby, the weather was often drastically different in different parts of the state.  The weather back home in Plumdale is usually still nice in October, but I already knew that Jeromeville gets hotter in the summer than Plumdale does.  Plumdale is close to the Pacific Ocean and its cold marine layer.

I got on my bike after my last class got out and pedaled down a road that passed by several tall and mysterious-looking buildings.  I turned left onto another path, and stopped at a stop sign at Davis Drive, the main street that ran east-west through campus. This was the street that led past Thong Bikini Hill toward Highway 117, which was the way we entered the campus when my family and I first visited a year ago.  I crossed Davis Drive, and continued on the path past a parking lot and a cluster of small buildings that reminded me of portable classrooms at elementary and high schools. I had no idea what any of the buildings I had just passed were used for. I knew that there was at least one medium-sized lecture hall in the first of the mysterious tall buildings I rode past, but I knew nothing about any of the others.  They were probably laboratories of some sort.

Just past the buildings that resembled portable classrooms was the South Residential Area, buildings A through M.  I parked my bike next to Building C and walked up the stairs to my room, where I planned on lying down for a bit and reading something that wasn’t a textbook.  As I opened the door to the second floor hallway, I heard footsteps above me and looked up to see Rebekah Tyler coming downstairs from the third floor. She and I were in the same math class, and we had gotten our first midterm back today.

The concept of “midterm” confused me a little.  The word “midterm” suggests an exam in the middle of the term.  However, many of my classes at UJ had two midterms, sometimes even three, so they did not always come at the same time in the term.  Also, because of UJ’s three-quarter schedule, the term was only 11 weeks long including finals, so in many classes there was a test of some sort every three weeks or so. The word “midterm” at UJ was used for any test that was not a final exam.

Many of the lower-division mathematics classes at UJ were not taught by the regular full-time professors.  Some were taught by lecturers, who were hired only to teach and not do research. Some were taught by Visiting Research Assistant Professors, who were in Jeromeville only for a temporary time period and often did not speak English as a first language.  And some were taught by graduate students, like my instructor this quarter, a young guy probably no more than 30 years old working on a Ph.D. His name was Jimmy Best, which is a great name no matter what your job is. He made a typical teacher joke on the first day of school when he said that he was the Best teacher ever.  Today, when he passed back the midterm, he announced that the highest grade had been 99 out of 100.

“Hey, Greg,” Rebekah said, seeing me downstairs.  “Let me guess. You were the one who got the 99 out of 100 on the midterm.”

“Yes, I was,” I said.  Apparently the reputation I had at Plumdale High for being good at math followed me to Building C, although being that we were all Interdisciplinary Honors Program students, I figured a lot of students around here were like me.  “How’d you do?”

“90.”

“That’s not bad.”

“I have another midterm right now for my engineering class.”

“Good luck!”

After spending a few hours reading, writing emails while staring out the window at the beautiful day outside, and playing a game on the computer, I walked down to the dining hall.  Tonight’s special was spaghetti and meatballs, which I spooned onto my plate. I looked around for a seat. I didn’t see any of my friends around. I started to walk toward an empty table, but then I noticed that a girl sat by herself at the table next to the one I was walking toward.  She had straight light brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, blue eyes, and she wore a striped shirt and tan pants. I knew this girl. Well, I didn’t exactly know her, I didn’t know her name, but I had seen her before. She was in my math class.

“May I sit here?” I asked, gesturing to the chair across from her.

“Sure!” she said.

“We’re in the same math class, aren’t we?” I asked.

“Yeah.  I’m Andrea.”  She pronounced it with the stress on the first syllable.

“I’m Greg,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

“How’d you do on the midterm?”

“I got 86,” she said.  “I thought I did pretty well, but there was one question I just couldn’t remember anything about at all.”

“Aww,” I said.  “I was the one who got 99.”

“I figured,” she replied.  I didn’t understand this. How does someone I just met know that I’m the one who got the highest score on the midterm?

“What’s your major?” I asked Andrea.

“Math.  I want to teach high school math.”

“Good for you,” I said.  “I don’t think I could ever be a teacher.  I’d get tired of the politics involved in the education system.”

“I know what you mean,” she replied.  “I just know I want to teach.  I’m just hoping all that stuff doesn’t bother me.”

“Makes sense.”

“What’s your major?”

“I haven’t decided yet,” I said.  Saying that always felt wrong, like this was something I should know by now.  “I know I’m good at math, and physics, and chemistry. I’m kind of thinking one of those, although math is the only one of those classes I’m taking right now.”

“What about engineering?  Are you considering that?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “We’ll see.” What I didn’t tell Andrea, and what I was a little ashamed to tell any of the engineering majors in IHP, was that I really didn’t know what an engineer was, and that was the main reason I never considered it as a major.  I grew up very sheltered in a blue-collar part of the state where not many people have advanced degrees. My mom worked in an office, and my dad fixed and maintained agricultural equipment. Jobs like engineer didn’t really come up in my very limited world view.  “Where are you from?” I asked.

“Irving,” she said.  “Near San Tomas.”

“Oh, yeah, I know where that is.  I’m from Plumdale. In Santa Lucia County.”

“I know Santa Lucia.  I’m not sure I know exactly where Plumdale is.”

“In the hills to the north.  It’s not very big.”

“Which building are you in here?”

“C.”

“I’m in B.  I know a few people in Building C.  Liz Williams? And Pete, the guy with the beard, I don’t remember his last name?  They’re in C, right?”

“Yeah.  Pete Green.  I know both of them.  Liz is just down the hall from me.”

Andrea was finished with dinner by then.  “I have to get going,” she said. “It was nice meeting you!  I’ll see you around?”

“Yeah.  Have a great weekend!”

“You too!”

After I finished eating, about five minutes later, I walked downstairs to the mail room and noticed an envelope in my mailbox.  I read the return address and smiled. It was from Melissa, my friend from high school who lived down south now.  I had written her during the first week of school, and now she had written back.  This was the first time I had heard from any of my high school friends.

Sarah and Krista from the first floor of Building C were walking toward the dining hall as I walked in the opposite direction.  “Hi, Greg,” Sarah said, smiling. “You got a letter!”

“I did.  It’s from a good friend from high school.”

“Good!  Did you eat already?  You want to come to dinner with us?”

“I just finished eating.  Sorry I missed you guys.”

“That’s ok!  We’ll see you back in the building.”

“Yeah.  Have a good dinner.”

I walked back to my room and opened the letter.  It was mostly just the usual stuff. Melissa told me about her classes.  She told me what it was like living with her grandmother and asked if I had made a lot of friends yet.  She apologized for missing Homecoming, saying that she wanted to go but she ended up having a paper to write that weekend and having to do something with her relatives.  She mentioned that her family was taking her out to dinner this weekend for her birthday. I made a mental note that I had forgotten Melissa’s birthday, but now I could write her back with a belated birthday card.

After I read the letter, I walked upstairs, but I walked all the way up to the third floor because there was something I was curious about.  The door to room 316 was open a little, so I knocked and stuck my head inside.

“Hi, Greg,” Rebekah said.  “What’s up?”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“I just saw Andrea from our math class in the dining hall.  How is it that everyone knows it was me who got the highest score on the midterm?”

Rebekah laughed.  “Probably because you’re always the one participating in class and answering questions.  Everyone else is still half asleep at eight in the morning.”

“I’d never thought of that,” I said.  “You’re probably right.”

“I wish I was as lively as you are in the morning.”

“I guess that’s just how I am.”

I went back to my room a few minutes later and looked out the window at the sky. which was now quickly getting dark, but there was no fog coming in as there usually was in coastal Plumdale at this time.  Life was so different now compared to a month ago. College is different than high school. Jeromeville is different from Plumdale.  But tonight I felt at peace. I did very well on my first math test. I finally heard from one of my old friends.  And I had a new friend who lived in a different building… and not just any new friend, it was a cute girl who liked math. It is often said that good things come in threes, and I was three-for-three today.