October 23-25, 1996. A pen pal on another continent.

The way people communicate has changed radically over the course of my life.  When I was young, telephone calls outside of one’s own city cost a lot of money, so when friends moved away, I often never heard from them again.  Writing letters in the mail was an option as well, for people committed enough to do so.  In high school, my friend Catherine went to Austria for a year to be an exchange student, and we wrote letters the whole time she was gone.  When the young people of today have friends who move away, they stay in touch through texting and social media.  Some of them have thousands of followers on social media all over the world, some of whom they have never met before.  Many of them do not want to be bothered with traditional voice-based telephone calls, and many of them do not know how to address an envelope or use a stamp.

I attended the University of Jeromeville during an awkward transition period when both of these worlds existed simultaneously.  Some of my friends used email, some of them communicated by writing letters, and some I never heard from again once I moved.  I spent a lot of time on text-based Internet Relay Chat, usually looking for girls to talk to, because I was not good at meeting girls in real life.  I stayed in touch with some of them by email, but I also sometimes got handwritten letters from them.  Sometimes we wanted to exchange photos, and in an era when flatbed scanners were relatively uncommon and digital cameras were not yet mainstream, it was easier to send a photo in the mail.  Other times, someone I know would lose access to email temporarily, and stay in touch by writing letters.  That was the case for many of my university friends when they went for the summer.  That was also the case with Laura Little, although her story was a bit more interesting.

I met Laura on IRC in the spring of my sophomore year at UJ.  She was seventeen years old, and she lived in upstate New York, on the other side of the United States from me.  In one of our first conversations, she told me that she was going to be leaving in July for a year, to be an exchange student in Switzerland, where she would not have Internet access.  I had been getting letters from Laura regularly since she left; she had a difficult transition to life in Switzerland, and her German was not good, so she wanted to get letters to read in English.

Laura and I had never met, obviously.  I did not know what she looked or sounded like.  Right before she left for Switzerland, a romantic interest named Adam whom she also met on the Internet had come to visit her for a few days.  Whenever she mentioned Adam, her answers were a bit inconsistent and evasive; first she said they had a good time but decided to just be friends, but then in the next letter she said something about having to get her mind off of what happened with Adam, and then she said something about regretting what she did with him, that she felt stupid and that she should have known better.  Clearly I had not gotten the entire story, so the last time I wrote to her, I asked exactly what happened.

I got home in the late afternoon after a long Wednesday of classes to find a letter from Laura on the kitchen counter next to the phone; one of the other roommates had apparently gotten the mail earlier.  Shawn was in the kitchen loading the dishwasher.  When he saw me pick up Laura’s letter, he asked, “Hey, who are all these girls who write letters to you?  You’re getting letters from all over the world!  You’re a ladies’ man!”

“Not exactly,” I said.  “Laura is someone I met on the Internet; she’s from New York but studying in Switzerland this year.”  I conveniently left out the part where she was only seventeen. Even though that was only a three-year age difference between Laura and me, Shawn was turning twenty-three next month, so to him, she would seem significantly younger.

“And you got a letter from Hungary last week.”

That’s Kelly Graham.  You know Kelly.  She was roommates with Haley Channing and Kristina Kasparian last year, on Baron Court.  She’s studying abroad in Hungary this year.”

Shawn thought for a minute.  “Kelly!  Oh yeah.  And don’t you have a girlfriend back home?”

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah.  That girl from Gabilan who has written to you like four times already.  That’s where you’re from, right?  Plumdale is right near Gabilan?”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Cecilia, or something like that.”

Cecilia?  From Gabilan?  I laughed loudly as I figured out who Shawn was talking about.  “That’s my grandma!” I said.

“Your grandma!” Shawn laughed.  “This whole time, I thought you had a girlfriend back home.”

“I wish I had a girlfriend back home who wrote me as often as Grandma did.”

“She sure likes to write.”

“She does.  And my cousin Rick, the second-oldest grandchild, went away to North Coast State this year, so he’s gonna get just as many letters from Grandma now too.”

“That’s nice of her, though.”

“Yeah, it is.”  I walked upstairs to read Laura’s letter.  Laura had very small handwriting; she sometimes wrote in cursive and sometimes printed, sometimes both in the same letter, and she often did not bother to separate her letters into paragraphs.  This letter was handwritten on tan stationery, with a typed paper inside the envelope as well.  The typed paper appeared to be a math assignment of some sort.


Greg,

Guten tag!  Meine Deutsch ist besser.  (My German is better.)  I understand more than I did before at least. I’m doing well.  The weather here is getting colder.  I just spent 200 francs on sweaters and a long sleeve shirt.  My mom would kill me if she found out how much money I spent.  I’m supposed to be taking this test, but it’s a take home test so I’ll make a copy and send it to you.  I’m so lost and I have told the teacher that I don’t understand any of this.  He just told me to do my best but I just sat for half an hour debating if I did the problems correct but I left half of them blank because I don’t know what to do.  Maybe you can help me.  I’ll write what it means in English if I know it.  I would really appreciate it if you could help explain these.  I know it is really sad how lost I am.  I told my mom about you and said that I was going to ask you for help with math, and she says thank you.  I do too.  So anyway, last weekend I went away on a trip with the other exchange students in my program and I got to talk in English all weekend.  It was so good.  We went to the mountains and in the morning we took a cable car to the top of a mountain and it snowed.  I love it.  And we had a big party that night.  It was cold, but we had a snowball fight and took a lot of pictures.  We have Herbstferien here, it’s a fall school holiday, I CAN’T WAIT!  I’m going to go skiing, I’ve never been before.  I hope you don’t think different of me after I tell you what happened with Adam because I know it was a mistake and I should have just been friends with him but I’m so stupid.  Sometimes when I’m put in a pressure situation I don’t think straight.  Only you and one of my friends back home know about this because I don’t want anyone to know.  I was so stupid to let it happen but it’s too late to fix it now and I just want to forget about that.


I had a feeling I knew what was coming next.  It was pretty obvious where she was going with this.  I continued reading.


Well I kinda slept with him.  Only once though but we also did some other stuff.  I don’t want to say anything more, I’m so stupid to let it happen.  But on a lighter note I got my ear pierced at the top.  It didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would but I couldn’t sleep on that side for a few days.  One of my friends from school here and I got it done together.  I like it.  I’m not feeling homesick as often.  I know how to prevent it now and I don’t think it will happen again.  I know my writing is messy but I haven’t slept much.  I hope you don’t think of me different because of all that.  Oh yeah, you’ll be happy to know my butt doesn’t hurt as much when I ride my bike to school.  I’m happy now but I can’t ride long distances like you do sometimes.  How are you?  Have you met anyone yet?  It made me sad when you said you felt like giving up on girls.  Just talk to someone.  Ask her to coffee or ice cream or lunch or something.  And tell me all about her.  Any girl would be lucky to spend time with you.  I hope to hear from you soon.

❤ Laura


I was not entirely sure how to react to what she said about Adam, although I had a feeling that was what she was going to say from the moment she told me in her last letter that she regretted what she did.  Part of me was disappointed that this happened; Laura was not the kind of nice Christian girl I was hoping to meet.  She had never claimed to be Christian, though, so that was just wishful thinking on my part.

But I also did not blame her or Adam one bit.  If I had been Adam, I probably would have been having fantasies about going to bed with Laura the whole time I was visiting her, even though I knew it was wrong.  I must admit, I had had those fantasies about her before, although I could not bring myself to tell her that, of course.  This sounds paradoxical, but such are the trials of a lonely, girl-crazy Christian young adult like me.

I only had one class the next day, and one of my students for my tutoring job did not show up, so I had plenty of time to get homework done during the day.  After dinner that night, I went upstairs to my room and began writing my next letter to Laura.  


October 24, 1996

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your honesty.  Don’t worry about me thinking differently of you.  Everyone does things they wish they hadn’t afterward.  And please don’t call yourself stupid.  You aren’t.  You said you regret what you did, so learn from this.  You told me that you know you don’t think straight in pressure situations, so when you know you’re going to be in a pressure situation, set boundaries in advance.  If there’s a guy who likes you, for example, don’t be alone with him if you don’t want to feel pressured.

I wish I got a fall break.  That sounds like it’ll be fun.  I’ve never been skiing either.  I don’t know if I want to try it.  I’m not usually good at things like that where I have to keep my balance by going fast, and I would probably just get frustrated.  But tell me how it goes.  Your ear piercing sounds cute.

I started going to a new church a couple weeks ago.  I really like it.  A lot of my friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship go to that church.  But I don’t want to start going there just because I have friends there.  That shouldn’t be what church is about.  So I decided for the rest of October to go to both churches every Sunday and pray about it.  So far I like the new church.  People there seem more serious about following God and reading the Bible.

Things are going well at the apartment.  I’m adjusting well to having roommates.  Four of us share a three bedroom apartment; Shawn and I share the big bedroom.  It hasn’t been a problem so far.  We both get up early for class, so I don’t have to worry about waking him up or him waking me up.  Brian is really nice too.  The fourth guy, Josh, he works weird hours, and I don’t see him very often.

I don’t have a girlfriend.  I’m not good at meeting girls.  I feel like I have a lot of acquaintances these days, but I’m kind of on the outside of a lot of my friends’ social groups.  There’s this one girl I know from JCF who I would love to get to know better and spend more time with.  She’s really sweet and she has beautiful blue eyes.  I just don’t know what to do, though.  I don’t get to talk to her very often, and lately she’s been acting a little different.  I’m not sure why.  Last week at JCF she was talking a lot with this other guy, but I couldn’t tell if they were together or anything.  I met her in January when I was having a really hard day, and this guy invited me to hang out with some of his friends, and we hung out at her house.  A couple months ago, around the time all the year leases run out, I rode my bike past their house and everything was dark, and that inspired me to write a poem.  I’ll send it to you. It’s a Shakespearean sonnet; I’ve always liked that format for poems.


I continued writing, telling her all about trigonometric ratios on the next page, which apparently her mom wanted to thank me for.  I wondered exactly how much Laura’s mom knew about me.  I told my mom very little about all the girls I had met on the Internet, although she knew about one, Molly from Pennsylvania, because Molly wrote me letters the summer after freshman year when I went home for the summer.

Next I opened a file on my computer called “2234.”  This was the title of the poem I had mentioned in my letter to Laura, about a time when I rode my bike past the house where Haley and her roommates lived, but Haley was home for the summer and everyone else had moved out by then.  I titled the poem 2234 after the address of the house, 2234 Baron Court.  I printed the poem and put it on my desk with the rest of Laura’s letter, which I would mail in the morning.


“2234”
by Gregory J. Dennison, 1996

Inside your walls, that January night,
My life began again, in joy and love;
My brand new friends had shown to me the light;
Set free from gloom, I praise my Lord above!
Today your door is locked, your curtains drawn,
Along your quiet street you make no sound,
Your residents, and all their friends, are gone,
No sign left of the friendship I once found.
But though the cast has left, the show is done,
The drama rests forever in my heart;
This friendship still is shining like the sun,
We’re miles away, but not so far apart;
   Though now, O house, you’re empty, cold, and dark,
   My night in you forever left its mark.


I took a long time to fall asleep Thursday night.  I kept thinking about Laura, having sex with Adam and partying with all of the other exchange students, probably getting drunk in the process.  I wondered if she made any other decisions she regretted on her weekend with the other exchange students.  I knew consciously that that line of thinking was horribly judgmental, and that I was being a bad friend by entertaining those thoughts, but I could not help it.  I woke up tired Friday morning, still dwelling on these dark thoughts.

I was not feeling angry with Laura, though.  My brooding was directed more toward myself, at my failures with girls, and at a society where fake people with loose morals always got the girl or guy they were after, and guys like me were ridiculed and made outcasts.  I did not know how meeting girls and dating worked.  Laura tried to encourage me, but her suggestions just were not easy for me.  I did not know how to talk about things that girls would be interested in, and sometimes I felt like I was on the outside, or at best on the outer fringes, of cliques that seemed to spend a lot of time together.

During a break between classes, I went to the Post Office to mail Laura’s letter.  There was a small Post Office in the Memorial Union building, around the corner from the campus store.  Four people were in front of me in line, and with two friends in Europe that I was writing to that year, I had spent enough time in this line to know that I would be here for at least fifteen minutes.  Usually only one employee worked at the desk, and whenever he had to get something behind the desk, or place a package where the outgoing packages went, he seemed to move so slowly that I wondered if he was exaggerating his slow movements on purpose.  Did he have special training to learn how to work so slowly and inefficiently?  If I had been working behind that desk, I would be moving a lot faster, just because it was in my nature to get things done.  It probably would have saved time to buy stamps in the denomination of what it cost to send a letter to Europe, but sometimes I wrote long enough letters that it cost more, and I would have had to stand in line anyway to get the right postage.

I finally mailed my letter and walked toward the other end of the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit.  I was thinking about Laura’s encouragement to talk to girls and not be afraid, and as if on cue, I saw Haley walking toward me.  Before I could overthink myself out of it, I said, “Hey, Haley.”

Haley stopped and looked up at me with her bright blue eyes, smiling.  “Hi,” she said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much,” I said.  “Glad it’s Friday.”

“I know!  I had a big midterm yesterday.  It was a long week.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Hey, what are you doing this weekend?”  The words just came out; I was not sure where I was going with this line of conversation, but it felt right to ask.

“Not much.  But I’m going to play games at the Albert Street house tonight.  Did you hear about that?”

“I don’t think so.”

“After JCF tonight. Just hanging out and play games.  I’m sure you’re invited.”

“Eddie and Raphael’s house?  That Albert Street house?”

“Yeah.  I have to get going, but will you be at JCF tonight?”

“I will.  I’ll see you there?”

“Yeah!  See you there!”

I did go to the game night after JCF that night, and it was a lot of fun.  About ten of us were there, and we played Uno and Taboo until well after midnight.  Nothing special happened between me and Haley, although we did get to talk a bit more.  That felt like progress.  Maybe next time I would ask her to do something specific, just me and her.

After the game night ended, I headed home on the nearly empty streets of Jeromeville under the dark night sky, driving over the overpass with trees on it and flipping around the stations on the car radio.  As I heard Alanis Morissette singing about how “you live, you learn, you love, you learn” in her pain-inducing voice that sounded like the sound some sort of bird would make as it was being stabbed, I instinctively reached over to change the station.  But just before I pressed the button, I stopped.  Maybe Alanis was right.  I was living my life and learning from my missteps and mistakes.  And so was Laura, on another continent.  I was not doing myself any favors when I got down on myself because of my social and romantic failures, and neither was Laura when she called herself stupid because of what happened with Adam.  Laura was my long-distance friend, and friends were there to encourage each other, and help each other learn and grow.


Dear readers: What are some experiences you’ve had with learning not to be so judgmental? Or learning from your mistakes?

Also, I know this is a day late. I might be taking an unplanned week off from writing here and there, because I’m behind on real life right now. Next time I skip a week, you can always read an episode from the archives.

June 25-27, 1996. The first week of summer session.

The architecture and landscaping around the University of Jeromeville are not the old brick buildings and towering, stately trees commonly associated with universities.  The towering trees are there, in the older parts of campus, but the buildings are a mix of architectural styles.  The traditional brick Wellington Hall, the wooden shingles of Old North and South Halls, the Spanish stucco and tile of Harper Hall, and the bizarre angled concrete of the Death Star Building are all visible just from the Quad.  Some criticize the campus for its lack of architectural unity, but I always found that this gave it character.

One of the sections of campus with the least glamorous architecture was far to the southwest of the Quad, just past the engineering buildings, east of the South Residential Area.  Two prefabricated buildings, resembling the portable classrooms on most elementary and secondary school campi in this state but larger, stood surrounded by several feet of bare dirt on each side, and more interesting buildings in view nearby.  One of these buildings was divided in half, with a sign calling it “Temporary Classrooms 1 & 2,” and the other had only one door, labeled “Temporary Classroom 3.”

I parked my bike and walked into Temporary Classroom 3.  A chalkboard ran along the side of the building to the left, and about eighty chairs with the little writing desks that fold out faced the chalkboard.  The room was about half full so far, and most of the empty seats filled up by the time the instructor arrived at noon.  I assumed that this man was the instructor, at least, because he carried a binder and stack of papers to the front of the room.  He was slender, with wavy light brown hair, wearing a dress shirt and slacks, and he appeared fairly young, probably in his early thirties.  A darker-haired man of about that age, dressed more casually, had been sitting in the front of the room the whole time.  The instructor handed the other man a stack of papers, which they began passing out to the class.

“Welcome to Computer Science 40, Introduction to Software,” the instructor said.  “My name is Tom Kroger.  This,” he said, gesturing to the darker-haired man passing out papers, “is Joe White.  He will be the TA for this class, and he will lead the discussion section on Wednesday mornings.”  The syllabus was among the papers Joe White passed out, and neither of their names had the title “Dr.” in front.  I assumed that Joe White, like most teaching assistants, was a graduate student studying computer science, and I wondered, because of his youth and lack of title, if Tom Kroger was a graduate student as well.  In my department, mathematics, graduate students sometimes taught first-year classes as the actual instructor, not just the teaching assistant; perhaps computer science did the same thing, particularly during the summer session.  (I would learn later that I was correct.)

Tom spent the first part of class explaining our assignments, the grading policy, office hours, computer lab hours, and other procedural items.  We would be using the programming language C, and the textbook for the class was called C How To Program, the only textbook I ever had with a pun for a title.  An optional supplementary book taught the basics of Unix operating systems; I bought this book too, since I had little familiarity with Unix.  For the rest of the 110-minute class, Tom lectured about high-level structured programming languages and the C standard library.  While some elements are common to most programming languages, C seemed fundamentally different than the Commodore 64 BASIC programming that I taught myself at age nine, or the Pascal language that I learned last quarter in my Introduction to Programming class.

Summer session classes teach ten weeks of material in six weeks, so the class met more often during the week than classes do during the regular school year.  The class met from 12:10 to 2:00 every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoon, with a discussion section Wednesday morning from 10:00 to 11:50, right before the lecture.  We would have weekly projects that would be discussed at that time.  This was the only class I was taking this summer, and I had no job, so I had plenty of time to study and get work done.

After class, I went to the Memorial Union and got a slice of pepperoni pizza.  I had not packed a lunch, I just figured that I would eat when I got home, but being back on campus for the first time in almost two weeks made me want to sit back and take in the atmosphere.  I took my lunch to a table in the courtyard by the fountain that was now kept perpetually dry.  I read the Daily Colt campus newspaper as I ate.  The name was a bit misleading, since during the summer, the newspaper only published twice a week, in a smaller tabloid format only about half as long as the regular edition. 

The campus was much quieter today than I was used to, since the majority of the student population was not in class for the summer.  Those fun times last year of running into friends around campus between classes, and all the interesting conversations that happened around those encounters, probably would not happen as often this summer.  The last time I sat at this table was when Haley Channing was sitting here, and I asked if I could join her.  For a girl-crazy, socially awkward guy like me, getting to have lunch with Haley was like winning the lottery.  Of course, I embarrassed myself in front of her a few minutes later; Claire Seaver from church choir walked by, and I tried to introduce Haley and Claire, not realizing that they already knew each other.  I would have no random encounters with Haley this summer, since she was home working a summer job, 400 miles away.

 The Daily Colt still included a crossword puzzle, which I did after I was done eating.  Even though the campus was emptier than usual, I was not completely alone.  I still had choir practice at church on Wednesdays, and I was in a Bible study that started this Thursday, so I would see some of my friends then.


The discussion Wednesday morning was also in Temp 3.  It was required, and the class was not split into multiple small discussion groups, so all of the students were there.  Joe White introduced our first project.  It seemed fairly straightforward, a project designed mostly just to acquaint students with the system and the basics of coding in C.

At two o’clock, after the lecture with Tom Kroger, I went to the computer lab in the basement of Kent Hall.  It was spread out across five rooms, and being an afternoon in summer when only a few computer science classes were offered, all of them were mostly empty.  When I had come here during Intro to Programming last quarter, there were usually many more people down here.  These computers ran X Window, a graphical interface for Unix-based computers that bore a superficial resemblance to the Microsoft Windows 3.1 that I was familiar with.  I opened a text editor in a new window, where I typed my code as a text file, which I would later compile into an executable.

I stayed in the lab for about an hour working on my project, and by that time I felt comfortable with how this system worked, as well as with C in general.  I still had a lot of work to do on the project, but I had a week to do it.  I was in no hurry; I just wanted to make sure I was familiar with the computer system before it was too late.


Since many UJ students leave to spend the summer at home or get summer jobs or internships elsewhere, the Newman Center only offers two Sunday Masses during the summer instead of three.  I would learn later that many other churches in Jeromeville also decrease the number of services during the summer, for the same reason.

When I got to choir practice on Wednesday night, some familiar faces were missing, and others had taken their places.  I knew that the Coronado sisters had both gone home to Desert Ridge for the summer, and a few others, including Phil Gallo and Melanie Giordano, were absent as well.  I recognized a few people from events that the church had held, and I assumed that these new people were singers from the early morning Mass, who were combined with us now.

“Greg!” Claire said when I walked in.  “You’re here!  Are you gonna be here all summer?”

“Mostly,” I replied.  “I wasn’t here last week because I went home to see my family.  But I’m back for the summer.  At least most of it.”

“How was that?”

“It went well.  My brother and I made a silly board game out of all of our inside jokes.”

“That sounds fun!”

“It was!”

I walked over to the music stand with my copy of this week’s music.  A girl I did not know stood next to me.  She was short, with short chin-length brown hair and brown eyes.  “Hi,” I said.  “I don’t think I know you.”

“I’m Ellen.”

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

“You too.”

“Are you from the early service?” I asked, assuming that the answer would be yes.

“No,” Ellen said.  “My family goes to Mass here.  I’m going to school in San Diego, and I’m home for the summer.”

“Oh, I see,” I said.

“Do you know Kevin Stark?  He’s my dad.”

“I think I know who he is.  He’s a professor of pomology, or something like that?”

“Yes!  It’s funny, that’s what everyone seems to remember about him.”

“I remember him talking about his research once.”

“Yeah, Dad always tells people he studies fruits and nuts.  Then he adds, ‘The kind that grow on trees.’”

“That’s funny,” I said, laughing.

“Yeah, but it’s less great when you hear him say it all the time.  Dumb jokes get old.”

“True.  That makes sense.  So what’s your major?”

“Marine biology.  You?”

“Math.”

“Wow.  That was never my favorite class.”

“I get that reaction a lot,” I said.

At this point, I realized that the rest of the room had become quiet and was staring at us.  “I was just saying, it’s time to get started,” Claire explained.  We mostly did familiar songs that week, so we got through choir practice relatively quickly.  Ellen had a nice voice.  I was looking forward to singing on Sunday.  While I still held out hope that something would work out with Haley eventually, I could not help but wonder if Ellen had a boyfriend.  


Thursday felt like a Friday to me, since I knew that it was my last class for the week.  With only one class this summer, I was going to have a four-day weekend every week.  I liked this schedule.  After class was over, I rode my bike into downtown Jeromeville and went to Tower Records.  After browsing the entire store, I bought the new Dave Matthews Band CD, Crash.  I listened to it as soon as I got home.

That night, after dinner, I drove to Pine Grove Apartments, about a mile to the south.  Jeromeville Christian Fellowship did not have their large group meetings on Fridays during the summer, but there were two Bible studies meeting this summer, one here near campus and one on the other side of Jeromeville.  I found the apartment I was looking for and knocked on the door.  “Come in,” someone said from inside.

“Greg!” Lillian greeted as I opened the door.  Lillian was a year older than me, and she had co-led my Bible study during the school year.  Her co-leader this summer with a guy her year named Chris.  

“Hey, Greg,” Chris said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much.  Just taking a class and hanging out.”

“Which class?” Lillian asked.

“CS 40.  Intro to Software.”

“I’ve heard that’s really hard,” Chris said.  “My roommate is a CS major.  And you’re taking it in the summer, packed into six weeks?  Good luck.”

“I like it so far,” I said.

“Do you need computer science for the math major?” Lillian asked.

“CS 30 is required; I took that last quarter.  110 is optional, it counts in place of math units, and 40 is a prerequisite for 110, so I figured I would take 40 in the summer, when it’s easier to get into.  And programming is something I was always interested in.”

About five minutes after I arrived, we started with worship music as Chris played guitar and we all sang.  When it came time to begin the study, Lillian explained that we would be studying the First Epistle of John this summer.  I knew most of the people in this Bible study, after having spent most of the last school year going to JCF.  Tabitha Sasaki read the first half of the chapter out loud, and Jason Costello read the second half.  A verse that Tabitha read stuck out in my mind: “We proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.”

We spent the next forty minutes or so discussing what John meant in writing these verses.  I kept thinking about that verse about proclaiming eternal life, which I was not good at.  I preferred to mind my own business when it came to telling people about my faith, this came more naturally to me, but I often worried that this was not enough.  I had friends who were good at inviting their friends to JCF; some people, including myself, had come to faith by being invited to JCF.  I had friends who were proclaiming eternal life this summer in Morocco, India, and other nations where Chrsitianity was not a dominant part of the culture.

The parent organization of JCF, Intervarsity, put on a convention every three years in Urbana, Illinois, for young adults to learn about mission trips and service opportunities.  Many of my friends were going, and I was considering going as well, although the thought of spending a few hundred dollars to register for this, and a few hundred more to fly to Illinois, was overwhelming.  An early bird price offered a significant discount to anyone who signed up before the end of June, which was only a few days away.

After we finished studying the chapter from 1 John, Chris asked, “Are there any prayer requests?”  A few of the others shared concerns about sick relatives and overwhelming school workloads.

I spoke up after a few minutes.  “I still haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to Urbana,” I said, “and I want to decide before the price goes up.  That’s in a few days.”

“I think it’ll be a really good experience for you,” Lillian said, “but I know, it’s a lot of money if you’re not really committed.  We’ll pray for you.”

After everyone shared their prayer requests, we all went in a circle, praying for the person next to us.  “God,” Tabitha said, “I pray for Greg.  I pray that you will give him wisdom to know whether or not Urbana is right for him.  I pray that Greg will know your will, and that you will speak to him all the great things you plan on doing through him.  I pray that he will find a way to make the finances work out, if this is your will.”

“Lord, I pray for Jason,” I said after Tabitha was done.  “I pray for his busy schedule, that you will help him stay focused on classes.  I pray that he will manage his time well, and find a balance between spending time in the Word and spending time on studies.”

After we finished prayer requests, and the study ended, Tabitha asked, “What are you up to tonight?”

“Just going to work on my project for class,” I said.  “I’m going to see if I can figure out how to connect to the CS computer lab from my computer at home, so I don’t have to go into the lab.”

“Let me know as soon as you’ve decided on Urbana.  I still want to get a few people to go in together on a flight.  I told you about that, right?”

“Yeah.  I will let you know.”

“Perfect!”

After I got home, I turned on the computer, listened to the beeps and whirs of the dialup modem connecting, and connected to the computers in the basement of Kent Hall.  I opened a second window and connected to my usual IRC chat channel, so I could find people to send messages to while I was working.  I put on the new Dave Matthews Band CD for the second time that day.

By the end of the night, I had decided that I preferred this setup over physically going to the basement of Kent Hall.  Writing code from home gave me the opportunity to listen to music and have a chat room open at the same time.  For certain types of studying, like those involving large amounts of reading, I do not do well while listening to music, but I enjoyed listening to music during other types of studying, like math homework or computer science projects.

The obvious drawback of doing computer science work from home, of course, is that I could not use the telephone while I was connected to the Internet.  Anyone who tried calling me would get a busy signal.  Although I did not get many calls, I did not want to tie up the phone line; I always held out hope that maybe I would get a phone call from a cute girl, or that someone would invite me to something awesome.  But since I did not have to get up early most days, I could wait until after ten o’clock, when I was unlikely to get phone calls, and work on coding late into the night.  I managed to train myself to sleep in until around ten in the morning, since my class did not begin until noon, although I had to make sure to get to bed earlier on Tuesdays so I could get up in time for the Wednesday morning discussion.  Once my body got used to staying up late and waking up late, that schedule worked very well for me.  I did not set foot in the basement of Kent Hall again for the rest of the summer.

When I finally went to bed that first night, at 1:46 AM, I closed my eyes and prayed again that God would show me the right decision about going to Urbana.  By that time, though, I felt like I already knew the answer.  I had found Jesus, and I needed to know what the next step in my faith journey would be.  I also had many friends who were traveling overseas to spread the Gospel, and I did not know how to support them, or even the nature of their work in the first place, in some cases.  I mailed my registration form the following morning.  I now had six months to work out the details, but I already had a head start since Tabitha was putting a flight together.  It was a wonderful first week of class, and as I drifted off to sleep, I felt optimistic for the rest of the summer.

May 11-16, 1996. A montage of awkward moments.

The Associated Students of the University of Jeromeville, ASUJ for short, was the organization responsible for student activities at UJ.  They held two major festivals every year.  They were less than a month apart, since both involved traditions specific to spring.  The Spring Picnic, which began decades ago as the school’s open house and grew into a major festival, was interesting and fun.  The other festival was called the Mother Earth Festival, held on Mother’s Day weekend.  It was a bunch of hippie stuff, not really my thing.

I attended the Mother Earth Festival exactly once, in 1996.  It was a Saturday afternoon, I was bored, and I decided to check it out, so I got on my bike, parked it on campus, and walked around the Quad.

The Quad was packed.  Craft and vendor booths lined the edges of the Quad, with a sea of humanity in between.  I walked along the row of booths, peeking at what was happening inside.  Face painting.  Beads.  Tie-dyeing.  Henna tattoos.  These round things with feathers on them that the sign called dreamcatchers.  At the south end of the quad, the temporary stage where I saw Lawsuit at previous Spring Picnics was set up, and two musicians were playing instruments I could not identify while some lady in a long skirt with armpit hair frolicked and pranced on the stage.  I walked up the other side of the Quad, looking at other booths, before deciding that nothing here particularly piqued my interest.  The most memorable thing I remember seeing in the fifteen minutes I spent at the Mother Earth Festival was this girl with big boobs sunbathing in a bikini.  She and her flat-chested friend were not dressed as hippies at all, and their armpits were actually shaved.  I looked at them for about five seconds, then moved on so it would not look creepy.

As I approached the place where I had parked, I walked past a bench and saw a girl named Maria who was in my Advanced Composition class last quarter, sitting on a bench looking away from me.  I took my rolled-up copy of the Mother Earth Festival schedule of events, and I tapped her on the shoulder with it.

Maria turned to look at me, except it was not Maria.  This girl had a similar build, hairstyle, and coloring, but otherwise looked nothing like Maria.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I thought you were someone else.”  I walked away before the other girl could respond.

Why did I do that?  I kept replaying the embarrassing incident in my mind as I rode my bike back home.  Maria had not been not looking at me, I had no need to go out of my way to say hi to her, and I did not really want to talk to Maria anyway.  The angry political messages on the buttons all over her backpack clearly indicated that she was not the kind of person I wanted to get to know, and I did not find her attractive.  And now some other girl probably thought I was a weirdo, all because I had decided to be friendly.


Unfortunately for me, I tended to be just as awkward around girls I actually did find attractive.  Two days later, during a break between classes, I was walking around the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit.  I held a slice of pepperoni pizza on a paper plate and a Coca-Cola in a reusable large plastic mug.  Some division of ASUJ was handing these mugs out free a few weeks ago, to encourage people not to fill up the landfills with disposable cups.  Drinks were 25 cents less at the ASUJ Coffee House for customers bringing their own cups.  Of course, I had a disposable paper plate, but at least that was biodegradable, and bringing an actual plate to campus would be somewhat unwieldy.

I looked out the window to a courtyard-like area, which was surrounded on three sides by the building.  A large round fountain sat in the middle of the courtyard, but it was dry and had been ever since I began attending UJ.  Metal tables and chairs were arranged around part of the courtyard.  I felt that familiar jolt of excitement and nervousness as I saw Haley Channing sitting at one of those tables, alone.  Finally, this might be a chance to talk to Haley one-on-one with no one else around.  I almost spilled my drink as I opened the door leading to the courtyard, but caught myself.  “Hey,” I said as I walked up to Haley.  “May I sit here?”

“Hi, Greg!” Haley replied, smiling.  “Go ahead!”

I placed my food on the table and sat down.  “How’s your day going?” I asked.

“Pretty good, except I have a paper to write.  I’m gonna be busy tonight.  You?”

“I’m good.  I have a lot of math homework, though.”

“What math class are you taking?”

“Applied Linear Algebra and Combinatorics.  Two classes.”

“I have no idea what either of those mean.”

“Linear algebra works with matrices.”

“I kind of remember matrices in high school, a little bit.”

“And combinatorics is about problems that come up with counting combinations and things like that.  If I have license plates with three letters and three numbers, and I need to figure out how many possible license plates there could be, that’s a combinatorics problem.  At least that’s what we did back in the first chapter.”

“Interesting.”

“It is.  I also really like the professor for that class.”  I looked up and saw a familiar face walking toward us; it was Claire Seaver from church.  I waved, and Claire walked over to our table.  

“Hey,” Claire said to me.  “How are you?”

“I’m doing well.  Claire, this is Haley–”

“Hi, Haley,” Claire interrupted, smiling.

“Hi,” Haley replied with a tone of recognition.

“How do you two know each other?” I asked, trying to hide my shame in not knowing this and being caught off guard.

“Chorus,” Haley replied.  “I used to do that last year.”

“I keep telling Greg he should join chorus,” Claire said.

“You should!” Haley told me.  “I’ve heard you sing.  You have a good voice.”

“Maybe,” I replied.

“How were your weekends?” Claire asked.  “Did you guys call your mothers for Mother’s Day?”

“I did,” Haley said.

“I saw this thing on the Internet the other day where you can send someone flowers by email.  You get an email, and it’s a picture of flowers with a personalized message,” I said.  “My parents just got email recently, Mom loves email, so I sent one of those to Mom.”

“That’s fun,” Claire replied.

“If I’m going to send flowers to my mother, she’s gonna get real flowers,” Haley said.  “No emails and pictures for my mother.”

“I need to get going, but I’ll see you guys later,” Claire said.  We both waved and said goodbye as she walked away.  As I took a bite of my pizza and chewed it, I kept thinking that I was probably blowing it with Haley.  I had tried to introduce herself to someone she already knew, and she disapproved of my Mother’s Day gift.  After I swallowed my pizza, I attempted to resurrect the conversation, asking, “Do you still do chorus now?”

“No.  I did last year, but I have too much going on now.”

“That makes sense.  I played piano as a kid, but I was always so self-conscious about performing for others.  But I’m starting to get over that.  This year I started singing in my church choir; that’s how I know Claire.”

“Nice!  Chorus is always looking for guys.”

“Maybe I will for next year,” I said.  We continued making small talk as we finished eating, and I hoped that she could not read disappointment in my body language.  I could not help but feel like I had embarrassed myself in front of her.


Whenever I introduce two people now, I always ask them first if they know each other; this is a direct result of that incident all those years ago when I tried to introduce Claire and Haley.  But that was still not the worst awkward moment I experienced that week.

I was back in the Memorial Union a few days later, looking for a place to study, and I saw a familiar brown-haired face sitting at a table by herself.  It was my friend Lizzie, one of those people whom I initially crossed paths with just because we knew someone in common.  Lizzie went to high school with Jack Chalmers, another math major who had been in multiple classes with me.  Last fall, Jack and I had linear algebra together, and Lizzie had a class in the same classroom right before ours.  Jack and Lizzie would say hi to each other as we waited in the hall and her class exited the room.  Jack talked a lot, and he talked fast, and sometimes he would say hi to Lizzie in the middle of a sentence with me.  He would say something like, “Hey Greg I’m totally not ready for this test and I blew off studying last night Hi Lizzie! so I hope I don’t bomb it because I totally need to keep my grades up.”  Eventually, I started saying hi to Lizzie when I saw her around campus, and we had actually had conversations beyond hello a few times.

“Hey,” I said, approaching Lizzie’s table.  “Mind if I sit here?”

“Hi!” Lizzie exclaimed enthusiastically.  “Go ahead!”

“Thanks.”

“How’s it going?”

“I’m doing okay.  Just busy with classes.  What about you?”

“Same with me.  I have a midterm tomorrow.  But the school year is almost over!”

“I know!  Are you doing anything exciting this summer?”

“Just going home and working.  I need the money.  What about you?”

“I’m staying here, taking a class.  This will be the first time I’ve been in Jeromeville for the summer.”

“I hear it gets really hot!”

“I kind of like the heat, though.”

“What class are you taking?”

“Computer Science 40,” I explained.  “I’m taking CS 30 now, it’s required for the math major, and I love it.  There’s an upper division CS class, Data Structures, that counts toward my degree in place of a math class, but it requires 30 and 40 as prerequisites.  It’s really hard to get CS classes because there are so many CS majors, and not much computer lab space, so they put a cap on how many can enroll, and CS majors have priority.  Enrollment wasn’t restricted for the summer class.”

“Smart!” Lizzie replied.  “You’re a math major, right?  That’s how you know Jack?”

“Yeah.”

“Why didn’t you major in CS, if you like it that much?”

“Because I didn’t want something fun to turn into work.  Also, my computer knowledge was several years out of date by the time I got here, and I knew I’d be competing with kids whose knowledge was much more advanced.”

“That makes sense.  So you’re just taking the one class?”

“Yeah.  First session.  I’m not taking any classes second session.  I’ll probably just hang out here and try to find something fun to do.”

“Like what?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “I’ve discovered over the last couple years that I like to write.  I’m working on a novel now, when I have time and I’m in the right mood.”

“That’s so cool!”

“Just for fun,” I said.  “I know, I’m a math guy, I’m not supposed to be a writer.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being both!  What’s your novel about?”

“There’s this guy, he’s a senior in high school, but he needs a fresh start, and he wants to leave his past behind.  So he goes away to live with relatives.  And he feels like he isn’t ready to move on to the next part of his life, so he pretends to be younger so he can have a couple more years in high school.”

“Wow,” Lizzie said.  “Where’d you get the idea for that?”

“I guess I’ve kind of wished for that myself,” I explained.  “I feel like I really grew a lot my senior year of high school, but then just as life was getting interesting, my friends and I all graduated and moved away and lost touch.  I wonder how I would have turned out if I’d had another year or two to grow in that environment, if I would have gotten to experience more things I missed out on.”

“Well, I think you turned out fine.”

“Thank you,” I said.  Then, after a pause, I added, “You can read it if you want.”

“Yeah!  It sounds really good!”

“I could email you some of what I have so far.  Does that work?”

“Sure.  Let me give you my email.”  Lizzie tore off a piece of paper from a notebook and wrote on it, then passed it to me.  I opened it and read what she wrote, very confused for a few seconds, then suddenly frightened and embarrassed as I began to realize the full implications of what I read.


Lindsay’s email:
lkvandenberg@jeromeville.edu


Lindsay’s email.  I had known this girl, whom I had been calling Lizzie, for over seven months, and this whole time her name was Lindsay.  I had never seen her name in print before.  I knew her through Jack, who talks really fast, so when I heard Jack say “Hi, Lindsay,” it came out sounding like “Hi Lizzie.”  I suddenly tried to recall every time I had actually spoken to Lindsay, trying to remember if I had ever called her Lizzie to her face.  I could not remember.  I looked up at her, trying to put the name Lindsay Vandenberg to this face, and it felt weird, because she was still Lizzie to me.

“Greg?” Lindsay asked.  “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I was just thinking about something.  No big deal.  But I’ll send you my story.”

“Great!  I look forward to reading it!”  Lindsay looked at her watch.  “I need to get going, I have class, but I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

“Yeah!  Have a great day!”

“You too!”

I never found out if Lindsay knew that I thought her name was Lizzie for seven months.  She was never in my inner social circle, and we did not stay in touch after we graduated, but we always said hi to each other on campus.

For some reason, I have always disliked using people’s names out loud.  It just feels uncomfortable to me, and I do not know why.  But this odd quirk may have worked to my advantage on that day, because it was entirely possible that I had never actually called Lindsay Lizzie outside of my own head.  When I saw her, I was much more likely to just say “Hi” instead of “Hi, Lizzie.”  But even if I had ever accidentally called her Lizzie, there was not much that I could do about it now.  Besides, while my realization that Lindsay’s name was not Lizzie felt awkward and embarrassing, much of that embarrassment was in my own head.  If it was unlikely that she ever heard me call her Lizzie, she would have no way of knowing that I did not know her real name for so long.

Most guys have had their share of awkward moments around girls; and, of course, this statement applied to other combinations of genders and orientations as well.  I always felt particularly prone to awkward moments, mostly because I had never had a girlfriend, and I seemed to lack successful non-awkward experience with girls.  Over the years, I would have many more experiences of getting someone’s name wrong, or saying something that was misinterpreted.  But I have seen enough over the years now to know that I certainly was not alone in this.  And many others have had awkward moments that primarily happened in their own heads, unnoticed by those around them.  I just had to accept the fact that I was not perfect, and the right people in my life would accept me, flaws and all.

Early May, 1996. A stressful week.

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.

April 20, 1996. Working a table at the Spring Picnic.

I biked to campus full of anticipation on that cool, cloudy Saturday morning.  Today was the Spring Picnic.  In the last three months, I had made a new group of friends and taken an overnight trip with them, and I had discovered my purpose in life, but if this year’s Spring Picnic was anything like last year’s, it would rival those days as one of the best days of the year. (I should point out that I had no idea in 1996 of the fact that today’s date, April 20, meant something to marijuana users. My day had nothing to do with marijuana.)

Last year, I had heard some older students say that it always seems to rain in Jeromeville on the day of the Spring Picnic, but the weather last year was perfect.  Today rain looked a bit more likely, but I was determined that even the ominous sky would not ruin this day for me.

I arrived early, parking at a bike rack next to Wellington Hall a little after nine o’clock.  I had stopped to pick up a schedule of events on the way in.  I turned the pages to see what was happening this early, and to my dismay, there was not much.  The alumni breakfast was for alumni only and required a ticket purchase.  The Chemistry Club show was later in the day, but people were lining up for distribution of tickets already.  I had heard good things about that, but spending a long time in line to get a ticket did not appeal to me enough to actually do it, at least not this year.  Other than that, not much was happening this early.  The opening ceremony was at 9:30 not far from here, which led into the parade; maybe I could find a good seat for that.

I walked north to the end of the block, where a grandstand had been set up just around the corner from the Quad.  It was full, but not completely full, so I found an empty seat and looked through the schedule again as I waited.  I read the article on the history of the Spring Picnic, about how in 1909, the small group of professors and the newly founded university’s student body of about a hundred invited the public to a picnic, so they could display their research and show off a new building.  Thousands of guests flooded the campus, and a new tradition was born, growing into a major open house event for the university.

Many musicians, bands, and performing groups play the Spring Picnic every year, and last year I had discovered a band called Lawsuit, with some members who had roots here in Jeromeville.  I read an article in the Daily Colt this week about highlights of this year’s Spring Picnic, and it specifically said that Lawsuit would be playing on the Quad Stage at 3:30.  I looked in the schedule to confirm this and found it quickly.  That was definitely the one part of today that I did not want to miss.  I would be busy for part of today, though, and I specifically scheduled that so as to be finished by 3:30.

At 9:30, someone came on stage and took a few minutes to introduce the grand marshal of the parade, gushing on and on about this woman’s academic accomplishments, whoever she was.  The grand marshal spoke next, talking about passing on traditions, and history, and also finding a way to work in a bunch of politically correct mumbo-jumbo. Go figure.

The parade began after that, and I followed along in the schedule of events to see who the groups were.  The Spring Picnic parade featured numerous student clubs, academic departments, and fraternities and sororities, as well as local businesses, community organizations, and a few high school bands from all over the state.  Parades are inherently fun, but part of the fun of the Spring Picnic parade is looking to see who all the different groups are and where they come from, like the giant cow on the float I saw approaching now.  I looked in the schedule; it was Alpha Gamma Rho, the fraternity for agriculture students.

About half an hour into the parade, the Campus Tour Guides marched through, walking backward.  That made me laugh; walking backward is an important part of being a tour guide after all.  Haley Channing, the girl from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship whom I secretly had a crush on, was a tour guide; I spotted her walking backward in the side of the group farthest from me.  I called out to her and waved, but she did not see or hear me.

The Interdisciplinary Honors Program marched in the parade this year, carrying a sign and wearing graduation caps.  I wondered how this year’s IHP got into the parade, because I was in the IHP last year and no one ever talked about being in the parade.  I knew one of this year’s IHP students, a girl named Yesenia; she was easy to spot, with hair almost all the way down her back.  I had better luck getting her attention than I did with Haley, because she was walking closer to me.  “Yesenia!” I called out as she passed by.  She looked up, saw me waving, and pointed at me.  “Greg!” she shouted, waving back.  I smiled and continued waving.

By 11:00, I had been watching the parade for an hour, and I decided to go do something else.  I wandered down the west end of the Quad, following the parade route, crossing Shelley Avenue at the south end of the Quad and entering the library.  The library’s Spring Picnic exhibit was always something out of the Special Collections; this year it was photographs from the early days of the University.  The campus had changed so much since the early twentieth century; I only recognized one building in the pictures.

I left the library a bit later walking in the opposite direction from where I came.  The art building was open with a sign out front, so I walked in.  The lobby and a hallway were lined with paintings and sculptures made by students.  Some of them were fairly recognizable, like portraits of human beings and landscapes.  Others were much more abstract: lumps of clay that made no recognizable shape, multicolored lines crossing and intersecting across a canvas, and splashes of color that looked like something that someone dropped a bunch of paint on a white piece of fabric but was still considered art, probably because of the statement they made or something like that.  It was still interesting to look at everything.

I had somewhere to be at noon.  I had about twenty minutes to walk back to the Quad, eat, then head to the walkway between Wellington and Kerry to the table I would be working.  The east side of the Quad was full of student organizations selling food; many were cultural organizations selling food from their parts of the world.  I got in line for the Filipino Club’s lumpia table, but the line moved so slowly that it soon became apparent that I would not get my lumpia in time.  By 11:55, there were still seven people ahead of me, so I left the line and walked back across the Quad toward the table where I was working a shift.

Four long folding tables had been arranged in a line next to the entrance to Kerry Hall.  A handmade sign on poster board that said MATH CLUB AT UJ stood propped up on one of the tables.  The tables held various math puzzles and games.

“Hey, Brandon?” I asked a tall blond guy standing behind one of the tables.  “I’m here.  What do I do?”

“Just pick a table and talk to people.  If you need solutions to any of the puzzles, if you can’t figure out how to explain it to someone, it’s in that box there.”

“Okay,” I said.  I walked to the table on the end farthest from the Quad, with a cardboard model of the Monty Hall problem and a Towers of Hanoi puzzle.  I had studied the mathematics of both of these puzzles extensively and felt qualified to explain them to passersby.

“Hey, Greg,” a junior girl named Susan said.  “How are you?”

“I’m good.  I didn’t do much today.  Saw the parade, and the old pictures in the library, and the art department exhibit.  What have you done so far?”

“I went to the Chemistry Club show.”

“What’s that like?” I asked.  “I’ve heard about it, but I’ve never been.  I don’t want to stand in line to get tickets.”

“It’s so worth it!  You should!  Lots of cool demonstrations.”

“Maybe next year.”

I started attending Math Club meetings off and on last year, although I have not been very active in the club.  I knew Brandon and Susan and some of the others to say hi to, and some of the younger people in Math Club I had been in classes with, but I was not particularly close with any of them.

“Hi,” I said as a boy walked up to my table, looking at the Monty Hall problem poster.  “What’s this?”

“The Monty Hall problem,” I said.  “Have you heard of this?”

“I don’t think so.”

I set up the game, putting a card representing a new car behind door number 2.  “Suppose you’re on a game show.  Behind one of these three doors is a new car, and the other two have a goat.  You choose one.”

“Right now?”

“Yeah.”

He thought for a few seconds, then said, “Number three.”

“So before we say where the car is, I’m going to open door number 1,” I said.  I showed him the goat behind the door.  “Now, do you want to stick with your answer of door number 3, or switch to door number 2?”

“Hmm,” the guy replied.  “I’m going to stick with my original choice.  Door number 3.”  I opened door number 3 to show the goat.  “Aww,” he said, as I revealed the car behind door number 2.  I wrote the results of his game on a scoresheet we had made for that purpose.  “What’s that?” he asked.

“We’re keeping track of everyone who plays today, whether or not you switched doors, and whether or not you won.  Mathematically, you actually have a better chance of winning if you switch doors.”

“Really,” he said.  “How does that work?”

I had a small poster explaining the problem mathematically that I was instructed to keep covered until after the contestant had played; I showed it to him now.  “Basically,” I said, “you had a 1 in 3 chance of being right when you said door number 3.  I opened a door that I know is wrong, but that doesn’t change your 1 in 3 chance of being right.  So if you switched, knowing that door number 1 was not the prize, you would have a 2 in 3 chance of being right.  At the end of the day, you can come back and look at the score sheet, to see if the people who switched were actually right more often than the people who didn’t.”

“Interesting,” the guy said.  “Why is this called the Monty Hall problem?”

“He was the host of Let’s Make A Deal.”  The guy gave me a blank stare, so I added, “That was a classic TV game show that inspired this problem.”

“Oh,” he said.

“I remember when it stirred up controversy in Marilyn Vos Savant’s column.  Do you know about that?”  He shook his head no, so I continued explaining.  “Marilyn has one of the highest known IQs of anyone, and she writes a newspaper column.  She wrote about this problem a few years ago, and all sorts of people, some of them claiming to have math degrees, wrote to her telling her that she was wrong.  But she wasn’t.”

“Whoa,” the guy said, looking unimpressed.

“Enjoy your Spring Picnic!” I said as he walked away.  I had learned more and more these days that my peers just did not read news in print like I did, nor did they grow up watching game shows.

“Greg!” a familiar voice said a while later.  I looked up to see Sarah Winters, whom I had known since my first week at UJ.

“Hi, Sarah.  How are you?”

“I’m good!  How are you?  Did I tell you I’m changing my major to math?”

“No!  When did this happen?”

“I want to be a teacher, I’ve known that for a long time.  I decided that math is what I like teaching best.”

“Nice!  Maybe we’ll have some classes together someday.”

“Yeah!  What’s this thing?” Sarah asked, pointing to the Towers of Hanoi puzzle.

“You have to move all five discs on this spindle to one of the other two spindles,” I explained.  “But you can only move one at a time, and you can only put a smaller disc on top of a larger disc.”

“I see.”

“It’s significant because it’s an example of recursion.  Each time you get to the next bigger disc, you have to solve the same problem for one fewer disc.  And the number of moves you need follows a nice exponential growth pattern.”

“I see,” Sarah said, playing with the Towers of Hanoi puzzle, trying to move the discs accordingly.  “So you’re part of the Math Club?”

“I go to most of the meetings,” I said.  “But this is the first time I’ve ever done anything for Math Club.”

“What kind of things do you do in Math Club?”

“Math games, outreach, talking about careers in math, stuff like that.”

“I might have to check it out sometime!”

“That would be cool!”

“What else are you doing today?” Sarah asked.

“I’m going to go see the band Lawsuit after my shift here.”

“That’ll be fun.  I need to get going, but it was good seeing you!”

“You too!”


My shift ended at three o’clock, and I still had not eaten.  At one of the tables, we were giving out candy to people who could solve the puzzles, and I had been sneaking candy when no one was looking for the whole three hours I was there.  When I got back to the Quad, all the student-run food booths had shut down, but a truck with typical fair and festival type food was open on the far corner of the Quad near the library.  I went there and bought a hot dog.  Not as exciting as lumpia, but I was hungry.

I crossed to the east side of the Quad, across the street from the oldest buildings on campus, and watched a band finish playing.  I looked through the schedule of events while that band took their equipment and instruments down and Lawsuit set up, looking for something to do after their show.  Most of the events and shows would be shut down by then; the only thing going on that late was the Battle of the Bands, where the marching bands from UJ and several other universities in the region play on into the night.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” someone finally said on stage around 3:45, “the name of this band is Lawsuit!”  Paul Sykes, the lead singer, began rapping while the rest of the band played the background music of Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” a song from the 1970s that had become popular again recently because it was in the movie Pulp Fiction.  This segued into “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” the song they had opened with when I saw them last year.

Lawsuit was a difficult band to categorize.  Their music crossed the boundaries of rock, pop, reggae, jazz, and something called “ska” which apparently meant rock with horns.  The band had ten members, and during a long guitar and bass solo, the members of the horn section did a strange dance.  I sang along quietly, since I knew this song, and cheered loudly at the end.

Lawsuit played for almost an hour.  I knew about half the songs, since I now had a bootleg tape of their newest album that I had copied from someone in my dorm last year.  Last year I knew nothing of their music, but this year I knew around half of the songs from that tape.  The others, mostly older songs of theirs along with one that they said was from a new album coming this summer, included one about a couch and one about Einstein.  One thing I always noticed about Lawsuit was that their music felt at times like one giant inside joke that I was not in on, but I enjoyed it anyway.  I had been looking forward to this show since the moment that Lawsuit’s show at last year’s Spring Picnic ended, a year ago.

“We have one more song for you,” Paul said after they had been playing for a while.  “Before you go, make sure you sign up for our mailing list, and we also have CDs and merch.”  He then went into a song from the tape I had called “Picture Book Pretty.”  In the middle of the song, I noticed that he sang “one thousand red roses would not be quite enough,” instead of “one dozen red roses” like he says on the album.  I was not sure why he changed it.

After the show, I walked to the table in front and put my name and address on the mailing list.  This was how bands stayed in touch with their fans in 1996; there was no social media or YouTube back then, and email and websites were themselves brand new technologies just beginning to break into the mainstream.  By filling out this mailing list, I would get a postcard in the mail every month or two from Lawsuit.  They did also have an email list, though; I signed up for that too, even though the postcards and email would probably say the same thing.

“Hey, Greg,” someone said as I turned to leave the merch table.  I looked up; it was Christian Channing, a senior whom I knew from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the older brother of Haley, my tour guide friend whom I wanted to be more than a friend.  “I didn’t know you liked Lawsuit.  Is this your first time hearing them?”

“I saw them at last year’s Spring Picnic.  They’re so good!”

“I know!  My little brother, he’s 15, I gave him a tape of Lawsuit last year, and now he loves them too.  Last summer we went and saw them when they played back home.”

“That’s awesome.”

“Hey, I’ll see you Friday at JCF?”

“Yeah.  Have a good one!”

I walked to the lake in the middle of the Arboretum near Marks Hall, where the Battle of the Bands was, and stayed there for about another hour.  The band visiting from Walton University always played a song that was about forty minutes long; I left around six o’clock in the middle of that song dragging on and on.  Seeing Lawsuit was great, and working the Math Club table was something new, and it did not end up raining. But despite all that, this year’s Spring Picnic felt disappointing.  Because I had volunteered three hours of my time, I missed out on my favorite part of the Spring Picnic: walking around campus looking at random exhibits.  The University of Jeromeville was so huge that no one could possibly see everything, so there would always be new things to see every year at the Spring Picnic. I got to see very little of that this year, since I spent so much time at the Math Club table.  I learned my lesson from this, though; this was the first Spring Picnic for which I volunteered for something, and it would be the last.

This was also the last Spring Picnic that Lawsuit played, although I would see Lawsuit play live again.  But that is another story for another time.


Note from the author: When I wrote about the previous year’s Spring Picnic, in December 2019, I said that I would be spending the entire day at the 2020 Spring Picnic in April.  That prediction did not age well; the 2020 and 2021 Spring Picnics were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Not having the Spring Picnic for two years in a row has been difficult for me…

January 29 – February 2, 1996. Four midterms in one day.

I stood at the bus stop on Alvarez Avenue with mixed emotions on a cold, dry Monday morning.  A small crowd waited with me for the bus that would bring us to campus in time for 9:00 classes.  I was not sure if I would have to stand or not; this was only the fifth stop on the bus route, but in this cold weather, fewer students would be riding bicycles to campus.

I was coming off of a high from the weekend.  I made some new friends Friday night at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, Eddie and Xander and Haley and Kristina and Kelly; we had a fun night of talking and games at the girls’ house.  And Sunday Eddie and Xander and their roommates hosted a party to watch the professional football championship.  Eddie borrowed a projector from his church and put a big bed sheet on a wall, so we could watch the game on a huge screen.  It was a little dim, but it worked.  After a year of feeling alone and less connected to my friends, compared to last year in the dorm, this felt like a huge step in the right direction.  Eddie and Xander and six other guys from JCF all shared a house, with Haley and her roommates right down the street and another house of guys from JCF around the corner.  Maybe next year I would be able to live in this kind of situation and feel more connected to people and things around me.

Despite being on an emotional high, however, two metaphorical black clouds loomed on the horizon.  The game did not end the way I wanted, with the despised Texas Toros winning by a score of 27 to 17.  Texas had won three out of the last four championships, and that would bring smug taunts from all of the haters of my Bay City Captains. The Captains lost in the semifinal round this year.  But, more importantly, I was worried about this coming Friday, when I had midterms in all four classes on the same day.

On Sunday, at the football party, I had mentioned the four midterms.  “Can you ask your professors if you can take the midterm on another day?” Eddie had asked.

“I think there’s a rule that they can’t make you take that many midterms on the same day,” Xander added.

I had not considered that approach; I had just assumed I was stuck with this crappy schedule.  So my plan for today was to ask each of my four professors if I could take the midterm early.  Hopefully, by suggesting early rather than late, they would see that I wanted to use my study time wisely and do my best, not get an advantage that others would not have.

“Not possible,” my professor for Differential Equations said curtly after I presented my request.  “You got the dates for the midterms on the syllabus on the first day of the quarter.  If those dates were a problem for you, you should have dropped the class.”  This professor, a middle-aged balding man who told us to call him Larry, never bothered me before, but after that day I decided I did not like him.

I had an hour break before my next class, so I walked across the Quad.  This was the oldest part of campus, dating back to the school’s founding in 1905.  The Quad was a grassy rectangle surrounded by tall oak trees as old as the campus itself, with a paved path running north-south down the middle, and a few pines, redwoods, and other trees scattered on the grass.  On a warmer day, the Quad would gradually fill with students sitting on the grass to study, or socialize, or socialize while attempting to study.  But at ten in the morning on a cold day in late January, the Quad was empty except for the trees and a few students walking across it to get from one building to another.

The Memorial Union building lay just north of the Quad, extending all the way across it east to west.  The building was home to a number of student-run commercial enterprises, the namesake memorial to University of Jeromeville alumni who died in wars, a post office, the campus store, offices and meeting rooms for the Associated Students organization, ATMs for three different banks, and my current destination, the Coffee House.  This was a large student-run enterprise that served pizza, burritos, sandwiches, soup, and all sorts of other food items, in addition to the hot beverages after which it was named.  Next to the kitchens and cash registers were large expanses of tables which made good places to study and people-watch.

I got a large hot chocolate and began scanning the crowded tables for an empty one, or for someone I knew.  I saw Scott Madison from JCF sitting alone with some kind of fancy spiral-bound book in front of him.  I walked up and asked, “Can I join you?”

“Hi, Greg!” Scott said.  “Sure!”  As I sat down and got out my math book, Scott slid the book in front of him toward me and said, “Check out what I got!  It was on sale, because it’s already the end of January.”  It was a day planner, which Scott had filled out with dates of upcoming exams and projects, Bible studies, JCF activities, and other plans he knew he had coming up.

“That’s nice,” I said.  “I wish I could be that organized.  Every year I get the little planner they sell at the campus store, and by the middle of October I’m not keeping up with it.”

“It really helps, especially when you’re busy like me.”

I grabbed Scott’s planner and turned it toward me, flipping to the week of August 11-17.  Scott looked at me wondering what I was doing.  I did not want to spy on his plans; I simply wrote “Greg’s birthday” on August 15.

“Nice,” Scott said.  “I guess I have to send you something now.”

“It’s in your planner, so yeah, you do.  That’s the plan.”

Scott and I continued alternating between small talk and silent studying until it was time for my next class, Math 108, Introduction to Abstract Mathematics.  This was the first quarter that I had taken two math classes simultaneously, something I would be doing often as a mathematics major, as well as the first quarter that I took upper-division classes.  Those unfamiliar with advanced mathematics would be surprised that this course involves very little calculation, instead covering mathematical logic, set theory, and the fundamentals of abstract algebra and analysis.  The professor was a gray-haired, well-dressed man named Dr. Davis Cutter; his official title was “professor emeritus,” which I believe meant that he was officially retired but still performed some duties for the university.  I always thought there was something pretentious about having a last name for a first name, but Dr. Davis Cutter seemed like a nice man.  Maybe he would be nice enough to let me take the midterm early.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I can do that,” Dr. Cutter said.  “We have a policy against that, and in order to maintain academic integrity, I can’t give out the test early.”

“Okay,” I said.  “I figured it would be worth asking.”

“Good luck studying,” Dr. Cutter replied.  “You’ll probably do fine.”

“Thank you.”  Apparently this department policy trumped Xander’s rule about not having more than three midterms in one day.  I had never heard of this rule other than Xander mentioning it yesterday, and by now I suspected it was not real.

After Abstract Mathematics, I had English 101, Advanced Composition.  Every student at UJ had to take three writing classes; since I had passed the AP English test in high school, I only had to take one of the three.  This instructor was a middle-aged hippie woman named Dr. Paris; I was under the impression that we would be learning how to write in the class, but she made the assignments about things like art and feminism, not exactly topics I was familiar with.

“Dr. Paris?” I asked as she was putting things away at the end of class.

“Yes?”

“So I noticed the other day that all four of my classes have midterms on the same day.  Is there any way I might be able to take Friday’s midterm early?”

“Oh… I can’t do that,” Dr. Paris said.  “I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay.  I thought I’d ask just in case.”

“I can’t just give it twice on different days.”

“I understand.  See you next time.”

My classes so far today had all been in Wellington and Orton Halls, two buildings near the Quad that each contained dozens of classrooms used by all subjects.  My last class was physics, back to back with English with no break, and not in the Quad area.  As I walked to Ross Hall, where the large physics lectures always were, I thought about how everyone had rejected my plan so far.  Larry’s statement about dropping the class especially stuck with me.  It had never occurred to me to drop a class for that reason, or to plan my entire quarter around the dates of the midterms.  It made more sense to me to plan my schedule in a way that works for my day-to-day life over the ten weeks of the quarter, even if that means one or two hard days of multiple tests or multiple papers due.  But now I had to suck it up and accept the fact that I would have one very difficult day.  And I would have another difficult day later in the quarter, since three of my classes have a second midterm on the same day, February 23.

I was still hopeful that I might get to take the physics midterm early.  This class was in a large lecture hall with almost 200 students, and it would be difficult to get Dr. Collins’ attention after class.  But I knew that Dr. Collins had office hours immediately after class, because I had been in there a few times with physics questions, so when class got out I followed him to his office in the Physics-Geology Building, adjacent to Ross.  By the time I got there, three people were ahead of me in line.

“Dr. Collins?” I said ten minutes later when it was my turn.  “I have four midterms all on Friday.  I was wondering if there would be any way I can take the physics midterm early, so I can get one out of the way first.”

Dr. Collins thought for a minute, then checked his calendar.  “I think I can do that,” he said.  “Can you be here in my office Thursday at 3?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Great.  I’ll see you then.”

“Thank you so much,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” Dr. Collins replied.  “Good luck!”

I walked back in the direction of the Quad and Wellington, where I would be leading a tutoring group at 4:00.  It was nice of Dr. Collins to reschedule my midterm.  I expected him to be the least likely to make this arrangement, just since his class of 200 students was so much bigger and less personal than my other classes.  I was not sure at this point if Dr. Collins recognized my face or knew my name.  He was the first professor that I had had twice; I also took the first quarter of physics with Dr. Collins last spring, and I was in his office hours frequently after bombing the first midterm.  This week, I would still end up taking four midterms in under twenty-four hours, but now at least I could concentrate on physics first, and then only have three midterms to study for when I got home on Thursday.  This was a definite improvement.


I spent most of the rest of the week studying.  I had enough routine homework to work on that I did not do a lot of special studying for the midterms until Wednesday.  It was a rough week, and by the time Thursday afternoon arrived, I felt that I had very little free time or relaxation all week.  I also owed emails to six different girls I knew from the Internet.

After eating a burrito at the Coffee House for lunch, I headed to Ross Hall for physics lab.  I walked past the library, where a sculpture of an egg with a face had his nose buried in a book.  One of the writing assignments in Dr. Paris’ Advanced Composition had been to research the meaning of a work of art on the UJ campus and write about it.  I chose the Egghead sculptures, one of which was here in front of the library.  To most of my peers, they were just weird, but I learned to appreciate them more after I read about them.  The one in front of the library seems fairly straightforward, he is engrossed in his studies, although to this day I still do not understand why it is a different color than the other six Eggheads.  I heard somewhere that students rub the Egghead during exams for good luck.  I do not believe in luck, but with four midterms in the next twenry-four hours, I took no chances and rubbed the Egghead.

When I finished my lab, I walked across the path to the building where Dr. Collins’ office was and knocked on the door.  “Hi,” Dr. Collins said.

“I’m here to take the midterm early.  You told me to come now.”

“Oh, yes!  Greg, was it?”

“Yeah.”

“Just sit here, and let me know when you finish.  I’ll be working on some things here.”

I looked through the exam, reading every question before I started.  Electric current… electric fields… watts, amperes, joules… I can do this.  Everything looks familiar, like homework problems that I had studied last night.  No problem.  I finished the problems in about half an hour, then went over each problem again to make sure I did not make any miscalculations, and that my answer made sense.  “I’m done,” I said to Dr. Collins at 3:40.

“Just leave it here on the desk.”

“Do I need to come to class tomorrow if I’ve already taken the midterm?”

“No.  Take the afternoon off.”

“I will.  See you Monday.  And thank you so much for letting me do this.”

I went home and took a break from studying.  I answered emails for about an hour, then ate a Hungry-Man dinner.  After that, I continued studying, looking over the writing concepts we had learned in English class and all of the math problems we had done and words and theorems we had learned in the two math classes.  I felt fairly confident about Differential Equations, but Abstract Math was a little more of a concern, mostly because Dr. Davis Cutter did not always follow the textbook, and my handwritten notes were a little messy and hard to read.  I opened a blank Microsoft Word file and typed all of my notes for Abstract Math; that made them both legible and fresh in my mind.

The next morning, I walked straight from the bus stop to my Differential Equations exam.  It was easy, as I suspected it would be, and I left class ten minutes early.  I spent the extra time sitting against a wall in the Coffee House, since all the tables were full, reading my Abstract Math notes.  I felt fairly confident by the time class began.  When I arrived, I looked over all of the questions first, and all of them seemed straightforward.  One problem mentioned the Well-Ordering Principle; I drew a blank on what that was.  Ordering?  Putting numbers in order?  Oh, yes, any set of one or more natural numbers has a smallest number.  This seems obvious in colloquial language but needs to be clarified in the exact science of abstract mathematics.

I had an hour for lunch, in which I gobbled down the sandwich and banana that I brought from home in five minutes so I could have more time to study for English.  I had a mental block against English that had persisted since I got a B-minus in tenth grade English four years ago, the lowest grade I got in high school.  By the time I arrived at Dr. Paris’ class, I just wanted to get this over so I could get home and enjoy a weekend of not having to study.  The questions about sentence and paragraph structure were pretty straightforward and seemed to match everything I studied, and the part where I had to write, I did the best I could.  I was not as worried for this class, because with the four papers we had to write, the midterm did not count for as large a share of the grade as my other midterms did.  By the end of the hour, I knew that I had done the best I can, so I turned in my test to Dr. Paris and walked toward the bus stop.

I did it, I thought, as the bus left the Memorial Union and turned on West Fifth Street, passing fraternity and sorority houses.  I had completed four exams in just under twenty-four hours.  I was getting home an hour earlier than usual, since I had already taken the physics test that the rest of my class was taking now.  And I felt confident about the midterms.  I began my post-midterm relaxation weekend by collapsing on my bed as soon as I got home, at 2:30; I closed my eyes, and the next thing I knew, it was after 4:00.

I spent the next three hours wasting time on the Internet, talking on IRC, writing emails, and checking a few Usenet groups.  I also worked on Try, Try Again, the novel I had been writing off and on for a few months, as I waited for people to reply to me.  At seven o’clock, I drove to campus, since parking at night only is less expensive than parking all day, and walked to the lobby of 170 Evans, the lecture hall where Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met.

Eddie, my new friend who hosted the football party last weekend, was doing name tags with Raphael, who had been his roommate the year before.  “Today was the day with all your midterms, right?” Eddie asked.

“Yeah.  One of my professors let me take his yesterday.  So I had three today.  I think I did okay.”

“Good!  I’m glad you got through that.”

I put on my name tag and stepped into the lecture hall, bumping into and almost knocking over Haley Channing as she walked up the aisle perpendicular to me.  “Oh!” she gasped.

“Haley!  I’m sorry!” I said nervously.  Of course, life would throw this curveball at me; after all of my hard work and four midterms I felt good about, I end the week by embarrassing myself in front of Haley, narrowly avoiding injuring her in the process.

“Hi, Greg,” Haley chuckled.  Hopefully that reaction was a good sign.  “How are you?”

“I’m great.  I had four midterms today.”

“Four?” Haley asked incredulously.

“One professor let me take one early, but I still had all four in twenty-four hours.  And I think I did okay.  I’m just glad it’s over.

“I would be too!  I have a paper due Monday.  I’m going to be doing that all weekend.”

“Good luck!” I said.  Then, after a brief hesitation, I asked, “Where are you sitting?”

“Down there next to Kelly,” Haley replied, pointing to the back of her roommate’s head.  “Want to come sit with us?”

“Yeah!”

“I’ll be right back.”  After Haley stepped outside, I walked to the front of the room and sat next to Kelly.  Haley returned a few minutes later, just as the band started playing.  I did my best to concentrate on the band’s worship music and Janet McAllen’s talk and not be too distracted by Haley’s cute smile.  And, after hearing her sing, I discovered that she had a nice voice too.

After JCF ended, I stood around making small talk with people for a while.  I did not get invited to any social plans afterward, and I did not get to talk much more with Haley because she went home immediately afterward to work on her paper.  This week, I did not care about having no social plans.  I was exhausted after my hard week of studying, and a weekend at home by myself being lazy sounded perfect.  I could socialize next weekend when I had recovered.

I did well on all four midterms, even the one in English that I was less certain about.  That stressful week took a lot out of me, but I survived.  If life was trying to get me down, it would take much more than four midterms in twenty-four hours. A year and a half into my studies at a somewhat prestigious university, I was still excelling academically.  My future goals may not be entirely clear right now, particularly with my mathematics major, but I was keeping my grades up, and that would be important if I did go to graduate school eventually.  School was always one of my strengths, and that had not changed in the last few years; all I had to do to get good grades was work hard enough.

And in August, when my birthday came around, I did in fact get a card from Scott.  He was serious about sending me something after I wrote my birthday in his planner.  I liked this new group of friends.

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

I locked my bike outside Wellington Hall and walked down the hall, joining about five other people waiting outside room 109 for the 9:00 Math 22A class.  Another class met in this room at 8:00, and I always arrived early enough that the other class had not been dismissed yet.  I learned the hard way on the first day of class not to open the door this early.

“Hey, Greg,” Jack Chalmers said.  I knew Jack from last year; we had had two classes together, and we lived in nearby dorms and ate at the same dining commons.

“Hi,” I said.

“Finding inverses of matrices is hard!” Jack exclaimed, speaking quickly and eliding syllables here and there, as he normally did, but I understood what he was saying.  “The homework took me forever!”

“I know.  It seems like there should be an easier way.  Maybe we’ll learn one later.”

As Jack continued, I became aware of the classroom emptying.  “I just hope every assignment in this class isn’t gonna be that long.  I’m already pretty busy this quarter.  Hey, Lizzie.”

“Hey, what happened last night?” a girl leaving the classroom asked Jack.  I recognized Lizzie, because I had seen Jack say hi to her before as we waited for her class to finish and ours to start.  Lizzie was fairly short, with brown eyes and dark brown hair pulled into a ponytail.

“I had so much homework!” Jack told Lizzie.

“That’s too bad,” Lizzie replied.  “Hopefully I’ll see you this weekend?”

“Yeah.”

Lizzie looked at me for a second before she turned to walk away.  “Bye,” I said, waving, even though I did not know Lizzie at all beyond always seeing her leave this class, and I had no idea what plans Jack had missed out on.

“Bye,” she replied, smiling.

I walked into the room along with Jack and the others waiting for our math class.  I spent the next hour listening to the instructor, a curly-haired man named Anton, explain properties of matrices and their inverses.  Anton demonstrated how to prove the invertibility of a matrix, in his usual broken English.  He told us to call him Anton; I was not sure if this was because his last name was difficult for English-speakers, or because calling professors by first name was the norm in his home country.  I never did figure out exactly which country this was.

As soon as math class finished, I crossed West Quad Avenue and walked to the far end of the Memorial Union building, near the campus bookstore, to a stairway leading down.  The basement of this building contained a game room with 16 lanes of bowling, along with pool tables, pinball machines, and coin-operated video games.  Here at the University of Jeromeville, students got two appointments to register for classes, three weeks apart, using an automated telephone system.  On the first appointment, students may only register for up to thirteen and one-half units, enough to be classified as a full time student, but limited so that not all classes fill up before everyone has had a chance to register.  I registered for bowling and weight training just to make sure I had enough classes, intending to drop these once I added chemistry on the second pass, but I ended up keeping bowling and only dropping weight training.

Today, the bowling coach, Frank White, demonstrated the proper release of the ball, with a flick of the wrist giving the ball a bit of spin.  We began learning this last time, on Monday, and I was terrible at it.  My mind began to wander, and I spent a few minutes starting at a plaque on the wall with names of everyone who bowled a perfect game on these lanes.  So far, there were eight perfect games.  This was the fourth time bowling class had met this year, and I had been bowling down here a few times last year, but today one of those names jumped out at me that I had never noticed before.

FRANK WHITE
4/29/89

Frank White was my instructor, the man standing here in front of me explaining how to release the ball.  Apparently he bowled a perfect game here six years ago.  That was quite an accomplishment.  I watched carefully, paying close attention to what he was doing.  By the end of class, though, it seemed like my technique was worse than ever.  I had not bowled this many gutter balls since I was a child.

I had an hour between bowling and chemistry lecture, which I used to work on the new math assignment due Friday.  After chemistry, I had another hour before physics lecture; I spent it sitting on the Quad, eating the lunch I packed and reading the campus newspaper, the Daily Colt.  After physics, I returned to Wellington, where my math class had been in the morning.  Room 102 was a large study room, with a row of comfortable chairs, and six cubicles each containing a table and a small chalkboard.  A few students sat quietly in the chairs, and two students worked together in one of the cubicles.  I noticed the cubicles had signs with numbers on them.  Four other signs placed in prominent places around the room announced that These cubicles may be reserved by the Learning Skills Center.

That was me.  This was my first day on the job for the Learning Skills Center.  I walked to table 3, where two students named Yesenia Fonseca and Kevin Dunnigan were assigned to meet me.  A short girl with olive skin and long brown hair most of the way down her back sat at the table.  I wondered if she was waiting for me, or if she just sat there not knowing that the table was reserved.

“Are you Yesenia?” I asked.

The girl’s face lit up.  “Yeah!” she exclaimed enthusiastically.  “You’re my tutor?”

“Yes.  I’m Greg.  Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too!  Is it just us or will there be a group?”

“There’s one other person signed up, a guy named Kevin Dunnigan.  Do you know him?”

“No,” she said.   “But he might be in my class.  It’s a huge class.”

“I think usually they put students together from the same class, so he probably is,” I explained.  Yesenia and Kevin were taking Math 21A, the beginning quarter of calculus.  Students who begin calculus fall quarter get a large lecture hall class..  I skipped a quarter since I had taken the Advanced Placement test in high school, so I started fall of my freshman year in 21B, and since fewer students take 21B in the fall compared to 21A, my classes were smaller.

“We can wait a few minutes to get started, see if Kevin comes,” I said.  “It’s early.”

“How does this work?”

“Honestly, I’m not really sure,” I said.  “This is my first time tutoring, ever.  I think I just answer any questions you have about anything you’ve been going over in class.  Or we can work on stuff from your homework.  You can do it while I’m here, so you can ask for help if you need to.”

“That sounds good.  So what year are you?”

“I’m a sophomore,” I said.

“I’m a freshman.”  Yesenia smiled apologetically, as if to say that she knew that freshmen were traditionally on the bottom rung of the social ladder.  I did not care that she was a freshman.

“How do you like Jeromeville so far?” I asked.

“I love it!  I’ve already made a lot of great friends in my dorm.”

“Good.  Which dorm?”

“South Area.  Building C.”

“Building C!” I exclaimed.  “I was in Building C last year!”

The IHP!”

“Yes!  I loved it too!  I felt like the IHP gave me a smaller community within the large university.”

“That’s a great way of describing it.”

 A boy with dark hair and an athletic build approached our table, looking at a sheet of paper on which he had written something.  “Are you Greg?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Kevin?”

“Yeah.  You’re my tutor.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.  Kevin Dunnigan did not look like what I expected of someone with an Irish-sounding name; I wondered from his appearance if his mother was Asian.  “Do you two know each other?”

“No,” Kevin said.

“I’m Yesenia,” Yesenia said, extending her hand.  “I think I’ve seen you in class.  10:00 with Dr. Hong?”

“Yeah.”

I spent the next fifty minutes working with Yesenia and Kevin, talking about limits of functions and how to calculate them.  This was the class that I had skipped; I had not technically taken it before.  I was familiar with most of what they were doing, of course, but one question on their assignment involved the epsilon-delta proof of finding the limit of a function.  My calculus class at Plumdale High did not go that in depth.  However, I was able to figure it out; I had done enough similar problems in other classes since then.

“It’s about time to wrap up,” I said at the end of the session.  “Any other questions before we leave?”

“I’m starting to understand this a lot better,” Kevin replied.

“Me too,” Yesenia added.  “Thank you!”

“You’re welcome,” I replied.  “See you guys next week?”

“Yeah!

 

It was almost 4:30 by the time I finally got home.  I spent some time on the computer catching up on emails, and I put a frozen pot pie in the oven for dinner.  I still had to do my pre-lab for physics tomorrow.  But my night was not over yet, because it was Wednesday, and I had choir practice at church.  Last week was the first time I had ever sung at church, and one of the others in the group, Heather Escamilla, had mentioned carpooling since we were neighbors in the same apartment complex.  At 6:40 that night, after eating the pot pie and writing my pre-lab, I walked to Heather’s apartment and knocked on the door.

“Hey, Greg,” Heather said, opening the door.  I could see a guy with long brown hair inside the apartment, sitting at a computer typing; he looked up at me.  “This is my boyfriend, Gary,” Heather said.

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” Gary replied.

“You ready?” Heather asked.

“Yes.  Let’s go.”

Heather locked the door behind her, and I followed her to her car, a Jeep Cherokee.  The way Gary sat at the computer made me wonder if he and Heather lived together.  Being Catholic, there was all that stuff about fornication and adultery and things like that which suggested that it was wrong for boyfriends and girlfriends to live together.  Maybe they lived together in separate bedrooms.  It was none of my business, so I did not ask.  On the way to the church, I told Heather about my first day of tutoring, and she told me about the midterm she had in the morning that she would be up late studying for.

When we arrived, I noticed that Danielle was there with her sister, Carly, a freshman.  I had met Carly twice before, once at church this year and once last year when Danielle’s family came to visit her in the dorm.  I thought it was interesting that Carly was singing too.  Danielle had told me over the summer that Carly was coming to Jeromeville, and Danielle was a little bit upset that Carly had chosen the same major and was in one of the same classes as her.  And now Carly was following her big sister to choir at the Newman Center.  I hoped that there was no drama going on with them.

“Hi, Greg,” Danielle said.  “You remember my sister, Carly?”

“Yeah.  Good to see you again.”

“You too,” Carly replied.  Carly was a few inches taller and somewhat thinner than Danielle, with straight brown hair.  They did not look very much alike, but considering that my brother Mark does not look like me, I no longer found it surprising when siblings did not look alike.  For as much as Danielle was a good friend, I had to admit that Carly was better looking.  I wondered if, growing up, Carly got more attention from boys, and if this had been part of the reason Danielle felt uneasy about Carly being in the same major and one of Danielle’s classes.

A few minutes later, Claire, a junior who seemed somewhat to be in charge of things, gave us all a stack of papers.  It was an address and phone list of all of us doing music at 11:00 Mass.  I scanned the list to make sure that my information was correct; it was.  I read through the other names.  I recognized some of the names.  Danielle Coronado.  Carly Coronado.  Matt Jones.  Heather Escamilla.  Some of the last names were unfamiliar to me, because I had only met these people by first name last week.  Claire Seaver.  Sabrina Murpy.  That was an unusual last name; I wondered if it was a typo and her name was actually Murphy.  (It was, I would learn later.)  I continued reading.  Phil Gallo.  Ryan Gambrell.

A jolt of adrenaline shot through my body, and I did a double take and read the name again.  My brain made a flurry of connections between things said a year ago and things said last week.  Matt said last week that Ryan was his friend from high school.  Matt went to St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, so Ryan also went to St. Luke’s.  Right near where I grew up.  I looked at Ryan, now seeing his mysteriously familiar toothy smile with new eyes.

“Ryan Gambrell,” I said.

“Yeah?” Ryan replied.

You’re Annie’s brother.”

Ryan looked confused for a second, then surprised; clearly he was not expecting me to say that.  “Yes,” he said.  “How do you know my sister?”

“I went to Plumdale High.  A class I was in and a class she was in did a project together my senior year, her sophomore year.  And now I remember I told her I was going to Jeromeville, and she said her brother goes there.”

“How funny.  Small world.”

“Tell her I said hi.”  I wanted to tell Annie so much more than hi.  I wanted to tell her all about how I was doing here.  I wanted to know where she was applying to school, since she was a senior this year.  I wondered what to make of the fact that she was always so nice to me when I was a senior, and she wrote something really nice in the back of my yearbook, but she had not stayed in touch at all.  I wanted to tell her to come visit me if she ever came up here to visit Ryan or to tour the campus.  And I was curious if she and her boyfriend were still together, because as long as they were, all these feelings I had felt wrong and forbidden.

“I will,” Ryan said.

Choir practice continued uneventfully for the rest of the night.  One song I did not know well, but I figured it out fairly quickly and felt that I would be able to sing it with everyone else in front of the congregation on Sunday morning.  On the way home, in Heather’s Jeep, I mentioned to her about knowing Ryan’s sister from high school.

“Whoa,” Heather said.  “It’s weird how that kind of thing happens.”

“I know.”

“Gary told me once he was in Capital City, and he ran into this guy he knew from when he used to live in Arizona as a kid.”

“Wow.  That’s even crazier.”

I got home and listened to music while I opened an IRC chat on the computer; although I was messaging a girl on there, I could not stop thinking about Annie Gambrell.  I wondered if I would ever see her again.  Even though she had not written to me, I had a connection with her again, in that I knew her brother.  But I also felt that this crush was one I needed to keep secret, because the entire time I knew her in person, she had a boyfriend.  Annie’s boyfriend was one of the popular guys from the class a year older than her and a year younger than me.

In the time that I knew Ryan, I ended up not talking to him much about Annie.  Annie was off limits.  Most of the best girls were off limits.  It was not my place in life to be romantically involved with the popular girls.  The concept of high school popularity does not carry over to the culture of a large university, but still felt, deep down inside, that I probably did not have much of a shot with friendly and attractive girls here either.

 

 

April 28-May 2, 1995.  The first physics midterm.

I sat in math class on a Friday morning, listening to the instructor talk about finding derivatives of vector functions.  It seemed simple enough… just write the vector components of the function and find the derivative of each component. When I registered for classes, the name “vector analysis” made me think the class would be difficult, especially since I wasn’t entirely sure what a vector was, but so far the class had been easy.

I wished that had been true of all of my classes.

After math class, I walked to the Memorial Union.  I only had an hour between math and physics class, and I had finally figured out that I did not have to go all the way back to my dorm room between classes.  This quarter, when I had a gap of an hour or two between classes, I would go find a table at the Memorial Union and read or work on homework. I tried to do math homework today, but I was having a hard time concentrating, dreading what was coming in an hour when I got to physics class.

Physics was in a small building called Ross Hall.  This building had a lecture hall of about 200 seats on one side and another lecture hall of about 100 seats on the other side.  Inexplicably, the two lecture halls were called room 55 and room 66, with 66 being the larger one. I still didn’t understand how rooms were numbered in some of these buildings.  Upstairs from the two lecture halls were 12 small laboratory rooms with numbers in the 150s and 160s. That numbering was consistent with most buildings on the University of Jeromeville campus, with the room numbers being 100 greater than the room numbers below them, but I still didn’t understand why they didn’t just start with something like 1 and 101. I’m a numbers guy. I think about these things. 

UJ offered three different physics classes: Physics 1, a very general class that counted as a general education requirement for non-science majors; Physics 7, focusing on concepts and procedures, designed for majors like biology and pre-med; and Physics 9, teaching all the details and theory and mathematics behind general physics, for students of engineering, the physical sciences, and mathematics.  I still hadn’t declared a major, but all of the majors I had been considering, including physics itself, required this last physics class, so taking this class was a given for me. Unlike most year-long classes, Physics 9 started in spring quarter, and continued through the following winter, April to March, so that incoming freshmen would have two quarters to learn calculus before beginning physics.

Physics was easy in high school.  Most science classes were easy for me.  Science, like mathematics, followed consistent logical rules.  In real life, there were scientific concepts that didn’t follow these rules, because humanity’s knowledge of the universe was incomplete, but those were not the kinds of things taught in high school.

Because physics was so easy for me in high school, I expected physics to continue to be easy in college.  My professor, Dr. Collins, taught one thing differently than the way it was in the book, and I didn’t quite understand it the way he explained it, but I understood what was in the book just fine.  I had a midterm last Monday, and I expected it to be easy, because physics was easy.

Expectations are often different from reality, and this was why I had felt so discouraged after actually taking the physics midterm.  This was also why I felt a sense of dread walking into 66 Ross today, because my graded midterm was there, waiting for me to go pick it up.

The lobby for the lecture hall had a long wooden shelf where instructors and graders could leave exams to be passed back.  The shelf was only a couple inches deep, with vertical compartments to hold papers so that students could flip through the papers looking for theirs.  The papers were separated alphabetically. I found D and looked for Dennison. I nervously removed my paper from the shelf, reassuring myself that it couldn’t possibly be that bad.

It was that bad.

It was even worse than that bad, actually.

I walked into the lecture hall and took a seat in the back.  I felt too ashamed to sit any closer to the front. I felt like I didn’t even belong at this university getting grades like this.

54 out of 120.  That’s less than 50%, and in the high school grading method I was used to, less than 50% is an F.

I looked through my paper to see what I got wrong exactly.  As I looked through the questions, I noticed something that sunk my already low confidence through the floor.

The grader had counted incorrectly.  My grade was actually 44 out of 120. That was certainly failing.

Dr. Collins began speaking from the front of the classroom.  “Your midterms are in the lobby, if you haven’t gotten them yet,” he said.  “I curved them like this.” He put a transparency on the overhead projector indicating what score corresponded to what letter grade.  Apparently I wasn’t the only student who did poorly. 54 out of 120 was being curved to a C-minus. 44 out of 120 was still curved to an F, though.  I wasn’t sure how the curve worked exactly. I never did figure out if there was a set formula which instructors used to curve grades, or if they just looked at how everyone did and separated them into five letter grade groups.

This entire quarter was about mechanics: velocity, acceleration, force, torque, energy, momentum, that kind of stuff.  It seemed pretty simple. But somehow, I just didn’t understand what to do with the information given on the test. A lot of the problems weren’t like the homework, and Dr. Collins had included one problem, out of six total, which entirely involved the part of his instruction that wasn’t in the textbook.

I had a hard time concentrating on the lecture that day.  I should be concentrating harder with the kind of grade I got on that test, but I couldn’t help it.  I couldn’t stop dwelling on the fact that I had failed a test. I had never failed a test before. School was the one thing I was good at, especially classes like physics.

 

At dinner that night, I looked around the dining hall for a place to sit.  I saw Skeeter and Bok and a girl from another building whom I knew to be Bok’s friend from high school.  I saw Megan with some girls I didn’t know, probably from her building. I saw Mike and Ian and Gina from the third floor of my building.  I decided to ignore all of them and sit by myself. Why bother sitting with friends when I would probably fail out of UJ at the end of the year and never see these people again?  I was an Interdisciplinary Honors Program student. I wasn’t supposed to fail a test.

My plan to sit alone didn’t work, though.  Taylor and Pete and Charlie saw me sitting alone about five minutes later and approached me with their trays of food.  

“Can we sit here?” Taylor asked.

“Sure,” I muttered.  I thought about telling them I wanted to be alone, but that didn’t seem right.

“How’s it goin’?”

“Not well.”

“What’s wrong, man?”

“I bombed a physics midterm.”

“Is that all?” Taylor said, almost laughing.  “I’ve bombed a few tests this year, and I’m still doing fine.”

“It’s not funny,” I said, a little louder this time, looking down at the table and not making eye contact.  “I thought I knew all of this.”

“Sorry.  I know it’s tough.  But try not to let it get you down.”

“I’m trying.  I can’t help it.  It’s all I can think about.”

“This really isn’t the end of the world,” Pete said.  “Which physics? 9A?”

“Yes.”

“My class just got the first midterm back.  I got a B-minus. I think it was a rude awakening for everyone.  How bad was yours?”

“44 out of 120.”

“Yikes.”

I should have taken Pete’s class, I thought.  Pete’s instructor probably goes by the book and doesn’t add his own thing.  Unfortunately, it was too late to change my schedule for this quarter. I would try signing up for 9B in the fall with a different instructor.  Maybe I’d have an easier time with someone other than Dr. Collins… that is, if I get to sign up for classes in the fall at all, and I don’t get kicked out of school for failing first.

“Are you doing anything this weekend?” Taylor asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“Maybe that’ll be good.  Just rest, and study physics so you’ll do better next time.”

“We’ll see, I guess.”

The others started talking about their plans for the weekend.  It was Friday night, so they all had Jeromeville Christian Fellowship later that night.  I finished eating as they talked about JCF and the speaker for that night. It sounded like they were going to have a fun night.  I didn’t have anything like that to look forward to, and even if I did, I wouldn’t have felt like going anyway.

 

I spent the rest of Friday night in my room.  I wrote emails to the girls I knew from the Internet whom I had been talking to.  I checked all the Usenet groups I followed, a few for fans of bands I liked and a few for fans of sports teams I liked.  I got on IRC looking for girls to talk to, but no one I knew was on and no one in the chat was talking to me.

I read for a while.  I had been reading It by Stephen King.  My mom was a big Stephen King fan, and she had read this book when I was a kid, when the book was new, so she had told me a little bit about the book over the years.  The book was very long; I had been reading it for over a month, and I still had over a hundred pages to go.

Around ten o’clock, I walked down the hall to use the bathroom, then walked up and down the entire length of the second floor to see if anyone was around.  As I turned the corner and got closer to my room, number 221, I saw Liz from room 222 come out of the stairwell and walk toward her room. She heard me walking and turned around.  “Hey, Greg,” she said, smiling.

“Hi.”

“What’s up?”

“I bombed a test.”

“Oh no.  What class?”

“Physics 9A.”

“I’ve heard that’s hard.  I only have to take the 7 series.”

“This never happens.  Physics was always easy in high school.  What if every test is going to be hard for me from now on?  What if I fail and get kicked out of school?”

“You’re not going to fail out,” Liz said reassuringly.  “Everyone has a bad day sometimes.”

“I guess.  I’ve never done this badly on a test before.  I’m scared.”

“I just got back from JCF.  The speaker tonight spoke on God’s unconditional love.  You know what that means, right?”

“I think it means God loves me no matter what?” I asked hesitantly.

“Yes!  Paul wrote that nothing could ever separate us from the love of God.  Greg, you are still a beloved child of God even if you bomb a physics test.  Even if you fail out of school. You’re not going to, but even that isn’t the end of the world, because God loves you, and he has a plan for you.”

“I guess.”

“No.  I know.  God brought you here to Jeromeville for a reason, and it wasn’t to get all down on yourself.  Can you at least think about that and try to cheer up?”

“I’ll try.”

“It’ll be okay, Greg.  It really will. I’ll pray for you.”

“Thank you.  I appreciate it.  And I’m going to start going to office hours and studying harder.”

“See?  You have a plan.  That’s good. But don’t ever forget that God’s love for you is not conditional on your grades.”

“I won’t forget.”

 

The rest of my weekend was fairly uneventful.  I had physics problems to work on, and this time I read the book far more carefully as I was working.  I would not get caught off guard again by a difficult midterm. I had one more midterm in three weeks, and then the final exam.

The more I thought about what had happened with this physics midterm, the more I realized that the answer to one of the open questions about my life was taking shape.  It was time to make a decision. On Tuesday morning, after math class got out, I had a three hour gap until my chemistry lab, so I went to the basement of Marks Hall. A display on the wall had various forms for students; I checked to see if the one I needed was there.  It was. REQUEST TO CHANGE MAJOR. I picked it up and filled it out, with “Mathematics” as the requested major. I read through the fine print explaining that some majors were impacted and needed prior approval or other conditions; I was pretty sure Mathematics was not impacted in that way.  I submitted the form and left.

My next stop was Dr. Collins’ office hours.  His office was in the physics building, next to the chemistry building and Ross Hall and not too far from Marks Hall.  Like the chemistry building, the physics building did not have another name. Dr. Collins’ office was on the third floor, and when I got there, a line had already formed out the door.  Four students were in front of me waiting to ask questions. I listened and took notes on all the other students’ questions.

“What can I help you with?” Dr. Collins asked when I got to the front of the line.

I showed him my midterm.  “You counted the score wrong.  Or your TA did. I only got 44, not 54.”

Dr. Collins looked at my midterm and thought for a few seconds.  “It was our mistake. Don’t worry about it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“I was confused about this problem.”  I got out my textbook and pointed to a problem I hadn’t been able to solve from last night’s homework.  I listened as Dr. Collins reminded me how coefficients of friction worked, and how to calculate kinetic energy.

“Thanks,” I said.  “I think I get it now.”

“You’re welcome.  See you in class tomorrow.”

I had my chemistry lab that afternoon.  The laboratory classrooms for general chemistry were in the basement of the chemistry building.  The hallways in the basement were dim and a little scary, painted a drab yellow, with lots of pipes and electrical conduits visible on and near the ceiling.  The lab rooms themselves looked exactly as one would expect them to look given what the rest of the basement looked like; this was the perfect setting for a laboratory.  My lab partner for this quarter was a girl named Marissa. She was a sophomore, a biology major, thin with a somewhat dark complexion and medium brown hair. We met last quarter, when we were also in the same lab section for chemistry, and on the first day of lab of this quarter, neither of us knew anyone else in this lab section, so we decided to be partners.

I arrived about a minute before Marissa did, about five minutes before class actually started.  “Hey, Greg!” Marissa said when she got to our table. “How are you?”

“I’m doing okay.  I just submitted a change of major form.”

“Changing your major?  From math to what?”

“From undeclared to math.”

“Oh!  I thought you told me you were a math major.  You hadn’t declared it yet?”

“I was thinking about a few different majors.  Math, physics, maybe chemistry. All the classes I was good at in high school.  I’ve been leaning more toward math. I bombed a physics midterm last week, and that made up my mind for good to do math.”

“Oh no!  How bad was it?”

“I failed.  The grader counted my score wrong, and with the curve, the incorrect score would be a C-minus.  I was honest and told him about the mistake in office hours, and he told me not to worry about it.  But still, if I’m doing that poorly on the first physics test I ever take, it’s not going to be my major.”

“I get that.  My roommate from last year was an engineer until she bombed her first calculus final.  Now she’s an art major.”

“Wow.  That’s a big change.”

“Yeah.  Do you need chemistry for a math major?”

“No.  But you need it for everything else I was considering.  I’ll probably finish out the Chem 2 series, I like chemistry, but I won’t be taking any more after that.”

“Yeah.  Well, good luck with your new major.”

“Thanks.”

 

I went to Dr. Collins’ office hours once a week for the rest of the quarter.  I reread every chapter of the physics book in the week before the second midterm.  I paid more attention in class and did my homework right away so that I would remember what I had learned.  I was determined not to fail the next midterm. I had never before studied so hard for a science class.

Three weeks later, as I walked into 66 Ross knowing that I would get the second midterm back, I remembered what Liz had told me after the first midterm.  I was still a beloved child of God no matter how I did on this test. I had done so poorly the first time that I felt like I was ready to fail again. I wasn’t going to be shocked at a bad grade, since I had already done poorly in the class so far, but I was at least hoping that I did significantly better.  I kept trying to remind myself that God loved me even if I failed physics, but it was hard to wrap my head around that. This was the first time anyone had ever told me that God still loved me even if I failed a class, and while it sounded right in my heart and in my mind, I still could not really wrap my head around that concept.

I pulled my midterm paper out of the letter D section of the rack of returned papers, and I nervously looked at the top of the paper.  I gasped and almost dropped the paper when I saw that I got a perfect score. A perfect score, after having failed the last test. I had the highest grade (well, at least tied with everyone else who got a perfect score) in a class of 200 students.  I smiled wide as I walked to my seat. My hard work had paid off.

At the end of the quarter, I somehow still ended up getting an A in the class.  I don’t know exactly how the professor calculated the grade, and I felt like I didn’t deserve the A after doing so poorly on the first midterm.  But I wouldn’t complain. After that first midterm, I knew that I needed to change what I had been doing. Life gets me down sometimes, and the best I can ever do is get back up and try again and see what I am actually capable of.  The hard work in physics continued to pay off as I continued to get As in all three quarters of physics, and I never failed a test again for the rest of my life.

However, this experience also taught me that physics was not my strong point.  I did not enjoy the level of work I had to put in to get good grades in physics. Mathematics was more enjoyable and came more naturally to me.  I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with a math degree, but I was definitely making progress now that I had a goal for the rest of my time at UJ.

April 20-22, 1995. The Spring Picnic.

Every weekend, all across America, small independent local bands play live music to crowds in bars and small music venues.  University neighborhoods are a natural breeding ground for live music, and Jeromeville was no exception. One of the biggest such bands around here in the 90s was called Lawsuit.  This band had 10 members playing all sorts of different instruments, touring up and down the western United States playing shows in clubs and bars, and at fairs and festivals.  Some of the members of Lawsuit grew up right here in Jeromeville, so it was always a big deal whenever Lawsuit played a show here.

I first heard the name Lawsuit on a Thursday night in April, right after the bombing in Oklahoma City happened.  In the middle of hearing  about that in the national news, I kept encountering in the local news something called the Spring Picnic.  Apparently this was an annual event that would be happening this coming Saturday on the University of Jeromeville campus. The Daily Colt billed the Spring Picnic as the largest student-run event in the USA, but the flyers I kept seeing were somewhat less clear on what actually happened at the Spring Picnic.  It sounded kind of like a fair, from what I had read about it.

The days were getting longer that time of year.  I walked from Building C to the dining hall at 6:03pm under a blue sky, the sun low on the horizon but still shining.  Much of the walk was in shadow because of the three-story dormitory buildings surrounding me.

After I got my meal, I looked around the room to see if anyone I knew had an empty seat nearby.  I saw Megan, the RA from Building K, sitting with a guy and a girl who I thought were other RAs from other buildings.  I walked toward them.

“Hey, Greg!” Megan said as I approached.

“May I sit here?” I asked.

“Sure!”

As I began eating, Megan asked me, “How’s your week going?  Are you going to the Spring Picnic?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think so.  I’m still not really sure what it is, though.  I had never heard of it until about a week ago.”

“You’ve never heard of the Spring Picnic?”

“I’m not from here, remember.”

“It’s so much fun!  It’s like a giant open house for the university.  There are exhibits for departments all over campus, and student groups have performances and food tables and stuff like that, and there’s a Battle of the Bands with marching bands from different universities.  And there will be free outdoor concerts. Lawsuit is gonna be there! Have you heard Lawsuit?”

“I don’t think so.”

“They’re so good!  They’ll be playing at 3:00, I think.”

“I’ll have to check them out, then.”

“Spring Picnic is fun!  You’ll enjoy it.”

“Sounds like it.”

In 1995, with no social media or hashtags, student groups and organizations advertised in more low-tech ways.  Groups put flyers on bulletin boards all over campus. Sometimes someone would just walk into an unlocked classroom and write an announcement for an event on the chalkboard.  The class where I had math Friday morning had the words “SPRING PICNIC IS TOMORROW” written on the far right side of the board. The instructor was showing us how to calculate a vector cross product.  It was a fairly involved process, which seemed somewhat arbitrary and counterintuitive at first, although I would learn soon that this had applications in physics and engineering.

When the instructor ran out of room on the board, he started to erase the Spring Picnic announcement.  “You all know Spring Picnic is tomorrow, right?” he said. A few people in the class laughed.  I did know that. I knew now, at least. The instructor erased the announcement and continued working on the problem.

After math, I had an hour break, then physics.  I went back to my room for lunch after that, picking up a copy of the Daily Colt on the way.  It seemed unusually thick today; I unfolded it to see why, and I discovered a copy of the Spring Picnic Guide inside.  The guide contained a complete schedule of events, along with a campus map and parking information. I didn’t need this because I was a student and I lived on campus and knew my way around; apparently this same guide would be given to visitors from out of town who might need that information.

The schedule of events alone covered several pages.  Events were grouped by type: student organizations, academic departments, animal events, performances, athletics, and the like.  Everything happened simultaneously all over campus, and it would be impossible to see everything. Being that this was my first Spring Picnic, I did not have anything set in mind that I had to see, other than Lawsuit (the guide said they were playing at 3:00, just like Megan said, on the Quad Stage).  One page was dedicated to listing participants in the parade and a few paragraphs about this year’s Grand Marshal of the parade. The parade started at 10:00, so that would be a good place to start my day.

I was still holding the Daily Colt and the Spring Picnic Guide when I walked into Building C.  Pete, Charlie, Sarah, Danielle, and Taylor were sitting in the common room.  Pete and Charlie spent so much time in the common room that quarter that they had joked about moving in there.  They had taken the signs from their doors with their names on them and attached them to the wall in the entryway to the common room, and they had put duct tape in the shape of the digits “110” on the wall next to their names.  The first room on the first floor, Bok’s room, was room 112, and their signs were on the same side of the building as Bok’s room, so the next even number counting down would be 110.

“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said.  He was sitting next to Danielle on a couch, and Pete and Sarah were sitting together on the other couch.  Charlie sat in a chair next to Pete and Sarah’s couch. Taylor and Danielle kind of looked like a couple, and so did Pete and Sarah, although these days they all spent so much time together I couldn’t tell if they were actually together or just good friends.  I tend to be the last one to know when couples get together.

“Is that the schedule for the Spring Picnic?” Danielle asked, noticing the guide in my hand.  “You have to come see us tomorrow. 1:00 outside the music building.”

“Who is ‘us?’” I asked.

“University Chorus.”

“Sure.  I don’t really know much about the Spring Picnic.  I don’t have a plan. I’m just going to wander around and look for cool stuff, I guess.”

“Are you going to the chemistry magic show?” Pete asked.  “I’ve heard that’s good.”

“That’s the one you have to line up for tickets, right?” I replied.  “I was reading that in here. I don’t know if I feel like getting up early and standing in line.  I haven’t decided yet.”

“What about lining up to stick your hand in a cow?” Taylor asked.  “Are you gonna do that?”

“Ewwww!” Danielle exclaimed.

“I read about that too,” I said.  “I might. It depends on how long the line is.”

Scientists can surgically attach a structure called a fistula to the side of a cow, providing a window to observe inside the cow’s stomach, for the purposes of studying and researching bovine digestion.  The window can open, allowing a researcher to insert a gloved arm inside the cow and remove and analyze the contents of her stomach. I read an article in today’s Daily Colt saying that a popular Spring Picnic exhibit involved people standing in line to stick their arms into a fistulated cow.  This all sounded intriguing, but I didn’t particularly feel in the mood to stand in line for a long time. I would wait and see how long the line was.

I had one more class later that afternoon, and I spent the rest of the night doing homework and reading and studying.  It wasn’t exactly the most exciting Friday night of my life, but tomorrow looked like it would be a long, fun day, so I figured I would get ahead while I could.  I went to bed around 11, excited to see what this Spring Picnic tomorrow would bring.

In 1905, the state legislature passed a bill calling for the establishment of an agriculture campus for University of the Bay,  the state’s only public university at that time.  Agriculture was, and still is, a major industry in this area, but the urban Bay campus gave students nowhere to practice what they learned in agriculture classrooms. So the University Farm was born, and the location chosen was sixty miles away from the Bay campus, in Arroyo Verde County.  The University Farm would be next to a tiny town called Jeromeville, on land that had once been the ranch of the town’s namesake, the Jerome family. It took a few years for the Farm to get running, but the students eventually came.

An article in the Daily Colt explained more of the history of the Spring Picnic.  In 1909, at the end of the first full school year on the University Farm, the entire 26-man faculty, and the entire student body of 112 male students, held a picnic to share what they had learned.  The picnic was open to the public, to serve as an open house to present their research and show the brand new dairy barn to residents of the surrounding region. The crowd of visitors overwhelmed the campus as over two thousand people picnicked on the Quad and nearby fields.  The picnic became an annual tradition, eventually being taken over by the Associated Students organization instead of being run by faculty. The Jeromeville campus grew, becoming independent of the University of the Bay in 1959, and the Spring Picnic grew with it as other departments and student organizations used it as their open house.  The west half of the Quad was still designated for picnics, although picnicking was no longer the focus of the event.

I left the South Residential Area around nine-thirty Saturday morning, after showering, eating, and reading the newspaper.  I had heard older students say that it always rained on the day of the Spring Picnic, but today was sunny and mild without a cloud in sight. I could already tell that it would be no ordinary day.  Normally, the campus was mostly empty on a Saturday morning, but today people were walking around, and not all of the people looked like students. Many were middle-aged and older adults, and some had children with them.

I walked toward the Quad by way of the chemistry building.  As I approached the building, I could see a line extending from the large lecture hall on one side all the way around the opposite side of the building.  The line was not moving. I continued walking toward the Quad, ignoring the line. I would see the chemistry show some other year; I didn’t feel like standing in line today.

At the Quad, people sat and lined up all along both sides of the parade route. I had to look around for a bit before I found a place to sit on the curb.  “Is anyone sitting here?” I asked a woman next to the empty spot. She had a toddler with her, a boy with bushy red hair.

“No,” she said.  “Go ahead.”

I pulled my copy of the Spring Picnic Guide out of my pocket, reading through the parade lineup.  I heard amplified voices, unintelligible from here, in the distance on my left. I turned to look, but all I saw was a line of people sitting and standing under the tall cork oaks lining West Quad Avenue.  The street was mostly empty, except for a few bicyclists riding past occasionally. The voices seemed to be coming from around the corner at the end of the street. I thought I saw something about some kind of opening ceremony at the beginning of the parade route, which is what I was probably hearing.  I read through the parade lineup as I waited, then I looked through other parts of the guide, looking for other things I would want to see.

The parade began at 10:00 and reached my location around 10:10.  I watched as dozens of groups and floats marched past. Student organizations and clubs, academic departments, fraternities and sororities, community organizations, children’s groups, marching bands from other colleges and high schools, and local political figures all marched and walked past.  Some groups walked carrying banners, some rode on floats, some rode in fancy vehicles, and because this was Jeromeville, a few groups were on bicycles. Some sorority sisters walked past, handing out candy to little kids. The boy sitting next to me got a Tootsie Roll, and his mother said, “Can you say thank you?”  The boy shyly hid his face. I wanted a Tootsie Roll too, but I didn’t make a big deal of it.

I got a good laugh out of some of the parade entries.  The Associated Students Tour Guides walked through the parade backward.  The MBA students from the UJ School of Management wore suits and ties over shorts that said “Cover Your Assets” across the butt.  Alpha Gamma Rho, the fraternity for agriculture students, had a float shaped like a giant cow. When the group from Jeromeville College Republicans walked by, I cheered loudly, and I noticed some people nearby giving me dirty looks.  They handed me a small US flag. The little boy next to me got one too, and his mother said nothing; I could sense a subtle look of disapproval on her face.

After about an hour, about three-fourths of the parade groups had passed by.  There was nothing in particular I was waiting for in the rest of the parade, so I got up and walked to the path between Wellington and Kerry Halls, where the Math Club had their tables.  I had attended Math Club twice so far this year, and I was on their email list.

I stopped at the first table, where a tall blond student whom I didn’t know stood in front of a wooden puzzle.  The puzzle had three vertical pegs in a row. Five wooden discs of different diameters were stacked on the leftmost peg, with the largest on the bottom.

“Hi,” the blond guy said when he noticed my interest.  “The object is to get all of the discs on a different peg.  But you can only move one at a time, and–”

“You can’t put a larger one on a smaller one, right?”

“Yes.  Have you seen this before?”

“The Towers of Hanoi puzzle,” I said.  “I saw something about it in a math book.  Let me see if I remember how to do it.”

“What’s your major?”

“I’m not sure,” I said as I picked up the smallest disc, and placed it on the middle peg.  “I haven’t declared yet. But I’m thinking math. Maybe physics or chemistry.” I placed the next smallest disc on the right peg, and I put the smallest disc on top of this one.  I had moved two discs successfully, with the middle peg empty.

“Have you been to our Math Club?” the student asked me as I put the third disc on the middle peg.  If I remembered correctly, the point of this puzzle was that each step was recursive. Move the third disc, then do all the previous steps again to move the first two on top of the third, since I already successfully moved two discs.  Move the fourth disc, then do all the previous steps again to move the first three on top of the fourth, since I already successfully moved three discs.

“I’ve been a couple times, yeah.”

“I don’t think I’ve met you.  I’m Brandon.”

“I’m Greg,” I said, shaking Brandon’s hand.

“Nice to meet you.”

After a few more minutes, I finished the puzzle, with all five discs now stacked on the middle peg.  “You got it,” Brandon said. “Good job. You get a prize.” He handed me a fun size bag of Skittles, the size given to trick-or-treaters on Halloween.  I never understood why those tiny little candies were called “fun size.” It’s no fun when you run out of Skittles so quickly.

“Thanks,” I said.

“I’ll see you at the next Math Club meeting?  Second Wednesday of the month in 108 Wellington?”

“Yeah.  Probably.”

At the next table, Mary Heinrich, the Math Club president, stood next to three puzzles requiring separating interlocked objects that looked like they could not be separated without cutting or breaking.  “I’m terrible at these,” I said.

“Hey, Greg,” Mary said.  “How are you?”

“Good,” I replied.  I had met Mary through Math Club, and I also knew that she had been in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program as a freshman, the same program I am in now along with everyone else in Building C.  “This is my first Spring Picnic. I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

“Spring Picnic is fun!  There’s so much to see!”

“I know!  So far I’ve just been watching the parade.”

“Enjoy the rest of your day!  Are you coming to the next Math Club meeting?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll see you then!”

After the Math Club exhibit, I walked back to West Quad Avenue and crossed it; the parade had finished by now, but the entire campus had become even more crowded.  During the lunch hours, some student organizations sold food at booths on the east side of the Quad. Many of these were cultural organizations selling food from their cultures.  Nu Alpha Kappa, a fraternity for Latinos, sold carne asada soft tacos; I bought two of them and took them back over to the west side of the Quad, where I sat under a tree and ate them.

I had not seen anyone I knew yet that morning, other than Mary from Math Club.  I was okay with that. At events like the Spring Picnic, I could wander around alone for hours and be completely entertained.  I got to the music building shortly before the start of the performance Danielle had invited me to, where I saw people I knew for the first time since leaving Building C this morning.  Besides Danielle, Claire from church was in chorus too. The singers stood on portable risers in the patio in front of the music building. A crowd was gathering, sitting and standing around the building.  I saw Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Caroline, Charlie, and standing near the street, facing the chorus.

“Hey, guys,” I said.

“Greg!” Taylor replied.  “Come on over.” The group moved over to make room for me.  Liz and Ramon arrived a few minutes later, just as the performance was starting.

I didn’t know the piece they were singing.  I knew very little about classical choral music in general.  I had never been to a performance like this, so I didn’t have much to compare it to, but they sounded good together.  Two people I didn’t know, a soprano and a tenor, had solos, and both of them had much better voices for this type of performance than I could ever have.  The only singing I do these days is in the car along to the radio,

The performance lasted about fifteen minutes.  After it ended, Danielle came over to all of us to say hi.

“I liked that,” I told her.  “I’ve never really seen a chorus perform like this before?”

“Really?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“I’m glad we sounded good.  We rehearsed it yesterday, and I didn’t think we sounded very good.”

“You probably think about that more than the audience does, since we don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like.

“Yeah.”

“What are you guys up to the rest of the day?” Liz asked.

“I have a ton of homework to do,” Caroline said.  “But I’ll probably check out a few other things first.  One of my professors wants me to go look at an exhibit with some of his research.”

“I’ve just been wandering around all day,” I said.  “And I’m enjoying it. I’m going to go see Lawsuit on the Quad Stage later.”

“I wanted to see them too,” Ramon said.  “I heard they were supposed to be good. What time is that?”

“Three.  So, like, an hour and a half from now.”

“I need to go help put the risers back inside,” Danielle said.  “I’ll see you guys maybe at dinner tonight?”

“Yeah.”

We eventually all walked off in a few different directions.  I walked toward the dairy facilities, and as soon as I found the line for the fistulated cow, I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to wait to see it and still make it back to the Quad in time for Lawsuit.  Maybe next year I’d plan ahead. 

I walked back toward the Quad looking inside any building I could find that had an open exhibit with no line.  I saw interactive exhibits about weeds, mosquitoes, and different types of soil. In the library, I saw a display of books from the special collection about the history of Jeromeville and the UJ campus.  Very interesting old pictures. Most of these buildings I walk past every day without knowing what happens inside, but today at the Spring Picnic I got to see some of the research that happens at this university.  It fascinates me to this day how large this campus is and how many different things all happen here.

I started walking toward the Quad shortly before Lawsuit was to go on stage.  A crowd had already assembled as people on stage set up musical instruments and sound equipment.  I saw Megan in the middle of the crowd with a few faces I recognized from the dining hall. Megan was still fairly easy to spot, with her short blonde hair still having traces of the green dye from a few months ago.

“Hi,” I said walking up next to Megan.

“Hey, Greg!  You made it! This is going to be a great show!”

“I know!  I keep hearing great things about this band.”

“What all have you seen today?”

“The parade, Math Club, chorus, and I walked around some displays about weeds and mosquitoes and stuff.”

“That’s the great thing about the Spring Picnic.  There are so many random things to see.”

“I know!”

“I was working a table earlier for Society of Women Engineers.  That’s about all I’ve done so far.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” someone on stage said as the crowd started quieting.  “The name of this band is Lawsuit!” I heard the sound of bongo drums and turned toward the stage.  Lawsuit was huge; I counted 10 members of the band, eight men and two women. This band had bongo drums, regular drums, bass and regular guitars, and a variety of horns.  The drums and bass joined the bongos, followed by a horn blast and then the vocals. The lead singer had a distinct voice, higher than most male pop and rock singers but not screeching glam rocker high.  He sang two verses, a chorus that repeated the line “thank God you’re doing fine,” and then a long instrumental section, first featuring a guitar solo and then the horns. During the instrumentals, band members who weren’t playing walked around the stage in rhythm and performed silly little dances.  The vocals returned to sing one more bridge and chorus, and the song ended with another horn-centered instrumental.

I loved this song.  I loved this band. And I had only known them for five minutes.

The band members did not appear to be students.  I would guess they were mostly in their mid- to late 20s.  They looked and sounded nothing like any band I had ever heard before.  They had guitars and drums, but they also had horns. Some of their songs had rhythms typical of pop and rock songs, but others sounded more like jazz or swing.  I wasn’t even sure if they would be considered pop, rock, jazz, reggae or what. “What do you even call this kind of music?” I asked Megan, shouting slightly so I could be heard over the music.

“Ska,” Megan said.  “I guess.”

I had never heard the word ska before.  I would learn later that ska shared its Caribbean roots with reggae, but was usually faster.  However, I would hear much more ska music in the mainstream over the coming years, and Lawsuit did not sound much like the great ska bands of the 1990s.  Ska, like reggae, has a distinct rhythm with accents on the off beats, and many of Lawsuit’s songs did not have this. This was truly a band that defied categorization.

Another of their songs seemed to contain names of states and puns that sounded like names of states.  I heard the lead singer sing “I got a note from Michigan,” and I got a little scared, because just last night I had been talking and flirting with a girl from Michigan on IRC, and she had emailed me back this morning.  Did this singer somehow know the secrets of my online life? (He didn’t. And the actual lyric is “I got a note from Ish again,” with Ish presumably being someone’s name. This was one of the many somewhat nonsensical state name puns in the lyrics of this song, because “from Ish again” sounds like “from Michigan.”)

I could have stood here listening to this band for the rest of the night, but the show was over after about an hour.  “That was really good!” I said to Megan. “I love those guys!”

“I know!  This is the fourth time I’ve seen them!  They’re so good!”

“Thanks for telling me about them.”

“Yeah.  It was good to see you here.  What are you doing the rest of the day?”

“What else is going on?  It looks like most things close up by now.”

“The Battle of the Bands goes on into the night.”

“That’s the marching bands at the Arboretum?”

“Yeah.  I can’t watch them this year, I have to get back to my building, but I was there last year.  That was fun.”

“I’ll go check that out.”

“I’ll see you later?  Maybe at dinner?”

“Yeah.  Have a good rest of the day.”

“You too!”

I walked past the library and the music building to the adjacent section of the Arboretum, then west toward Marks Hall, the administration building, where I heard marching band music and saw a huge crowd.  The marching bands from Jeromeville and five other nearby universities were playing, taking turns one song at a time. According to the Daily Colt, they had to keep playing until they were out of songs to play.  Bands could not repeat songs, and they could not play their school fight song until they had played every other song they knew.  A band playing their fight song meant that they were giving up. Because of the crowd, I could not find a place to sit where I could actually see the bands well, so I only stayed about 45 minutes.  No one had given up by then. But many of the marching bands played pop and rock songs, and this made me laugh. The band from Walton University, the wealthy private school located in between San Tomas and Bay City, dressed in crazy costumes, and as much as I hated Walton because they rejected me, I thought their costumes were funny.  A sousaphonist from University of the Bay had painted the bell of his instrument to look like a Grateful Dead logo. I wished I had brought a camera, so I could take a picture of that to show Dad.

When I got back to Building C, around 5:30, I took a shower and ate, then spent the rest of the night unproductively.  I was tired from all that walking, and I didn’t feel like doing anything more. But it was a good day. My first Spring Picnic was so much fun, and I was already looking forward to next year’s Spring Picnic.  With so many things happening at the same time, there was no way I would be able to see everything every year, so Spring Picnic would seemingly never get old.

Starting with my first Spring Picnic in 1995, I have spent the entire day at Spring Picnic every year, with two exceptions.  In 2000, a new baseball stadium had just opened in Bay City, and tickets to games were hard to come by. Taylor got a group of us together to go to a game, but the day that worked best was the same day as the Spring Picnic.  The baseball game was in the afternoon, though, and when we got back to Jeromeville, the Battle of the Bands was still going on, and I went for about an hour. The only time I missed Spring Picnic entirely was in 2006, when I traveled 200 miles to my cousin Miranda’s wedding.  I wore a tie with Jeromeville Colts logos on it to remind her of the great sacrifice I had to make to be there. And Miranda knew of the existence of the Spring Picnic, so she could have planned better, but her special day doesn’t revolve around me and I didn’t complain. A little over four months from now, as I write this, I am planning on spending the entire day at the 2020 Spring Picnic, my 24th time.

This was also not my last time seeing Lawsuit.  I saw their CD in Liz’s room a few days later and borrowed it and made a tape of it.  I never did ask if that CD belonged to Liz or Ramon or Liz’s actual roommate, although I did ask if I could borrow it.  Years later, when I had the capability of burning CDs, I borrowed that same CD from someone else and burned a copy, and later saved it to my computer where it remains in my music collection to this day.  The band broke up long ago, that’s another story for another time, but great music never dies as long as people keep listening.

March 4, 1995. Friendship is special.

Previously, on Don’t Let The Days Go By, Greg was having a terrible day, in which everything was going wrong.  His friends rudely woke him up in the middle of the night; he went into a rage in front of his friends and ran outside.  Read the whole story here.


 

I had a terrible day today.  Well, technically the terrible day was yesterday now, since it was after midnight, but to me it doesn’t feel like the next day until I actually wake up.  Everything went wrong today. I didn’t understand something from the math homework that was due today. The book I needed at the library for my paper was checked out.  Mom sent me on an errand to go shopping for a present for someone back home, and I couldn’t find what she needed. And then, to make it worse, my friends were sitting right outside my room at 1:00 in the morning talking loudly, and they woke me up.  I lost it at that point. I threw a tantrum and ran outside after throwing a cardboard box that almost hit Sarah. And now I felt terrible that I lost control in front of my friends.

I had been sitting outside in my car for about fifteen minutes.  I started walking back to the building, ashamed, holding my head low.  I was tired. I needed to try to go back to sleep. I would apologize to everyone in the morning.  I knew that someone would tell me that what I did was wrong, even though I knew that already. But I deserved to be scolded and shamed after the way I had been behaving.

I slid my ID card and opened the door to the lobby, and I stepped inside, quietly and slowly walking straight ahead toward the stairs.  But I didn’t make it to the stairs.

“He’s back!” Sarah said in a loud whisper, jumping up and giving me a hug.

“Greg! Are you okay?” Krista asked.  I nodded, slightly confused.

“Thank you, Jesus, for bringing Greg back safely,” Pete said, as Sarah and Krista sat on the floor and gestured for me to sit next to them.

“Yes, Jesus,” Krista added, placing her hand on my back.  “Please give Greg a sense of peace, and calm whatever is on his mind right now.  Take away his burdens, and clear his mind so he can hear from you.”

At this point, my brain finally started to process what was happening to me; maybe this was the clear mind that Krista had prayed for.  I was still in the lobby; I hadn’t made it to my room yet. The six people who had seen my tantrum were all here. Pete, Caroline, and Charlie were on the couch; Sarah, Krista, and Taylor were on the floor with me.  And they didn’t seem to be upset at all. They were praying for me. I wondered if they had been praying for me since they saw me run away, over fifteen minutes ago.

“God,” Taylor said, “I pray that you will send your Holy Spirit upon Greg, that he might know your love for him.”

“And I thank you for bringing us all here to Jeromeville, where we can get to know each other and be part of each other’s lives,” Sarah added.  “I thank you for Greg, and all the unique gifts you have given him. And I pray that he will know that he is loved.”

“Praise the Lord,” Pete said.  The others nodded and murmured in agreement.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Sarah said as she put her hand on me and rubbed my back.

“Thank you,” I said between sobs; I had started crying a minute or so earlier.  “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I lost control. And I didn’t mean to throw the box at you.  I wasn’t aiming for you.”

“It’s all right.  I know you didn’t.  We all have bad days.”

I closed my eyes.  I still didn’t want to face these people after the way I had lost control in front of them.  Now they’re going to think I’m some kind of crazy person for the rest of the year.

Pete began to pray again after about thirty seconds.  “Father, God, whatever is on Greg’s mind right now, I pray that you will bring peace about it.  I pray that you will comfort him and calm his fears.”

“Yes, Father,” Caroline added.  “Bring peace in the storm.”

“And I pray that he will never forget that he is loved,” Sarah said, her hand still on my back.  The others replied “Yes,” and “Amen,” and things like that.

“I can’t do this,” I said.  “I want to give up. I shouldn’t be here.  I should be locked up somewhere, where I won’t hurt anyone when I get like this.  I’m sorry. You guys don’t have to stay up for me. You can go to bed.”

“No!” Krista said.  “We’re your friends.  We’re here by your side no matter what.”

“Yes, Greg,” Taylor added.  “We’re here for you. And we should apologize for waking you up too.  That wasn’t nice of us.”

“Yeah,” Charlie said.  “I’m sorry.” The others all voiced their agreement.

“Don’t give up,” Sarah said, embracing me from the side from where we were sitting.  “Jesus, I pray that you will show yourself to Greg, and give him hope, and strength to keep running the race.  Take away these bad thoughts from his mind, the thoughts of giving up and not belonging here. Those thoughts come from the pit of hell, and I pray that you will bind Satan and stop letting him get inside Greg’s head.”  The others again replied with a chorus of “Yes”es and “Amen”s as she let go of me.

I took a few more deep breaths, as the others sat in silence with me.

“You gonna be okay?” Taylor asked eventually.

“I think so.  But I should probably go back to bed.  We all should.”

“Seriously, though, we’re here for you,” Sarah said.  “If you ever need to talk about things, just come find any one of us.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “Thank you so much.”

 

I woke up around seven-thirty, still a little tired since I hadn’t gotten to sleep until almost 2:00.  It was a Saturday morning, so I didn’t have a class to get to. After lying around in bed and reading for a while, I bundled up in a sweatshirt and got on my bike.  It was early enough in the day to still be sweatshirt weather, although it was sunny, and being that this was the week of Fake Spring, it looked like it would get warmer in the afternoon.  I rode out to the Lodge in the Arboretum and took the trail on the south bank all the way west to the end of the creek, which was really just a very long lake. I followed the trail around the end of the creek onto the north bank, past the oak grove.  I followed that trail east as far as I could, along the same route where I had taken my parents when they had been visiting a couple weeks earlier. I rode through the redbud grove, past the large succulents, past the live oak with the Native American meditation garden next to it, past the water tower and the law school and the administration building, and to the spot where the creek bed widens into Spooner Lake.  I continued past the drama and music buildings through a grove of redwoods, crossing under the Old Jeromeville Road bridge. (I had heard that locals used to shorten the name of this road to “OJ Road,” but this name was falling out of favor now because it made people think of O.J. Simpson, the retired football player and actor who was currently on trial for murdering his ex-wife.)

East of Old Jeromeville Road, the landscaping in the Arboretum became much more sparse.  The waterway looked more like a ditch with large patches of algae, and a paved trail immediately adjacent on each side.  The ditch ended in a wider spot that resembled a cul-de-sac. (The word “cul-de-sac” literally means “bag’s ass” in French, I always thought that was funny.)  I turned around, headed back west, and took a side path leading back to ground level. This path turned to the north, to the intersection of First and B Streets in downtown Jeromeville.  The streets downtown made a grid, with number and letter street names; the buildings were mostly old houses from the early twentieth century, mixed with a few newer structures. Some of these old houses had been converted into offices and restaurants.

I headed north on B Street, past the two block long Central Park, much smaller than the similarly-named park in New York.  I continued north to 15th Street, and then turned west past Jeromeville High School, through a neighborhood that looked newer, probably from the middle of the twentieth century.  I turned south on Andrews Road, crossing back on to campus, and at Thong Bikini Hill, which was closed for the season, I turned left on Davis Drive. I turned right toward the dairy and the South Residential Area, and I went back to my room and showered.

I saw Danielle in the hallway later that day.  “Hey, Greg? Are you okay?” she asked me. “Caroline told me about what happened last night.”

I looked down at my feet, avoiding eye contact.  “I’m okay,” I said. “I was just having a bad day for a lot of reasons.  And I kind of blew up when I was trying to sleep and they woke me up.”

“She said everyone was really worried about you.”

“I know.  And I feel bad.  They didn’t need to worry about me just because I was acting childish.  I don’t want to be a burden on everyone else.”

“Don’t say that.  We do worry about you.  You’re our friend.”

I made eye contact with her again and saw a look of sincerity.  “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

 

I didn’t have any plans for the rest of that day.  I found Sarah, Krista, Pete, and Taylor at the dining hall with open seats next to them, so I sat down.

“How’s your day going?” Taylor asked me.

“Better,” I said.  “I rode my bike and did some homework, and that’s about it.”

“Where’d you go?” Krista asked.

“The entire length of the arboretum, then up B Street to where it ends by the high school, then 15th Street back to Andrews.”

“How long of a ride was that?”

“Not that long.  Took about half an hour.”

“That’s a pretty good ride,” Pete said.

“We were just talking about going downstairs to play pool when we’re done eating,” Taylor said.  “Want to come with us?”

“Sure,” I said.

A while later, we all went to the South Area recreation room, downstairs from the dining hall.  We were allowed to take a soft-serve ice cream cone from the machine outside of the dining hall with us, and I had one now, as did Sarah.  We walked into the mail room, and Taylor and I walked to the Help Window where we could check out pool balls and cues. Megan, the RA from Building K with the fading green hair, was on duty.

“Hey, Greg,” she said.  “How are you?”

“Doing better than yesterday.”  I handed her my ID card in exchange for the pool equipment; I would get it back when I returned the balls and cues.

“Did you figure out that math problem?”

“No.  And that’s okay.”

“Now you’re sounding like a true college student!” she said.  Taylor laughed, and I chuckled.

“Do you know Taylor?” I asked.  “He’s in my building.”

“Hi, Taylor.  I’m Megan, from Building K.”

“Hey, Megan.”  Taylor shook Megan’s hand.

“Have fun!” Megan told us as she gave us the pool equipment.

“I will!  Thanks!”

When we were back in the room with the pool table, Taylor asked, “How do you know her?  Is she in your math class?”

“No,” I explained.  “I just know her from seeing her around.  And there was this problem I couldn’t figure out, so I asked everyone I knew who had taken 21C before.  She’s a chemical engineer, so she would have taken it last year.”

We took turns playing, with Pete and Krista first, which gave me and Sarah time to finish our ice cream cones.  I played against Taylor next. I came close to winning, but I still had one colored ball on the table when Taylor sank his last striped ball and the 8 ball.  We continued taking turns, two of us playing and the other three watching and just talking. We spent over an hour there, and then walked back in the dark to Building C.  We sat in the common room for another hour, just talking.

“What’s everyone doing tomorrow?” Krista asked at one point.  “This is the week you’re going to start doing worship for 20/20, right, Pete?”

“Yeah,” Pete said.  “I think I’m ready.”

I wasn’t familiar with this 20/20 that they spoke of, nor had I heard the word worship used in this sense.  “What’s this?” I asked.

“20/20 is the college group and Sunday school class at our church, Jeromeville Covenant,” Pete explained.  “I’m going to play guitar tomorrow for the class, when we do worship music.”

“Oh, nice!”

“Are you still going to church at that Catholic Newman place?” Krista asked.  “And Danielle goes there too, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“How do you like it?”

“It’s good.  It’s not all old people like the church I grew up in.”  The others laughed.

“That’s good,” Taylor said.  “So you have friends there.”

“Yeah.”

The conversation reached a lull, and everyone just kind of looked around.  Sarah was smiling. “Friendship is special,” she said. “Tonight was fun.”

“Yeah, it was,” Krista concurred.

“Thanks again for inviting me along,” I said.

“Any time, Greg,” Sarah said.  “You’re always welcome to hang out with us.”

“Yeah,” Taylor added.  “And we’re here for you if you ever need to talk.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “I really mean it.”

 

We went back to our rooms shortly after this.  I lay on my bed reading. Currently I was reading the book Forrest Gump, by Winston Groom.  The book, written about a decade earlier, was relatively obscure until last year, when it was adapted into a movie starring Tom Hanks.  The movie went on to win numerous awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture. I had seen the movie once, back home with Catherine Yaras about a month before I left for Jeromeville.  I really liked the movie, and I thought it would be fun to read the book that it was based on.

As is often the case with books made into movies, the movie was significantly different from the book.  Many of the details of the story were completely rewritten for the movie, but the basic premise remained.  Forrest was a man with low intelligence who tells the story of his childhood in the 1950s and his young adulthood in the era of civil rights and the Vietnam War.  Forrest’s naive perspective on the world gives a unique perspective on historical events unclouded by many of society’s biases.

I felt a bit like Forrest at times.  I didn’t always understand the world around me.  I often missed a lot of subtext and unspoken communication behind various situations.  And sometimes the way that I viewed certain situations showed a lack of understanding of the cultural background of such situations.  In the movie, there is a scene where Forrest is the only white man in a lively African-American gospel choir, and Forrest’s first person perspective never mentions any of the social implications of this.  He’s just doing his thing, going to church, praising the same God he grew up with, and spending time with the family of his deceased African-American friend.

I wondered if I would stick out like that if I ever went to Jeromeville Covenant Church or Jeromeville Christian Fellowship with my friends.  I still wondered if these were the kinds of Christians who got up and danced, or clapped to music, or spoke in tongues, or weird stuff like that.  But even if I did stand out, if I was a little different, after tonight I knew one thing: my friends’ love for God and for others was real, and they would accept me unconditionally into their lives, no matter what.  No one had ever gathered in a group to pray for me like that, not even my Catholic friends at the Newman Center (although, to be fair, they never saw me that angry).  If Taylor and Pete and Sarah and Krista and Caroline and Charlie were still standing by me after what they saw last night, and if treating me like this was part of what being a Christian meant to them, I knew that we would stand by each other for the rest of our lives.  That kind of love lasts through hard times, through bad decisions, through life handing out the proverbial lemons, and even through not understanding Lagrange multipliers.   This tiny bedroom in which I was reading right now wasn’t exactly luxurious, but for now, at least, Building C was home.

1995-03-04 lagrange
Photo: Stein, Sherman K. and Anthony Barcellos.  Calculus and Analytic Geometry, 5th ed.  New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1992.