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 was 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.

 

March 3, 1995. Throwing the box.

As a child, I read a book called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  In the book, everything goes wrong for Alexander, from the moment he wakes up until he goes to bed.  Some of the bad things involve his older brothers or kids at school, and some of them are just freak accidents.  Alexander repeatedly makes comments about wanting to run away to Australia, presumably to leave his bad day behind.

I felt like Alexander today.

I had math class in the morning, and I had to turn in an assignment incomplete. The problem in the textbook used something called Lagrange multipliers, another way to do minimization problems.  The example in the book was to find the dimensions of a can that has minimum surface area for a certain volume, which I already knew how to do a different way. Lagrange multipliers in the example looked simple enough, but the technique didn’t work at all with this one problem on the homework.  It was possibly the first time in my life that I didn’t understand something from math class. I sent emails to my instructor, and to everyone I knew who had taken the class before. Pete Green, who was two quarters ahead in math instead of one quarter ahead like me; the Interdisciplinary Honors Program was full of students who were ahead in their college coursework.  Gurpreet, the RA down the hall who was a computer science major. Megan McCauley, the cute RA with the green hair from Building K who was a chemical engineering major. And a girl named Mary Heinrich whom I had only met twice; she was the President of the Math Club, a senior, and also an alumna of the IHP. Pete had told me that he never understood Lagrange multipliers either, and Gurpreet said that his instructor skipped that lesson.

After math class, I went to the library to work on that paper for the South Africa class that was due in less than a week.  A couple years before I started, the UJ library stopped using a physical card catalog and switched to an electronic system. I remember feeling frustrated last quarter, trying to figure out how all that worked and how to find materials in a large university library that used the Library of Congress classification system rather than the much simpler Dewey Decimal System used in local and school libraries.  By now, though, I had figured it out. I wrote down the locations of a few books that would be helpful.

When I went to look for these books, though, two of them were already checked out, and the others had very little information that I could actually use in my paper.  I asked at the circulation desk when those two books would be back, and found out that one of them was due back next week, the day before my paper was due, and the other most likely wouldn’t come in by then.

I was having a bad day.

 

My day felt like it was starting to turn around when I got to chemistry class.  We had gotten a midterm back, and I got 100%, better than I had done on the first midterm.  After class got out, I was hungry, so I dropped off my backpack in my room and walked to the dining hall.  After I got my food, I looked around for a place to sit. Megan was sitting with a few other girls, probably some of her residents from Building K; she saw me and motioned for me to sit with them.

“Hey, Greg,” Megan said.  “Come sit with us.” She gave me a friendly smile, which I tried my best to return.  Early this quarter, Megan had cut her hair short and dyed it green; I liked her hair before better, personally, but I wasn’t going to say so out loud.  Her natural color, on the darker side of blonde, was growing back at the roots, and there was something strangely familiar yet out of place about that combination of hair color.

“Hey, I got your email about Lagrange multipliers,” Megan said after I sat down.  “I don’t think we learned that. I still have my Math 21 book, and I looked through that section, and none of it looked familiar.”

“A guy in my building who is ahead of me in math said the same thing.  He took 21C last quarter, and he didn’t remember learning it either.”

“Yeah.  But you said it was on your homework?”

“I don’t understand why it would be on my homework if no one learns it.”

“Me either.  Sorry I can’t help,” Megan said.  “How’s your day going other than that?”

“Honestly, it’s been a frustrating morning,” I explained.  I told her about not finding the book I was looking for in the library.  While I was telling the story, suddenly I made a connection in my mind that caused me to have to put a lot of effort into holding back a giggle.  Fortunately, I was smart enough not to say out loud what I had realized.

Megan’s hair, with the fading green and the roots growing back, looked like lawn that needed watering.

“I’m sorry you’re having a rough day,” Megan said.  “But hopefully it’ll start to get better. And it’s Friday!  Are you doing anything this weekend?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “Probably working on that paper, if I can find any sources that aren’t already checked out.”

“Just relax and take it easy.  Or do something fun with your friends.”

“We’ll see.  I don’t know if any of my friends will be around.”  Besides, I thought to myself, I don’t really know how to make plans with friends.  I kept this thought to myself.

“We’re going to head back to the building now,” Megan said when I was about halfway done with my meal, and she and the others had all finished.  “I hope your day gets better, Greg.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “Have a good weekend.”

“You too!”

A few minutes later, as I was climbing downstairs out of the dining hall, I saw Andrea from Building B, who was in my math class, with a guy wearing a sweater, looking more well-dressed than the typical college student.  “Hey,” she said, seeing me.

“That problem on the homework today with the Lagrange multipliers,” I said.  “Did you get that? Because I didn’t.”

“I had no idea what was going on with that problem,” she said.  “I don’t think she ever went over that in class.”

“I know.  I’m confused too.”

“Greg?  Have you met my boyfriend, Jay?”

“Hi,” I said, hoping the disappointment wouldn’t show in my voice.  “I’m Greg.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jay said, shaking my hand.

“Have a great weekend!” Andrea said.

“Thanks.  You too.”

 

I walked back to my room and lay down on the bed, face down with my head in the pillow, for a few minutes.  The cute girl from math class has a boyfriend. And the cute older girl couldn’t help me with Lagrange multipliers.  So much for the day starting to turn around.

I got off my bed after about fifteen minutes and checked my email.  None of the girls in other states and countries I’d been talking to had written back.  I had one message, and it was from Mary Heinrich, the president of the Math Club.


From: meheinrich@jeromeville.edu
To: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
Date: Fri, 03 Mar 1995 12:44 -0800
Subject: Re: Lagrange multipliers

Hi Greg!  I’m pretty sure my professor skipped that section… sorry I can’t be more helpful! 😦 Hopefully I’ll see you at the Math Club meeting next week.

-Mary


So there it was.  Everyone I knew to ask about Lagrange multipliers couldn’t help me.  Shelley Bryce, the instructor for the class, hadn’t gotten back to me yet.  Her office hours were exactly the same days and times that I had the South Africa class with Dr. Dick Small, so I wouldn’t be able to go there either.  I never did figure out Lagrange multipliers, by the way.

Maybe my day would get better if I did something else.  It was time to go on an adventure. I got in the car and headed east on Highway 100, toward Capital City.  Mom had given me an errand last night when we were on the phone. My brother Mark’s youth basketball season was ending soon, and the kids’ parents wanted to get a present for the coach.  The coach’s favorite player was future Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond, who currently played for the Capital City Royals. The Royals had just changed their logo and color scheme for this current season, and Mom got the idea of all the parents chipping in to get the coach a Mitch Richmond jersey with the new color scheme.  Mom told me that, since I live near Capital City, I could go get the jersey for her, and bring it home at spring break, and she would pay me back. Normally I would be a little irritated at Mom sending me to do something that didn’t concern me, but this time I didn’t mind, because I had the money, and it meant I got to explore somewhere new.

I crossed the river into downtown Capital City on a high freeway bridge.  I saw the original Capital Drawbridge, with its two tall towers and triangular girder pattern, about half a mile upstream.  The Drawbridge was no longer the main route into Capital City; it was bypassed in 1966 by the freeway I was currently on. I could see the tall buildings of downtown Capital City on my left.  The older neighborhoods of Capital City were known for having old, tall trees along the sidewalks, and a sea of these trees, with islands of rooftops on tall Victorian and early twentieth century houses, spread out to my left between the freeway and the even taller buildings in the distance.

After passing through downtown Capital City, I turned north on Highway 51 and got off four exits later at the mall.  This mall was two stories high, over twice as big as the one back home in Gabilan. I parked the car and walked in, looking around and taking in the fact that this mall was huge compared to what I was used to.  I went through a phase in my early teens when I liked going to the mall in Gabilan, but I wasn’t so much interested in shopping as I was in the video arcade there and this really yummy cookie shop. In fact, in 2005, I just happened to be in Plumdale at my parents’ house when I read in the newspaper that the cookie shop was closing for good.  I drove into Gabilan and bought one last dozen cookies there, and I never did tell my family about that because I didn’t want to share.

I walked up and down the entire length of the mall, just to browse, and also to people-watch, or in my case, cute-girl-watch.  I walked into a music store to do more up-close browsing, and I ended up buying R.E.M.’s Monster and Soundgarden’s Superunknown.  There were a few other CDs I wanted to buy, but I didn’t feel right spending all that money.

Upstairs, I found a shop that sold sports merchandise.  I looked through the basketball jerseys and found some with names of many of the best players of the day: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Charles Barkley.  But no Mitch Richmond. That didn’t make sense. The Royals had just moved to Capital City about a decade earlier, and Mitch Richmond was the best player who had ever played in Capital City so far. He was an All-Star, and moreover, he was the only All-Star from the local team.  What kind of store doesn’t carry merchandise of an All-Star player who plays just a few miles away?

“Looking for something?” a store employee asked me, walking up next to me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “A Mitch Richmond jersey.”

“Hmm,” the guy said, with a look on his face that suggested he knew little about basketball, and that the name did not ring a bell.  “Let me go try to find one for you.” He walked into the back room. I didn’t really follow basketball all that closely in 1995; basketball was Mark’s thing.  Baseball was still on strike, and hockey wasn’t very big here in the Valley, so Bay City Captains football was the only sport I followed closely at the time. But I knew enough about basketball to have at least heard of Mitch Richmond.

“Yeah, we don’t have that,” the employee said when he came out of the back room.

“He plays for the Royals!  We’re in Capital City! This store doesn’t make sense!  It’s like a store in Chicago that doesn’t sell Michael Jordan jerseys!”  I turned my back and left the store in a huff.

At the other end of the mall was another store that sold sports merchandise.  I had the opposite problem here: there were numerous Mitch Richmond jerseys in many different sizes and in all three designs that the team used this year.  I didn’t know what Mark’s coach would want. I didn’t even know what size he wore.

“May I help you?” the guy behind the cash register said, noticing that I seemed to be having trouble with this.

“I don’t know,” I said angrily.  “I was sent here to buy a gift for someone I don’t know, and I’m not sure what he wants or what size he wears.”

“Hmm.  What is it that the person wants?”

“A Mitch Richmond jersey.”

“You kind of need to know the size for that one, don’t you.  Can you find out?”

“I’ll be back,” I said, again storming out of the store.  I hated this. I didn’t understand what I was looking for, and I didn’t need to have been sent on this errand in the first place.  I was in way over my head, and I didn’t even ask to do this, and I wasn’t even going to get anything new for myself. Well, I got the two CDs, but I could have gotten those at Tower Records without having to leave Jeromeville.

I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I think I’ll move to Australia.

I could ask Caroline for some pointers, since she was from Australia.

But I didn’t go to Australia, or to another store in the mall.  Instead, I went to a pay phone. Back in 1995, only the extremely wealthy had cell phones, and long distance phone calls cost money.  Fortunately, my parents had something called a calling card, where they could make a call from any phone in the country and have it billed directly to them.  They gave me the PIN number (PIN number is a redundant expression in the same sense as Arroyo Verde Creek), so I could call them from anywhere and they would pay for it.  I did this now.

“Hello?” Mom said, answering on the second ring.

“Why did you send me on this stupid errand?” I shouted, starting to cry.

“Whoa.  Where are you?”

“I’m at Capital East Mall, in Capital City.  I came here to look for a Mitch Richmond jersey, like you asked me to.  I don’t know what size he wears, or what design or color he wants.”

“Don’t worry about it!  If you don’t want to get it, I’m sure we can order one from that catalog Mark gets all his sports stuff from.”

“I’m all the way here.  I don’t want to leave empty handed.”

“Get any of the designs.  I’m sure he’ll like it. And he wears extra large.”

“But I don’t want to get him something he doesn’t like.”

“I’m sure it’ll be okay.  And it’s a gift. He’ll appreciate the gift.”

“Maybe.  I’ll go back to the store and see.”

“You do that.  It’s okay. How was school today?”

“I’ll call you sometime over the weekend from home, so it’ll be cheaper.  And I don’t want to have a personal conversation out in public.”

“Good idea,” Mom said.  “Are you going to be all right?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll talk to you this weekend, then.”

“Okay.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

I hung up the phone and sat on a bench.  I tried to wipe my eyes so it didn’t look like I’d been crying.  It didn’t work. But I went back to the last store where I had been anyway.  I got a Mitch Richmond jersey, size extra large, and I picked out the black one.  Mom said get anything, so if the coach didn’t like it, it wasn’t my fault anymore.

 

The rest of the night was pretty boring.  I sat alone at dinner. I didn’t meet any cute girls on IRC.  There were no new interesting conspiracy theories on the Pink Floyd Usenet group.  I listened to my new CDs. They were good, but R.E.M. seemed to be going in a different direction from what their last two albums sounded like, and the Soundgarden album generally sounded darker as a whole than the two songs that were familiar to me.  I read for a while. I went to bed at the usual time, between 11 and midnight, and fell asleep quickly.

I woke up with a start when I heard voices and laughter.  They were coming from the hallway. The clock said 1:21 AM.  Whoever was talking was doing so after hours and thus breaking the rules, and I was furious because they woke me up.  Could this day really get any worse? I lay in bed for a few minutes, but the voices were just loud enough that there was no way I’d be able to go back to sleep.  Who were these rude people who wouldn’t let me sleep? Probably those weird stoners and partiers who lived upstairs at this end of the third floor.

In one corner of the room near the closet was a large cardboard box, shaped like a cube about two feet on each side.  The box had originally held my computer, but now all that was inside was the foam packing material. I used the box as a small table now.  There was nothing on it, and more importantly, it was the first non-lethal object I could find to throw at whomever was being so inconsiderate outside my doorway.  I picked up the box and opened the door, squinting at the sudden brightness coming from the hallway.

Taylor, Pete, Caroline, Charlie, Krista, and Sarah were sitting in the hallway.  This was not at all who I expected to see, not the partiers from the third floor.  And in a way, this made the whole experience feel even worse, because these people were some of my closest friends.  And they couldn’t even be considerate enough to let me sleep.

I threw the cardboard box at the wall as forcefully as I could, while glaring angrily at the others and screaming incoherently for about two seconds.  The box hit the wall and almost fell on Sarah, bumping against her shoulder. Sarah looked at me, stunned, as did the other five. I ran across the hall to the stairwell and stomped off downstairs and out of the building.

It was cold and dry outside, and it smelled like poop because the dairy barn was nearby.  I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything now. Without thinking about what I was doing, I walked to the car.  I knew I had blown it. I had made a big mistake, and everyone had seen my true colors, my inability to control myself.  It didn’t matter that I was a successful student at a prestigious university anymore. I was just that scared little kid who blew up and lashed out when life got to him, just like I had been all through elementary school.

I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I think I’ll turn on this car and drive all the way to Australia.

I had always struggled with these kinds of outbursts all my life, although not as often as I did when I was in elementary school.  I was constantly bullied and teased all through school, called horrible names for no reason other than that I was an easy target, because I was different.  No one ever taught me to stand up for myself or to fight back. No one ever taught me how to be confident or how to find people who would build me up. So I would take it and take it and take it for days, for weeks, until I would finally explode, throwing furniture, and pushing and hitting people (and I would often get hit back even harder).  Then my teacher and my parents would scold me and say that I needed to learn to control myself, and once I got old enough that school suspension was an option, I would get suspended for a few days. That happened all through elementary school, and twice in high school as well.

I had been that kid all my life, and I always would be.  And there would always be people around me to tell me condescendingly that what I did was wrong, as if I didn’t know this already.  And some adult authority figure would come along eventually and tell me that I couldn’t do this, and that I needed to be pumped full of pills to fix me.  And the pills wouldn’t work either, because they never do, just like they didn’t work before when I was younger.

This year was supposed to be different.  I was finally free of everything that held me back in Plumdale, and I could make a fresh start in Jeromeville.  But this wasn’t a fresh start. It was the same old dumpster fire that my life had been for eighteen and a half years.  I didn’t know why I was here or what I wanted to study. I didn’t have a girlfriend. And neither of those things would change as long as I kept making mistakes like this.

I didn’t drive to Australia, obviously.  I sat in the car for about another fifteen minutes, thinking about these things and trying to calm myself down.  I closed my eyes for a while. I opened them again. I took a deep breath. Whatever I messed up tonight, whatever mistakes I made, giving up wasn’t going to make things any better.  I had nothing to lose by learning from this and moving forward. This experience really wasn’t worth quitting school over.

I was ready to put this behind me for the night.  It was late, and I was tired, and it was time to go back to bed.  I would apologize to everyone in the morning, but I knew it probably didn’t matter.  I had blown it in front of my new friends. They had seen me for what I was. I knew that what I did was wrong, and I also knew that they were all going to tell me anyway that I was in the wrong, and make me feel worse about it.  I had violated the rule about quiet hours, so Amy or Gurpreet, or both of them, would probably get involved. And I deserved all that. I was just going to have to bite the bullet and let them scold me and tell me how badly I had behaved.  I just hoped I wouldn’t get kicked out of the building, or kicked out of UJ entirely, for this.

I stepped out of the car and took a deep breath of the aromatic dairy air.  I walked back to Building C, like a dog with my tail between my legs, ashamed of the way I had behaved.  I got to the front door and scanned my key card. The door clicked, and I pulled it open.

And nothing I had seen or experienced in my eighteen and a half years of life so far had prepared me for the scene that was waiting for me in the lobby.

To be continued…

compaq box
I still have The Box in 2019.  It’s in my garage, storing a bunch of old T-shirts with too much sentimental value to get rid of.

 

January 25, 1995.  Writing dirty limericks.

I walked across the street from Wellington Hall to the Memorial Union.  I had just finished my first math midterm of winter quarter, and I felt good about it.  The topic of the test was partial derivatives, and while I had never learned about partial derivatives before, or even heard the term until a few weeks ago, everything we had done so far had seemed fairly straightforward.

I liked this math class so far.  None of my IHP classmates were in my class, but there were a few familiar faces from last quarter, including Andrea Briggs from Building B and Jack Chalmers from building F.  The instructor was a tall blonde woman named Shelley Bryce. Like Jimmy Best from my last class, Shelley was a graduate student in the mathematics department. She was a bit more reserved than Jimmy Best, and she seemed less comfortable in front of the class, but I still understood everything so far.

I had a two hour break before chemistry class, so I rode back to my room.  I turned on the computer and checked my email. There was only one message.  It was from Brendan Lowe, who lived upstairs in room 322 and had a really sick sense of humor.  The subject of the email said “FW: Fwd: Re: FW: FW: Dirty limericks.” In other words, this was going to be something wildly inappropriate that he received from someone else and passed on to the rest of the IHP, just as he did at least once a day on average.  Hopefully, he took Karen Francis off of his forwarding list; I learned the hard way a couple weeks ago that Karen did not like getting chain emails like this one.

The dirty limericks that I read were so funny, and caused me to laugh so loud, that Aaron heard me through the wall and asked me later that day what the commotion was.

My chemistry class that day was about easy stuff, so I was really only half paying attention.  The other half of my brain was attempting to think up my own dirty limericks to go with the ones that Brendan had shared.  I started thinking of words that could rhyme. I thought of names of places, so I could use them in the first line. “There once was a man from Jeromeville,” I wrote; I crossed it out a minute later when I realized that nothing rhymes with Jeromeville.  I tried thinking of other towns nearby that might be easier to make rhymes with, and after about five minutes, I scribbled this:

A pretty young girl from Blue Oaks
Made a dildo from bicycle spokes.
Now she’s doing all right
‘Cause she gets some each night
But she always complains how it pokes.

Next, I started thinking of body parts.  Penis. Dick. Cock. Wiener. This could work.  By the end of class, I had another one written in my notebook:

There once was a man named McGee
With a small dick that no one could see.
I’d bet, I’m no liar
That unlike Oscar Mayer,
This wiener you’d not want to be.

Earlier in the week, I had been sitting at the dining commons with Gina Stalteri and some others from my building.  I walked up to the table as Gina was making a joke about a tool that was designed to measure a guy’s penis size. Later, she started talking about her roommate Skeeter frequently staying up late on an IRC chat talking to some guy in another state.  Skeeter’s real name was Jennifer, but everyone called her Skeeter because one of her friends from childhood had thought she looked like Skeeter from the Muppet Babies cartoon. I could definitely see the resemblance. Also, having a distinct nickname made life easier when you had a common first name like Jennifer.

I had one more class that afternoon, but my mind was still on writing dirty limericks.  I kept going back to the things Gina was saying at dinner the other night. And, not long afterward, I had this:

There once was a roommate named Skeeter;
This IRC guy liked to greet her.
If the two ever met,
She may finally get
To use Gina’s new Peter Meter.

I heard the professor saying something that reminded me that I was still in class and had better pay attention.  So I started taking notes more carefully and put the dirty limericks aside for a while.

 

At dinner that night, I looked around for a place to sit.  I saw Sarah, Krista, Ramon, Liz, Pete, Tabitha from Building B, and a girl with curly brown hair whom I did not recognize, at a table with one open seat between Liz and Pete.  I walked over and asked if I could join them.

“What’s up?” Ramon asked, seeing me approach.

“Hi, Greg!” Liz said.  “Come join us!”

“This is Jeanette,” Sarah said, gesturing toward the curly-haired girl.  “And this is Tabitha,” she continued, gesturing toward Tabitha.

“I’ve met Tabitha,” I said, as Tabitha simultaneously said, “I know Greg.”

“How are you?” Sarah asked me.

“I’m good.  I had a math midterm this morning.  I thought it was pretty easy.”

“Have you gotten your payment turned in yet?” Tabitha asked Krista.

“Yes,” Krista said.  “I’m going for sure.”

“Good!”

“What are you going to?” I asked.

“We have a retreat for JCF coming up next weekend.  It’s at a Christian conference center in the hills outside of Bidwell.”

“That sounds fun!  Are a lot of people going?”

“I heard that probably about 50 people from Jeromeville are going.  I don’t know how many people are coming from the other schools.”

“Other schools?”

“Jeromeville Christian Fellowship is part of an organization called InterVarsity,” Liz explained.  “They have chapters at colleges all over the USA and a few other countries. And the chapters from Cap State and Bidwell State and a few other schools will be at this retreat too.”

“That’s cool,” I said.  “Sounds like a fun time.”

The conversation then turned back to classes.  Given the fact that the entire rest of the table had just been talking about their church retreat, I figured that now would not be a good time to mention my dirty limericks.

 

After checking the mail (I had none), I walked back to the building.  Gina, Mike Adams, and David were sitting in the common room having a rather loud conversation.

“Charlie told me that last night, he was coming back from a late class, and he walked in on Pat and Karen.  They were so loud, they didn’t even notice he came in.”

“Whoa!” Mike shouted.  “They didn’t even notice?”

“That’s what Charlie said– Oh, hey, Greg.  What are you up to?”

“Actually,” I said, “remember the other day when Brendan sent those dirty limericks?”

“Those were hilarious!” Mike said.

“I know.  I’ve been writing some dirty limericks of my own.”

“No way!” Gina exclaimed.  “Let’s hear one!” I told her from memory the one about Skeeter, and she opened her mouth as if to say that she couldn’t believe I said that.  “That’s great!” she said, laughing hard. “You even got the Peter Meter in there!”

Next, I shared the one about the bicycle spokes; the two guys were listening as well by then.  “Ouch!” Mike exclaimed. “Who would do that? I mean, it isn’t like it’s hard to find a dildo! Why make one from bicycle spokes?  That’s brilliant!”

“Did you write any other ones about people from here?” Gina asked.  “You should write one about Karen and Pat.”

“That would be funny!” I said.  I started thinking aloud. “There once was a girl named Karen… what rhymes with Karen?”  I sat and thought. “There once was a girl named Karen, at whose tiny breasts Pat was starin’.”  The three of them laughed, but I said, “I don’t really like it. I think I can do better than forcing words that don’t really rhyme.”

The others started talking about something else, but I continued to work on my poem about Karen.  What else rhymes with Karen? Maybe I could do something better if Karen wasn’t the word that I was trying to rhyme.  Hmmm…

“There once was this girl, Karen Francis,” I said, “who always let Pat in her pantses.”

“Pantses!” Gina said, laughing.  “This is great! I didn’t know you could write like this!”

“I really didn’t either.  I tried making a few Weird Al-type song parodies as a kid, but they were terrible.”

“So what’s the rest of it?”

“I haven’t thought of it yet.  Maybe it’ll come to me if I take a walk.”

“Go for it.”

I left Building C.  It was dark by now, and cold outside.  I should have brought a sweatshirt. I could always go back and get one if I end up being out here a long time.  I walked from one end of the South Residential Area to the other, in between the twelve identical lettered buildings, the trees planted around them, and the grassy area in front of the dining commons.  I heard the faint sounds of music playing from some of the buildings. It was a clear night, but I could only see a few very bright stars, because of the light posts along these walkways. The moon was not out.  I contemplated what the rest of the poem could be about, and I kept coming back to what Gina had said about Charlie walking in on Karen and Pat. I thought of other words that rhymed with Francis and pantses. And over the course of about five minutes, as I wandered between the buildings of the South Residential Area, it came to me.

I returned to the common room of Building C; Gina and Mike and David were still there.  As soon as I made eye contact with Gina, I began reciting my poem:

“There once was this girl, Karen Francis,
Who always let Pat in her pantses.
Charles came in and said,
‘Stop using my bed
For doing your horizontal dances!’”

“Horizontal dances!  Where do you come up with this stuff?” Gina asked.

“It just kind of came to me.”

“You’re hilarious!  You should keep doing this.”

“Thanks.”

“I didn’t know you wrote.  You’re a math guy. Have you ever thought about doing anything with your writing?”

“Not really.  This is new to me too.”

“Well, I think you’re hilarious.  I need to go study, but this was fun.  Thanks for the laugh.”

“You’re welcome.”

Gina, Mike, and David all climbed the stairs.  I followed them, getting off with Mike on the second floor as Gina and David continued up to the third floor.  Writing for fun really was pretty new to me. I did have a creative side going back to my childhood. As a kid, I often got great ideas for video games, but my limited programming skills and the limited hardware capabilities of the Commodore 64 left almost all of my video game ideas unfinished.  In my teens, I would draw comic books and copy them on the copier at my mom’s work; my brother and some of his friends got involved in my little publishing business too. But my artwork was terrible, and the story lines were shallow and childish. Mom probably saved a lot of those in a box somewhere in the attic, but I haven’t looked at them in decades.

These limericks, along with the depressing poems I wrote a few weeks earlier while I was listening to Pink Floyd, were really the start of my hobby of creative writing for fun.  I never wanted to make a career out of it, and it isn’t something I do on any sort of a regular basis. I just have a lot of thoughts in my head that I want to share. Sometimes I just write to make people laugh, like with these dirty poems.  But sometimes writing also helps me to sort out thoughts on my mind, and sometimes other people’s reactions to my writing help me see a different perspective on the situations that inspired me to write. Obviously, I still write today, because you’re reading this right now.  So feel free to leave comments and help me see the memories of my past from a different perspective.

(Author’s note:  Again, these are all real poems that I actually wrote in 1995.  Most of the other dirty limericks I found from that time involved inside jokes that were too much to explain now.  I don’t even remember some of those inside jokes.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Studying for math.”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be fine.  And you will too.”

“I hope so.”

 

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

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

“Tickets for what?” Aaron asked.

“The Live concert.”

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

“Live,” Caroline said.

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

“They’re going to see the band Live.”

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

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

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

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

“Maybe.”

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

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

“Same for me,” Aaron said.

“I need to go study,” I said.

“I should too,” Caroline replied.

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

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

 

Dear Greg,

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing over break?”

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

“Does your family do anything special for Christmas?”

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

“Interesting.  Are you guys trivia buffs?”

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

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

“That’ll be nice.”

“When do you leave?”

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

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

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

“Open just a little.”

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

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

“You got 99 percent on the calculus final.”

“But… how do you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not bad.”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You too!”

 

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

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

October 21, 1994.  Good things come in threes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“90.”

“That’s not bad.”

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

“Good luck!”

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

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

“Sure!” she said.

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

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

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

“You too.”

“How’d you do on the midterm?”

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

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

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

“What’s your major?” I asked Andrea.

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

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

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

“Makes sense.”

“What’s your major?”

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

“What about engineering?  Are you considering that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Which building are you in here?”

“C.”

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

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

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

“Yeah.  Have a great weekend!”

“You too!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  Have a good dinner.”

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

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

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

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

“I guess that’s just how I am.”

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