A few months before every Olympic Games, the Olympic torch is lit by the sun on Mount Olympus in Greece and brought across Greece and the country hosting the Games that year. In 1996, the upcoming Summer Olympics would be held in Atlanta, on the opposite side of the United States from Jeromeville. The torch would travel across the United States by way of a relay. Thousands of people would carry the torch for a short distance, then pass it to someone else, with crowds of onlookers watching as the torch made its way across their parts of the country.
On the day before the torch passed through Jeromeville, I sat alone at a table at the Memorial Union, eating a burrito and doing the crossword puzzle in the Daily Colt. I had work to do, I had a combinatorics midterm coming up in a few days, but I was not in the mood to do work, given everything on my mind. I had been looking for a house for next year, with no luck so far, and I was starting to worry about this. (This was before I talked to Shawn about looking for an apartment instead.)
I walked into combinatorics class about five minutes before it was scheduled to start; this was the last class before the midterm. I was a quarter ahead in math entering the University of Jeromeville, so I did not take freshman calculus in large lecture halls with people who were taking math on schedule. Because of that, this combinatorics class, with about eighty people, was the largest math class I had taken at UJ so far. I looked around the room and saw Andrea Briggs, who had been in a few classes with me before and lived in the dorm next to mine last year. She sat next to an open seat, so I walked up to it and asked, “May I sit here?”
“Sure,” Andrea replied.
“How are you?”
“I’m great!” she said. “Jay came to visit this weekend, and he proposed!” Andrea held up her left hand, with the third finger now bearing a diamond ring.
“Congratulations!” I said awkwardly. Was that the right thing to say in response to this? I was not sure. As far as I knew, she was the first of my friends to get engaged. This was a completely new experience to me.
“What about you?” she asked. “How are you?”
“My week hasn’t been nearly as exciting. I had a quiz in my other math class this morning.”
“Which class? How’d you do?”
“167, with Dr. Ionescu. I’m getting an A in that class, but I feel like I’m not learning anything. Most of what we’re doing is just review from 22A. And the entire grade is based on surprise quizzes every three or four classes, so there’s no reason to remember anything.”
“Yeah, that’s weird. But at least you’re getting an A.”
Gabby, the combinatorics professor, began lecturing about generating functions for recurrence relations, so I stopped talking and began taking notes. Dr. Gabrielle Thomas was my favorite math professor at UJ so far. She was fairly young, I would guess in her thirties; she spoke English clearly; and she told us to call her Gabby, which seemed refreshingly informal to me. That made her feel more like a human being, whom I could relate to, compared to many of my other professors.
I tried to focus on what Gabby was saying, because of the upcoming midterm. I still had not mastered recurrence relations, but I thought I would probably do fine once I took the time to study and practice the material. However, I had a hard time concentrating today. I kept wanting to sneak glances at Andrea’s left hand, not because of any particular curiosity about what her ring looked like, but because she had one in the first place. I was over Andrea as a possible love interest; I found out over a year ago that she had a boyfriend. But it just felt weird, and discouraging, that I was at the age when my friends would be getting married. Andrea would soon be committing herself to one man for life, probably starting a family with him after she finished school, and I had still never kissed a girl.
After class, as I headed back to the Memorial Union where my bicycle was parked, I saw Danielle Coronado and Claire Seaver from church sitting at a table talking. Danielle was one of the first friends I made at UJ; she lived down the hall from me in my dorm last year. “Hey,” I said as I approached them.
“Greg!” Danielle said, smiling and waving.
“Hey, Greg,” Claire said. “Have you started your project yet?”
“Which math class do you two have together?” Danielle asked me.
“Anthro 2,” I explained. “Not math.” Danielle’s assumption was warranted, however, because Claire was a music major with a minor in mathematics.
“That’s right, anthro,” Danielle said. “With that professor who did a class for the IHP last year.”
“Yes. Dick Small.” I still found that name hilarious, because of my extensive background in dirty jokes. “I’m going to observe and write about the IRC channel FriendlyChat,” I continued.
“Is that that thing where you talk to strangers on the computer?”
“Yeah. Internet Relay Chat. I was in FriendlyChat earlier today, and there’s some kind of complicated leadership structure with who gets to be a channel operator, and all these rules that they get mad at you for not knowing. And when I kept announcing that I was doing an anthro project, as the ethics of anthropology require, some of them got mad at me for spamming. So I’m off to a frustrating start.”
“Well, hopefully you’ll figure out a way to get your project done.”
“I hope so. I’m just stressed about a lot of things.”
“Sounds like it.”
“I want to go see the torch tomorrow, though,” I said.
“Oh yeah! When is that supposed to be?”
“It’ll be passing along Fifth Street between 1 and 2.”
“I have class,” Danielle said, feeling slightly disappointed. “But have fun!”
“I will! I’m going to head home now, but I’ll see you guys soon.”
“Bye, Greg,” Claire said.
“Bye,” Danielle added, waving.
I waved at the girls as I walked to my bicycle and went home. I was riding a little more slowly than usual. I felt weighed down by my upcoming midterm, the anthro project, looking for a house, and my fear of being left behind now that people I knew were getting married.
I had most of the next day free. After I finished my one class, I planned to stay on campus and get work done until around noon, eat lunch, then go find a place to watch the Olympic torch. I walked into the Memorial Union after class and looked for a table. I saw Sarah Winters, whom I knew both from the dorm last year and from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, sitting by herself at a table, reading, with a notebook and textbook open. I walked to her table and asked, “May I sit here?”
“Yeah!” Sarah said. “How are you?”
“I’m stressed,” I said.
“What’s going on?”
“I’ve been trying to find a house for us next year, I’ve looked at a bunch of places, and I haven’t heard anything back yet. And I have a big midterm for Math 145 tomorrow. And I’m frustrated in general with Applied Linear Algebra, Math 167. That class is a waste of time, and I’m not learning anything.” Sarah began writing something as I continued speaking. “And I just found out that someone I know, her boyfriend proposed. I’ve never even had a girlfriend, and now I have friends who are getting married.” As Sarah continued writing, I wondered if I was bothering her, if I should let her work on whatever she was doing. “And I have this big project for Anthro 2 that I need to work on, and what I wanted to do hasn’t been working out so far.” I stopped talking now, because Sarah was clearly busy with whatever she was working on. I got out my combinatorics textbook and began looking over the section that would be covered on the test tomorrow.
“This is for you,” Sarah said, as she placed the paper she had been writing on top of my textbook. I read what she wrote:
“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.”
I looked up and saw Sarah looking at me with a peaceful, contented smile on her face. “Thank you,” I said, attempting a smile in return.
“Everything’s gonna be just fine,” Sarah said. “Really.”
“I know,” I said. “But–”
“You’ll be okay.”
I took a deep breath. “I’ll be okay.”
We sat there for the rest of the hour studying, occasionally making small talk. “What are you doing the rest of the day?” Sarah asked at one point.
“I’m done with classes for the day. But I’m gonna go see the torch.”
“Fun! I can’t. I’ll be in class during that time.”
I looked again at the note that Sarah wrote. God had a plan for me. My grades, my house for next year, my future wife, all of this was in God’s hands. Trust God. The second verse, from Proverbs, was a little bit familiar to me already, because there was a song we sang at Bible study sometimes based on that verse. I had made a decision that I was living my life for Jesus, and now it was time to trust him to make this all work out somehow.
Sarah left to go to class a bit later. As I continued studying combinatorics, I really did begin to feel better about tomorrow’s midterm. At noon, I got out the sandwich I had packed that morning, and when I finished that, I headed toward Fifth Street at the northern edge of campus. Crowds waiting to see the torch were already beginning to line the street. I found a spot next to an aged olive tree and leaned against the tree, waiting. I had my backpack with me, so I continued studying combinatorics while I waited for the torch to arrive.
After I had been waiting for about forty minutes, I saw police cars approaching slowly, stopping drivers and pedestrians from entering or crossing Fifth Street. This must be it. Behind the police cars were a number of official vehicles with US and Olympic flags; a truck from Coca-Cola, the event’s sponsor; and finally someone wearing running shorts holding the Olympic torch. I did not know if the torchbearer was someone famous or not.
I looked up at the torch in wonder. That flame was ignited on the other side of the world and brought all the way here, continuously burning. That felt kind of surreal. This was a symbol of one of the biggest athletic events on Earth. In two months, the world would be watching athletes from every inhabited continent competing for Olympic glory, and this same flame would burn over the shiny new stadium that Atlanta had just finished building for these Games. People cheered at the moment that the torchbearer passed in front of them, and I joined in as he passed me.
A few minutes after the torch passed, when the entire entourage had moved beyond where I was standing, I turned around to go back to the Memorial Union, where my bicycle was parked. “Excuse me?” a man asked me. He had a fancy camera on a strap around his neck and a small Coca-Cola logo embroidered on his shirt on his chest to his left.
“Yes?” I asked.
“Can I get a picture of you holding this?” The man handed me a full, unopened Coca-Cola plastic bottle.
I was confused. “Why me?” I asked.
“No reason. I’m just looking for people to photograph with Coke bottles, for our promotional materials.”
“Okay,” I said. I smiled at the camera, holding the drink up, as he clicked the shutter a few times.
“Thank you!” the photographer said. “You can keep the Coke.”
I walked back toward my bike as I drank my free Coca-Cola. To this day, I never saw my picture in any Coca-Cola advertisements, so I do not know if they ever ended up doing anything with the picture. But I got a free drink out of it.
When I got home that afternoon, I turned on the computer and connected to the campus Internet, listening to the whirs and clicks of the modem dialing the access number. I opened a text terminal and connected to Internet Relay Chat, then entered the FriendlyChat channel using my usual screen name, “gjd76.” About a minute after I joined, I copied and pasted the same message I copied and pasted every fifteen minutes while I was working on this: “I am working on a project for an anthropology class, making observations of the culture in this channel. I will not use your actual names or actual screen names.”
“gjd76, u might not wanna tell us that, people might act different if they know ur studying them,” one person typed.
“true, but my professor says it’s unethical not to tell people they’re being studied,” I replied.
“Let me know if I can answer any questions for you,” one of the channel operators said.
“i will,” I typed back. So far, this was going much better than yesterday; people were actually being helpful.
As I reached for my notebook in my backpack, I found the note that Sarah had written to me, with the Bible verses on it. I read it again. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Good advice. I took two push pins and attached Sarah’s note to the bulletin board above my desk. That way it could be a reminder for me while I was sitting here at the computer; I could look up and see those Scriptures.
I spent about an hour and a half in the FriendlyChat channel, and this time I was able to make much more meaningful observations and have more meaningful interactions with the people in the chat than I had yesterday. If I had a few more days like this, I would have plenty of material to use to write my paper. I also felt much better about my midterm for combinatorics, after having studied today. I had still not heard from any of the houses I was looking for, but the more I thought about this, I decided I would talk to my roommates for next year and find out if they would be willing to look for an apartment instead. They were fine with living in an apartment, and we did end up getting one, as I told before. And while I was still discouraged with my own lack of romantic relationship in light of Andrea being engaged, the Lord had a plan for her that was not his plan for me, and I was not ready to begin thinking about marriage with anyone right now. I was better off trusting in His timing.
I would learn later in life that the quote from Jeremiah is often derided as one of the Bible verses most frequently taken out of context. Reading the chapters around it reveals that God declared those words to a specific group of people at a specific time, not to everyone reading them throughout all of history. However, statements like that reveal the character of God, and although Jeremiah was not writing to me, the God who had a plan for his people thousands of years ago did also have a plan for me in 1996. The precise concept of “prosper” may not have involved material wealth in my case, but I just had to trust that God knew what was best for me. Those two verses became ones that I have known from memory ever since.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding,” I began singing under my breath. I liked that song, the one I had heard at Bible study before. I did not know any of this at the time, but the original vocalist of that song was the same age as me, and still a teenager when the song was recorded. The guitarist, who actually wrote the song, was not much older. The two of them and their band would go on to have a major pop hit a few years later, which would confuse me a little in a time when I tended to draw very strict lines between Christian and secular music. But that is a story for another time.