December 4, 1995. A silly new shirt and the best day of bowling class.

In early 1993, when I was in high school, a new television show took the world by storm… at least it took the teenage boy world by storm.  Beavis and Butthead was a cartoon on MTV about two not-so-bright high school boys.  The show featured the boys failing miserably while trying to act cool or meet girls, with clips in between of the boys delivering pointed commentary on some of the weirdest music videos ever made.  The usual public voices complaining about the lack of morals and virtue in entertainment were all up in arms about this show.  I, however, enjoyed it for the brilliant satire it was, and I also laughed at the dumb jokes about poop, sex, and private parts.  At the beginning of my senior year of high school, my friends talked me into playing Butthead in a school skit.  It was the first time I had ever performed in front of a crowd that size, and it felt so freeing.  I did not have cable at my apartment in Jeromeville, but I still watched Beavis and Butthead sometimes when I was at my parents’ house.

On the last day of Monday classes  of fall quarter of my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, a week before finals started, I got out of the shower and got dressed. The previous Saturday afternoon, I received an unexpected package in the mail from my mother, something soft in a large envelope.  Inside was white folded fabric, with a note saying, “I saw this at the mall the other day and thought you would like it.  Love, Mom.”  I unfolded the fabric; it was a T-shirt, with a picture of Beavis with his shirt pulled over his head, his arms bent upward at right angles, and a crazed look in his eyes.  I AM THE GREAT CORNHOLIO! was printed at the bottom in the usual Beavis and Butthead font.  A recurring plot line on Beavis and Butthead involved Beavis consuming too much sugar or caffeine and transforming into his alter ego The Great Cornholio. He would then go on incoherent rants about bungholes and Lake Titicaca while responding to others with “Are you threatening me?”

I wore the shirt for the first time that morning, although I put on a jacket over it before I left the apartment.  I could see blue sky behind the clouds outside, but it was too cold at 8:25 in the morning for one layer, and it would probably not warm up much today.  I started to walk outside to catch the bus, but then, remembering something I had to do later that day, I walked back inside and grabbed a postage stamp from my desk, putting it in the front pocket of my backpack where it would not get lost.

I walked to the bus stop across the street on Alvarez Avenue.  A large crowd was standing there; I had a bad feeling I would not get a seat on the bus.  When I boarded the bus, I stood with one hand grabbing the rail at the top, almost falling over once when the bus made a sudden stop later.

About halfway through my first class, math, I took off my jacket, appearing in public with the Great Cornholio shirt for the first time.  As class was leaving, Jack Chalmers made eye contact and pointed at my chest.  “Nice shirt,” he said.

“Thanks.

“That show’s funny.  It’s so dumb.”

“I know,” I replied.  I told him about the time I played Butthead in high school.

“That’s great.  That must have been fun.”

“It was!”

Bowling class was right after math on Mondays and Wednesdays.  I left Wellington Hall and walked to the far side of the Memorial Union building to the bowling alley in the basement.  I did not know anyone from my bowling class well, and none of them said anything about the shirt when I took my jacket off.

Frank, the instructor, got our attention a few minutes later.  He had told us at the beginning of the quarter to just call him Frank, but it still felt strange to me.  He was an instructor, I felt like I should have called him Dr. White… but can you even get a Ph.D. in bowling?  Maybe Mr. White.  But he said to call him Frank, so I would call him Frank if that was what he wanted.  “We have two classes left,” Frank said, “and there is no final for this class.  So we’re just going to bowl, like we did last week.  Get in groups of four to a lane, and use what you learned.  But I added something special for you today.  I put a few red pins in with the regular white pins, and if the head pin is red and you bowl a strike, you get a coupon that you can exchange here for a free game in the future.  If all three pins in front are red, and you bowl a strike, everyone in the class gets a free game.”

I could hear a few students audibly excited about the prospect of winning free games.  I was frustrated at the beginning of the quarter, as I had had to unlearn all of the wrong ways I had bowled in the past, but I thought I was getting used to some of the techniques we had learned from Frank.  I found a ball that fit me and brought it to lane 9, which was not yet full.  On my first frame, I hit four pins with my first roll and two with my second… maybe I had not learned as much as I had hoped.

About three frames in, I heard Frank call out, “Red pin over here!” I looked, and someone on another lane had a red pin in the front.  If she bowled a strike, she would win a free game.  I watched as her ball rolled wide of the head pin.

Every couple minutes, I could hear someone getting Frank’s attention when a red pin showed up in the front of the lane, and two bowlers had won free games by the time a red pin was placed in the front of my lane.  It was not my turn when it happened, though, and the student on my lane missed the strike.

I did get one strike and a few spares in that first game, and I finished with a score of 109, about average for me.  I bowled a second game and scored 102.  It appeared I would have time for one more, but my arm was getting sore at this point, as often happened after I finished two games.

The reason I found it difficult to control the ball the way Frank taught was the same as the reason my arm was sore: the ball was heavy.  Frank said at the beginning of the quarter that the ball should be one-tenth of my body weight.  But I was a pretty big guy, and one-tenth of my body weight was around 22 pounds.  The heaviest bowling balls were 16 pounds, and I could not control a 16-pound ball well.  I thought a lighter ball might be better for me, but most of the lighter balls had finger holes too small.  My right thumb naturally has a wide spot that requires an unusually large thumb hole.  I found a 14-pound ball that just barely fit my thumb and brought it back to my lane.  I was not sure if I would get in trouble for using a lighter ball, but the rule about one-tenth of my body weight did not seem to be an official rule of bowling.

Switching to a lighter ball paid off.  I bowled a spare and a strike in the first two frames of the next game.  At the start of the third frame, a red pin appeared in the head position for the first bowler on my lane; his roll went just about an inch wide of the head pin.

“Nice try,” I said to him.  “You’ll get it next time.”

“Thanks,” he replied.  “You’re off to a good start.”

“Thank you.  I hope I can keep it up.”  When my turn came, though, I hit five pins on my first roll and three on my second.  In bowling, a strike or spare is scored as 10 pins, but for a spare, the total of the next roll is added to the score for the spare frame.  For a strike, the next two rolls are added to the strike frame.  So my strike in the second frame was scored twice, as a bonus of 10 added to my first frame spare, and as my score in the second frame when I actually rolled the strike.  Because I got a strike, the score for the second frame would include an additional bonus equal to whatever my next two rolls hit.  The result of this scoring system is that these boni add up quickly with consecutive strikes, or with spares followed by strikes.  After three frames, my score was 46.  That was not a bad score for me for three frames, but I had cooled off after my good start.

It did not take me long to heat up again.  I got another spare in the fourth frame, and consecutive strikes in the fifth and sixth.  I was not the only one heating up in the bowling alley; by the time I rolled my consecutive strikes, three more students had won free games with red pin strikes.  When I stepped up to the lane for my turn in the seventh frame, I let the fan blow on my hand for a few seconds, as I always did, while the pinsetter machine swept away the previous bowler’s pins and placed new ones for me.  I grabbed my ball, looked up at the end of the lane, and gasped.

There they were.

Three red pins in the front.

“Frank,” I called out, waving my hand to get my instructor’s attention in the noisy bowling alley.  A few seconds later, he looked up, saw me waving, and then looked at my pins.

“Three red pins over here on lane 9!” Frank called out.  “Free game for everyone if he gets a strike!”  The students who were getting ready to take their turns stopped and put their balls down, all so they could watch me.  I noticed that Frank did not call me by name, probably because he did not know my name.  In a class like this, Frank and I had not had much one-on-one interaction of the type where I had to say my name.

I put my hand in front of the fan for another few seconds, to dry the sweat that had started to accumulate from the pressure of free games for the entire class riding on this one roll.  Everyone was watching me, in my Beavis and Butthead shirt.  I did not want to let everyone down.  I had bowled two strikes in a row; why not just do the same thing I had been doing?

I took a deep breath.  I positioned my feet where I had been positioning them all day.  I lined up my arm where I had been lining it up, a little bit to the left of where Frank had taught us, because doing it my way had been working better for me all quarter.  I brought the ball behind me above my head and began approaching the lane, as I swung the ball down, releasing it and stopping my forward movement before my feet crossed the line.  The ball went sliding and spinning down the lane, headed straight for the cluster of red pins in the front.

CRASH.

As I heard my ball loudly knocking down pins, I watched all ten pins tumble to the lane.  The entire class erupted into applause.  I pumped both fists into the air as I turned around.  The others on my lane all high-fived me as I walked back to my seat.

“Free game for everyone!” Frank announced.  “I’ll give you your coupons as you leave class today.”

That would be the last strike I would bowl that day.  On the eighth frame, I hit seven pins with my first roll and two with the second.  Since I did not bowl a strike or spare, no bonus from the next frame would be added, and I could calculate my score so far: 151.  That was already my second highest bowling score ever, in my life, and I still had two frames to go.  I bowled a spare in the ninth frame and began the tenth frame with a 7-10 split, leaving only the two pins in the far corners.  It was almost impossible to hit both of those pins with one roll.  I knocked over one of the two pins on my second roll, for a final score of 178, my best game ever.

Frank stood at the base of the stairway leading outside as we left class a few minutes after I finished my third game.  “Good job,” he said as he handed me the coupon.

“Thank you,” I replied. “That was my best game ever.”

“Good for you!”

I had an hour until my next class.  The campus store was right next to the stairway to the bowling alley, and I had an errand to run there.  I walked to the greeting cards and looked through birthday cards, trying to find something simple.  This card was for someone with a very different sense of humor from mine, someone who did not appreciate the kind of sex- and poop-based humor that I had come to associate with birthday cards.  I found one with a drawing of a cake that simply said “Happy birthday!” at the top and “Enjoy your special day!” inside.  I paid for the card and took it to the Coffee House at the other end of the building, looking for a table with an empty seat.  I did not find one, this was a busy time of day, so I sat on the floor against the wall.  I took out my binder to use as a hard surface to write on and filled out the inside of the card.

Dear Grandma,

Happy 75th!  I hope you have a great day!  I just got out of bowling class, and I bowled 178, my best game ever.  Finals start in a week; I think I’ll do okay with these classes.  I’ll be home for Christmas soon.  See you then!

Love,
Greg

I licked the stamp I had brought with me and placed it on the envelope.  I wrote my return address in the corner and Grandma’s address in Gabilan in the center of the envelope.  I put it in my backpack and got out my math book, doing homework for about 45 minutes until it was time to go to chemistry class.  When I finally stood up, my foot was asleep from having sat cross-legged for so long.  I shook my leg, trying to get the blood flowing, and began awkwardly walking toward the mailbox, having to stop and lean against the wall after a minute as my foot became numb again.  After the feeling returned a minute or so later, I continued walking, dropping Grandma’s birthday card in the mailbox.  Next, I walked diagonally across the Quad in the general direction of chemistry class in Stone Hall.

I looked up and saw Liz Williams, my friend whom I knew from my floor in the dorm last year and also from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, approaching.  I saw her look up, and I smiled and waved.  “Hi,” I said, as Liz pointed toward my chest and began laughing.  I looked down to see what she was pointing at.  The shirt.  Beavis.  Of course.

“Oh my gosh, that shirt,” Liz said, chuckling.  “Where’d you get that?”

“I just randomly got a package from my mom the other day.  This was in it.”

“Your mom gave you that?  That’s hilarious!”

“I don’t have cable now, but my brother and I used to watch that show all the time.  And senior year of high school, I played Butthead in a class skit.”

“You?  No way!”

“It felt great, to finally be able to get up in front of a crowd and do something silly.”

“That’s awesome!  I just can’t picture you doing that.”

“That’s why it was so much fun!  How’s your day going?”

“Pretty well, except I have a paper due tomorrow that I still need to write.”

“Good luck with that.”

“How are you?”

“I’m having a great day!  I had bowling class this morning, and I bowled the best game of my life.  There were some red bonus pins, so if we got a strike when the bonus pin appeared in front, we got free games.  I won free games for the whole class!”

“That’s great!  I need to get to class, but hey, I’ll see you soon?”

“Definitely!”

I was in a great mood for the rest of the day, all through chemistry and physics classes and the two groups I tutored in the afternoon.  It was my last full Monday of the quarter, my last full Monday of 1995, and my winter break was in sight.  Only three of my classes actually had finals, and math, chemistry, and physics all were typically pretty easy for me.  And after coming through and winning a free game for my entire bowling class, I felt like a hero.

After the bowling class ended, I never really bowled on a regular basis again.  For much of my young adult years, it was something I would do socially every couple months or so.  I used the free game coupon later that school year when some people at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship invited me to go bowling with them afterward.  By the time I reached my 40s, bowling had become something I do very rarely.  I have no specific reason for not bowling anymore; I would enjoy it if I did.  I just don’t make time for bowling, and I don’t hang out with people who bowl much.  That game of 178 is today the third-best game I have ever bowled.  My two games that were higher than that also happened during my UJ years, stories for another time. 

The night after I bowled 178 was uneventful, in a good way.  I went home and studied and did homework for most of the time.  I got a lot of work done, and I went to bed happy and satisfied with how my day went.  As Beavis and Butthead would say, this rules.  Huh-huh.

Mid-June 1995.  The worst finals schedule ever and the last great adventure of freshman year.

Every college town is known for little hole-in-the-wall restaurants popular with students.  Jeromeville had one called Redrum, but during the time I was there, it was called Murder Burger.  The sign said their burgers were “so good, they’re to die for.” Murder Burger was just off Cornell Boulevard and Highway 100, across the train tracks from downtown.  It was a greasy little nondescript building without enough seating, which meant the food had to be really good. Toward the end of the time I lived in Jeromeville, around 2001 or so, someone complained about the violent connotation of the name, and after taking suggestions from customers, the owners changed the name to “Redrum,” the nonsense word popularized in the book and movie The Shining which is actually “murder” spelled backward.

The last great adventure of my freshman year at the University of Jeromeville took place at Murder Burger.  But before that happened, I had to get through the worst finals schedule ever. Finals week at UJ required six days, so there would always be one Saturday at the end of every quarter when some finals were held.  And because of a quirk in the calendar, there was no dead time this quarter, no day to study without classes. My last class for Physics 9A was Friday at 11:00, and the final was less than 24 hours later, Saturday at 8:00.

On the last day of physics class, the instructor, Dr. Collins, was about a day behind where he had wanted to be.  It seemed like he was going quickly through everything he had not had time for earlier in the quarter. I kept thinking, what if the entire final is about this stuff that he had not adequately prepared us for?  But I kept reminding myself that I had 20 hours to do nothing but study physics. Hopefully I would sleep for part of that time, though; I was going to study my butt off for this final, but I was not planning to pull an all-nighter.

“Remember, the final is tomorrow at 8:00,” Dr. Collins said as his time ran out.  Then, gesturing toward the back of the lecture hall where two graduate students stood with stacks of paper, he said, “The TAs here will be passing out instructor evaluations.  Please leave them in the box in the lobby as you leave.”

Dr. Collins walked through the door behind the front of the lecture hall as I received my evaluation form.  This had been a new concept to me when I started at UJ, giving instructors feedback at the end of the quarter.  I gave Dr. Collins mostly positive ratings, but I did mention the section from early in the year when he did not follow the book.  He asked a question about this on the midterm that I did poorly on, and since his teaching did not follow the book, I had no idea what to do.

As I had planned to, I spent the entire afternoon studying physics.  I went through every problem set at the end of every chapter, making sure I knew how to do all the important things.  I reread all the formulas and made sure I knew them from memory, including what all the letters stood for. I reread vocabulary, making sure I knew the definition of force and torque and momentum and energy.  I did every problem from both midterms again.

Later that night, as I was attempting to reread my notes, I discovered that they took a long time to reread, mostly because of my messy handwriting.  I turned on the computer and, after a quick break to check email, I began retyping my notes. This took longer than simply rereading, even with the messy handwriting, but it seemed to help since I had to think more about what I was reading and typing.  Then, if I had time to reread it all again, it would be easier to read since it would no longer be in my messy handwriting.

When Saturday morning came, I still felt uneasy about the exam.  I rode my bike from Building C to Ross Hall, already wearing shorts at 7:45 in the morning because it was warm and would probably only get hotter.  I sat near the aisle on the left side of the lecture hall (my left, the instructor’s right). As the rest of the class arrived, I nervously reread the notes I had retyped and printed the night before, trying to glean one last bit of information in the few minutes that remained.

When the time came, Dr. Collins and his teacher assistants passed out the exam paper.  I looked over it and read all of the questions first. As I read each successive question, my state of mind went from worried to calm to excited.  This was easy. I had studied in detail every single thing that was being asked on this test, and I knew how to do every problem. I began working, writing, typing on my calculator, sketching diagrams of forces acting on objects.  When I finished, I double-checked all the answers. I redid all of my calculator work. And I turned in my paper and walked out of 66 Ross with almost half of the allotted two hours remaining.

The finals for Chemistry 2B and Psychology and the Law were both on Monday.  My next two days looked much as the previous one had. I spent most of my time studying.  I reread and retyped notes, just as I had done for physics. I redid chemistry problems, calculating theoretical yields of chemical reactions and molarity of solutions.  For Psych-Law, the test would include both a multiple choice section and an essay. Dr. Kemp had given us a choice of three topics so that we could prepare in advance, but the essay itself had to be handwritten on the day of the final.  I made outlines for my chosen topic, so that I would be able to remember what I wanted to write about.

 

Dr. Kemp was the instructor for Psychology and the Law, or as the class was formally called, Integrated Honors Program 8B.  It was a class open only to students in the IHP, one of three that we had to choose from each quarter which counted as general education requirements.  Dr. Kemp was a gray-haired man in his 50s who wore a dress shirt and tie most days, not exactly someone I expected to have much of a sense of humor. He proved me wrong on the day of the final, when he announced, “I put some funny choices on the multiple choice part of the test.”

I began working on the test, wondering exactly what he meant by this.  The fifth question said this:

5)   The McNaughton Rule applies to criminal cases featuring which of the following:
A.
Expert witnesses
B.
A plea of not guilty by reason of insanity
C.
Repressed memories
D.
A hung jury
E.
Aliens

I tried not to chuckle too loudly when I read “Aliens.”  This was a test, after all.

A few minutes later, Dan Woodward quietly asked Dr. Kemp a question.  Dr. Kemp looked at the test again, appeared to think for a minute, and then announced to the class, “Don’t mark the funny choice for your answer.”  People softly laughed. I assumed that one of the questions had been worded in a misleading way so as to make the funny choice a possibly correct answer.  I found the item in question at the bottom of the page I was on:

14)   Which of the following IS NOT one of the Miranda rights?
A. R
ight to remain silent
B.
Right to consult a lawyer
C.
Right to bear arms
D.
Right to a lawyer present during questioning
E.
Right to eat donuts during the trial

I was right.  Technically, according to the question, both choices C and E were correct.  Dr. Kemp had probably needed another option, and had just made up something funny without realizing that it did not fit the wording of the question.

The rest of the multiple choice test was fairly straightforward.  I thought I did okay on the essay section as well, even though I hated essay tests, but this time I had time to prepare.  I remembered all the main points I had written on my outline the night before. I submitted my test at 9:50, toward the end of the two hour time slot.

The chemistry final was at 4:00 that afternoon, so I spent the rest of the afternoon studying for that.  I felt confident about that one, though, and it seemed easy while I was taking it. I got back to the South Residential Area just in time for dinner, relieved that this nightmare of three challenging finals at the beginning of finals week was over.  It was a good feeling, and I was just going to relax for the rest of the night, chatting on IRC, reading my usual Usenet groups, and playing Tetris and SimCity 2000.

 

Tuesday and Wednesday were among the best days I had all quarter.  I went on long bike rides both days, through the Greenbelts in north Jeromeville on Tuesday and through the Arboretum and the rural part of campus across from Highway 117 on Wednesday.  I spent several hours chatting on IRC and made a new friend, a 19-year-old girl from Missouri named Stacey with blue eyes and a nice butt (at least that’s what she said about herself). I took naps.  I organized my desk drawers and my clothes, so that packing on Friday would be easier. And, since I still had a math final coming up, I spent a few hours Wednesday evening studying.

I also spent most of Thursday morning studying for math, with a break in between to email Stacey.  I probably had not needed to study that much, though, because I had no trouble with the math final.  But as with all exams, there was a lingering feeling in the back of my mind that I did poorly and did not realize it.  This feeling had been stronger in my mind for every exam since I failed the first physics midterm in April, although that time I knew I had done poorly before the exam was even over.

I spent most of Friday cleaning and packing.  My things were organized enough that packing did not take long.  The problem was that I did not have many boxes. I still had the two boxes my computer and monitor came in; I had been using them as a makeshift table.  Instead of putting the computer and monitor back in the boxes, though, I put clothes in the boxes. I carried the boxes of clothes out to the car.

Next, I walked down to the Help Window and asked to borrow a socket wrench and screwdriver, so I could disassemble the bed loft and return the extra pieces.  I checked my email one last time (Stacey had not written back yet; for that matter, we only stayed in touch for about a week total), then I disconnected all the cables and took the computer and monitor to the car, in two separate trips, leaving them without boxes since I was using the boxes for clothes.  I wrapped the computer and monitor in the blanket and sheets from my bed; students purchased these from the Department of Student Housing and kept them at the end of the year. I used these sheets and blanket for the rest of the time I lived in Jeromeville, and today they are on the guest bed at my house.

When I got back to the room, it was finally beginning to sink in that this was my last day in Building C, and my last day in Jeromeville for this school year.  Everyone had to be out of the dorms by noon tomorrow, but I was finished with finals and had no reason to stay. I had called Mom yesterday and said I would be home sometime tonight, although I did not say when because I did not know.

By late afternoon, I had finished carrying everything out to the car.  I was sweeping the room with a borrowed broom, with the door open, when Liz walked by.  “Hey, Greg?” she said, peeking her head in the door.

I stopped sweeping for a minute.  “Yeah?” I replied.

“A bunch of us are going to Murder Burger tonight, and then bowling.  Wanna come?”

“Definitely!” I said.  “Sounds like a great way to celebrate the last day of school.”

“Meet in the common room at 6.  We’re gonna walk. It’s not that far.”

“I’ll see you then!  Sounds good!”

 

By the time we left for Murder Burger, I had turned in my keys.  I had no way back into Room 221, although I could still get into the building with the magnetic stripe on my registration card.  This was not just a small group of friends heading out to dinner; this was a massive caravan of almost half of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program.  Liz and Ramon, Taylor, Pete, Charlie, and Jason. Sarah, Krista, Caroline, Danielle, and Theresa. Pat and Karen, and Pat’s twin brother who lived in the North Residential Area.  Mike Adams and his roommate Ian. Gina Stalteri, Derek Olvera, Stephanie, and Schuyler. David, Keith, Mike Potts, Yu Cheng. Jonathan, Spencer, Jenn from the first floor, Cathy, and Phuong.  Skeeter and Bok. Rebekah and Tracey. And I probably forgot a few others.

We walked the same route I usually took to get to chemistry class in 199 Stone.  From there, we continued walking east on Davis Drive to the edge of campus at Old Jeromeville Road.  We turned left and took the next right, First Street, walking four blocks along a vacant lot lined with old olive trees, across the street from a few fraternity houses and small hotels.  We turned right on Cornell Boulevard and walked under the railroad tracks; Murder Burger was just on the other side, about a mile and a quarter from Building C.

“How’d you do on finals?” Taylor asked me as we were approaching Murder Burger.

“I think I did pretty well, actually,” I replied.  “What about you?”

“Uhh… I took finals.  I showed up.”

I chuckled.  “That bad, huh?”

“It wasn’t great.  Have you ever been to Murder Burger?”

“No,” I said.  “I’ve driven past it many times, though.”

“I’ve been here once.  The burgers are really good.”

We did not all fit inside the building.  We made a long line extending out the door.  I started thinking about what I wanted as soon as I got close enough to see the menu.  I pointed to the part of the menu saying that they could add flavors to drinks for a small additional charge.

“Vanilla Coke?  Chocolate Coke? Orange Coke?”  I asked rhetorically. “What is that?”

“Flavored Coke is so good!” Sarah said from behind me in line.  “There’s a place back home that has vanilla Coke. I love it!”

When it was finally my turn to order, I asked for a double cheeseburger with just ketchup, mayonnaise, lettuce, and cheese; a large French fry; and a vanilla Coke.  I wanted to see if this was really as good as Sarah said it was. (Of course, now most grocery stores around here sell Vanilla Coke pre-made in cans, but this option did not exist in 1995.)  The cashier gave me a stub with a number printed on it. I looked around for a place to sit. The kitchen was behind the cash registers, with the dining room to the right.

“We’ll be outside with Liz and Ramon,” Sarah told me as I started to walk away.  “Come sit with us.”

“Okay,” I said.  I walked out the back of the dining room, opening to a parking lot, and then back around to the opposite side of the building.  Liz and Ramon were sitting on a picnic bench, along with Taylor and Pete.

“Come sit with us,” Liz said.  “We saved you a seat.”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “This is so cool. One last time hanging out together.”

“Looking forward to summer?” Ramon asked.

“Yeah.  A friend of my mom’s works in a bookstore, and she got me a job there, so I’ll have a little bit of money coming in.”

“Are you going to see your high school friends this summer?” Sarah asked, arriving as I was talking to Ramon.

“I’m not sure.  I didn’t usually see my friends when I wasn’t in school.  And some of them haven’t stayed in touch.”

“Really.  That’s kinda sad.”

“I hope I get to see some of them, though.”

About fifteen minutes later, someone called my number over a speaker next to the outdoor seating area.  I got up and returned a minute later with my food, taking my first ever sip of vanilla Coke.

“You were right, Sarah,” I said as I swallowed.  “Vanilla Coke is good.”

“I know!  Isn’t it?”

After we finished eating, around eight o’clock, we cleaned up and walked back across the railroad track.  About half of the group walked back toward Building C while the others walked toward the bowling alley; I told them goodbye and said that I would see them next year.

The bowling alley is on campus, in a secluded room called the Memorial Union Games Area.  The part of the Memorial Union where the campus bookstore is located has a basement, with coin-operated video games, pinball machines, a pool table, and sixteen lanes of bowling.  From Redrum, we walked back down First Street, turned right on A Street, and then left across from Second Street through the path that had been the main entrance to campus when it was built 90 years ago.  I had been bowling once here earlier this year, with Liz and Ramon and Jason and Taylor and Danielle, all of whom were here tonight.

I bowled a strike on my first frame, and everyone on my lane (tonight it was Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Krista, and Charlie) cheered for me.  I smiled. But that would be the only strike I would bowl that game. I finished with a score of 96, third place out of the six of us.

“Do you want to play another game?” Taylor asked.

“Sure.  But I should go find a phone and call my mom to let her know when I’ll be home.  She’s probably worried about me.”

“You’re driving home tonight?  Doesn’t that mean you’ll get home really late?”

“Probably around midnight if we play one more game.  I can do that.”

“Okay.  Be safe.”

I found a pay phone and called home using my parents’ calling card number, so that they would be billed for the call.  Calling outside of your local geographical area was expensive using 1995 technology, but with this PIN number that my parents told me to use, I could call them from any phone and it would go to their bill.  “Hello?” Mom said, picking up on the third ring.

“Hi.  It’s me.”

“Where are you?”

“Still in Jeromeville.  A bunch of people went out to Murder Burger and then bowling.”

“Yummy!  That sounds fun!  So are you coming home in the morning instead?”

“I was still going to come tonight, after one more game of bowling.”

“So you won’t be home until really late.”

“Probably around midnight.  Is that a problem?”

“No.  Just call me again if anything changes.”

“Okay.  I’ll see you in a few hours.”

“Drive safe.  And have fun.”

“I will.  Thanks.”

I bowled much better the second game.  At one point, I had two strikes in a row.  When I went back up to the lane with my ball, Charlie said, “Come on, Greg!  You can do it!”

“No pressure,” Taylor added, laughing.

I carefully moved my hand back, then swung it forward, releasing the ball.  The ball appeared to be going right where it needed to for me to get a third strike, but one of the pins remained standing.  I hit the pin on my second roll for a spare, and I finished the game with a score of 127, one of the best games I had ever bowled at the time, and higher than anyone else on my lane.

“All right, guys,” I said after the second game.  “It’s time for me to go. I’m driving home tonight.”

“Drive safely!” Sarah said, giving me a hug.

“You too, Have a great summer, everyone.”

“Bye, dude,” Taylor said, shaking my hand.

I spent about five minutes saying goodbye to everyone, with handshakes and hugs for some of them.  I walked back to Building C alone, because some people seemed to want to bowl one more game, and they were all going home in the morning.  It was a little after nine o’clock. The sun sets late enough this time of year that there was still a slight dusky glow to the west. I had enjoyed tonight, I had enjoyed the entire year in Building C and the IHP, but there came a time for everything to end, and it was time for me to go home.  I was done with my freshman year.

I went back into Building C only to use the bathroom; I did not see anyone while I was there.  I walked across the street to the car, where my stuff was still packed, and began driving. I put on a tape I had made of Bush’s Sixteen Stone album as I headed south, smiling, thinking about the great night I had.

Murder Burger felt to me like a major landmark and institution in Jeromeville, but I really did not eat there that often.  That night at the end of my freshman year was the first of maybe no more than five times that I ever ate there. Despite this, I felt sad when I read in 2019 that Murder Burger, which by then was called Redrum Burger, was closing.  A college town like Jeromeville needs a greasy, locally-owned burger place, and because of changing demographics and a changing economy, Jeromevillians do not have such a place anymore. I thought about making the trip across the Drawbridge last summer when I heard that it would be Redrum’s last weekend in operation, but I had a lot to do at the time, and I had heard that long lines of customers who had heard the news were already wrapped around the building, so I ended up not making the trip.  I am not a big fan of crowds.

Some of the new friends I made freshman year I did not really see again after that year, or I saw them only occasionally around campus.  Others I stayed in touch with for a long time, and a few of them I have been in touch with continuously since 1994. I have been to six weddings of people I met during my freshman year at UJ, and two of those weddings were two people who were in the IHP with me marrying each other.  I was going to miss having a built in social group next year, but I had met enough people this year that I would probably be okay.

My freshman year at the University of Jeromeville had been life-changing.  I made so many new friends. I discovered the Internet. I discovered the joy of a good bike ride.  I was still getting straight As; I even got an A in physics after doing so poorly on that first midterm.  (Technically, I did get an A-minus in Rise and Fall of Empires fall quarter, and at UJ, an A-minus counted as a slightly lower grade than an A in terms of calculating grade point average, but I was still doing pretty well.)

Of course, not everything was perfect.  I spent a lot of nights sad and alone. I still had no girlfriend, but hopefully that would come soon.  I would not see these people for three months, but I had ways to stay in touch with the ones I wanted to stay in touch with, and in September I would be right back in Jeromeville to pick up where I left off.  Freshman year was pretty good overall, so hopefully sophomore year would be even better.

And, of course, as the case often is when looking back on the past, I can say that on that final day of freshman year, I never would have guessed what major life changes were coming my way sophomore year.

20190927 redrum 4
The old Redrum/Murder Burger building, now deserted, photographed in September 2019 about a month after the last business day.

 

June 6, 1995. New music for the difficult week approaching.

Back in 1995, before YouTube and Pandora and satellite radio and MP3 players, we had to buy music on CDs at music stores.  The biggest music store in Jeromeville at the time was Tower Records. Tower Records started in the 1960s in Capital City, just across the Drawbridge from here, and it eventually grew into a chain with locations all around the world.  The Jeromeville location of Tower Records, on G Street downtown, was a new one; it had only been open for six months. I had read in the local news that many downtown small business owners and local elected officials were angry at the opening of Tower Records.  They believed that a chain store had no place in their precious quirky little town, and that the City Council should take more action to ban chain stores. I thought that those people saying that were pretentious, and that it was not the place of a City Council to protect small businesses from competition, so I had no problem buying music at Tower.

New music was always released to stores on Tuesdays back then.  I had math at 9:00 on Tuesdays, and then a three hour break. On the last Tuesday before finals, I got on my bike after math class and headed straight for Tower Records.  It only took me about five minutes to get there. As I walked in, I saw a display for new releases in front of me. Half of the shelf was taken up by a CD case with strange abstract artwork on the cover.  In the center was something resembling an eyeball, but the pupil of the eye was a solar eclipse with a corona around it, and a planet overlapped the solar eclipse on the upper right side. Above the eye was a beach, partially covered with clouds; on the lower left, puddles of water scattered on dirt gradually metamorphosed into fish.  On the left spine of the custom-made CD case was a small blinking red light.

This was it.  This was what I had come for: Pink Floyd’s Pulse album, the live album from their tour last summer and fall (which would be the band’s final tour).

The album had been released a week earlier in the UK, so many of the British people from the Pink Floyd Usenet group had already been talking about it.  It was two and a half hours long, containing two full discs of live music. The first disc contained mostly well-known songs, as well as Astronomy Domine, an obscure song from their first album, which I had never heard.  The second disc contained every song from their legendary 1973 album Dark Side of the Moon performed live, in order, and an encore of three more of their biggest hits.

After I grabbed a copy of Pulse, I looked around the store to see if I saw any other music I felt like buying.  I also bought the album Sixteen Stone by a British grunge band called Bush.  I had heard a song from it on the radio, and also someone in my building had it (I don’t remember who) and I remember really liking some of the other songs on it.

I got home a little before eleven and spent the rest of the morning listening to Pulse.  I looked through the book that came inside the CD case several times; it contained photographs from the tour.  Several pages had an abstract symbol in white superimposed over a photograph of a member of the band or one of the additional touring musicians.  I noticed that some of the symbols and drawings resembled letters and figured out fairly quickly that the letters in question were the initials of the person photographed.

I logged on to the Pink Floyd Usenet group while I was listening.  A Usenet group is a text-based ancestor of today’s Internet forum, and Pink Floyd’s group had been relatively active since I discovered Usenet groups a year ago.  Someone with connections to the band had posted last summer, using the pseudonym “Publius” and an anonymous email address, claiming that the album The Division Bell had some kind of secret message and a reward for whomever decoded it.  With the recent release of Pulse, the discussion had picked up again.  I found the post where people had debated the meanings of those symbols and drawings, and someone had already pointed out the resemblance to band members’ initials.  I decided not to reply, since Usenet users sometimes looked down upon those who posted without having anything useful to contribute to the discussion.

I did not get to finish listening to Pulse in one sitting.  Right at the end of the song Eclipse on disc 2, the last song before the encore, I noticed that it was time to go to class.  When I got back from class later that afternoon, I turned the music back on. But a few minutes later, during the second verse of Comfortably Numb, my music was suddenly drowned out by a loud techno reggae cover of the Beatles’ Come Together, coming from outside the room.  I smiled, paused the CD, and walked out of room 221, down the hall toward room 222.

“Hey, Greg,” Ramon said when he saw me in the doorway.  “You like it?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Is it too loud?”

“It’s ok.  I’m not doing anything where I need it quiet, or anything.”

Liz Williams and Tara Nowell lived in room 222.  Ramon Quintero had been Liz’s boyfriend since the middle of fall quarter, and he spent so much more time in Liz’s room than he did in his own room that he had moved the sign with his name on it from the door to his actual room on the third floor to Liz’s door.  Tara had some kind of music-making software on her computer that Ramon liked to play with, and I was used to hearing this kind of loud music from down the hall by now. I did not mind, as long as it was quiet when I was trying to sleep.

A few days earlier, I had been sitting in Liz’s room, and Ramon was talking about his music.  “I want to do a reggae version of Come Together,” he said.

“That sounds really cool.”

“I was thinking, like, what makes reggae sound like reggae?  I had never really thought about it before,” Ramon said. I realized that I had never really thought about this either.  “So I was listening to Bob Marley and stuff like that, and I noticed there’s more of a stress on the second and fourth beats instead of the first and third.”

I wasn’t an expert on Bob Marley, but I started singing One Love silently to myself, since that was one of the few Bob Marley songs I knew.  “You’re right,” I said. “Interesting.”

“So how are your classes going?” Liz asked me.  “Getting ready for finals?”

“They’re going okay, I guess,” I said.  “I bombed my first physics midterm, but I’ve been studying really hard ever since.  That’s the one I’m most worried about, just because I did so badly on that first one.”

“When is the physics final?”

I paused to think.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “I haven’t looked at my finals schedule yet.  I should probably do that.”

“Yeah, you should.  I have one Monday, two Wednesday, and one Thursday.  That won’t be too bad.”

“I can’t believe the school year is almost over,” I said.  “It seemed to go by fast, especially here at the end.”

“I know!  We’ve almost finished a year of college!”

“Hey, listen to this,” Ramon said.  “I turned up the bass a little.” He played his techno-reggae Come Together again, supposedly with more bass.  I could not tell the difference, honestly.

“I’m not sure which way I like better,” I said.  “Can you play the first one again?” Ramon did something on the computer and played it again the way it was the first time, and I said, “I think I like the second one better.  I need to get to work, though.”

“Okay,” Ramon said.  “Have a good one.”

“It was good talking to you,” Liz added.

“You too.”

I walked back to room 221 and got out the course schedule for this quarter.  Finals did not happen at the usual meeting time for a class. The course schedule for each quarter had a page that said the final time for any given class.  It was based on the time that the class usually met, so that, for example, every class that usually met on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 9am would have the final at the same time, but this time would not necessarily be 9am.  Each class was allotted a two-hour time slot, regardless of how much time the class normally met for. All of the necessary time slots required exactly six days, so finals week was the one time each quarter when classes were held on a Saturday.

I looked up the times for my four finals and thought, no, this can’t be right.  That doesn’t make sense. I double-checked, and it did not make sense, but it was correct.  This finals week was going to be a disaster.

For one thing, there was no dead time before finals this quarter.  Fall quarter classes had ended on a Friday, and finals started the following Monday.  For winter quarter, classes had ended on a Thursday, and finals began the following Saturday, so there was one so-called dead day of no classes before finals began.  But this quarter, the last day of classes was Friday, and finals began on Saturday. To make things even worse, my physics final had the earliest time slot possible, Saturday morning at 8:00.  This was less than 24 hours after my last actual physics class, Friday morning at 11. My final for Psychology and the Law was Monday morning, chemistry was Monday afternoon, and math was Thursday afternoon.

This was the worst possible scenario for me.  My three most difficult finals fell on the first two days, and my easy final would not be until the end of the week.  I was scared, and I did not know how I would be able to do this. I could have checked what my finals schedule would have been like before I registered for classes, but I figured it was just one week and that it made little sense to schedule my entire quarter around finals week.  I wonder now, though, if I would have done things differently had I taken the time to check my finals schedule. Too late to change it now.

 

Later that night, after dinner, I wandered down to the common room.  It was full. Liz and Ramon, Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Danielle, Gina, Mike Adams, Karen, David, Yu Cheng, and Schuyler were all watching the movie Forrest Gump.  Ramon had bought the movie on VHS a couple weeks ago, and it seemed like he, or at least someone, had watched it every few days ever since then.  I found an unoccupied seat on a couch and sat down. I had work to do, but it could wait. I didn’t need to do it right now. I loved this movie, and in the worst case, I had seen the movie before, so if I had to go get some work to do and not give the movie my full attention, I would not miss out.

The movie had just started a few minutes earlier.  In the movie, Forrest was explaining that he was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a relative whom he called a Civil War hero.

“Forrest was named after the founder of the Klan,” Gina said.  “I forgot about that part.”

“That must suck to have a famous relative, but it’s someone like that, not someone you want to be associated with,” Mike said.

“Probably,” I replied.  “I don’t have any famous relatives.  I wouldn’t know.”

“I don’t either.”

“My great-great-great-great-grandfather was a Vice President!” Karen exclaimed.  At that moment, a thought crossed my mind. Maybe it was because Karen had talked about growing up in the South, or maybe it was because I knew someone else who was related to a Southern Vice President from early in the history of the USA, but as soon as she said that, I just knew that her famous ancestor was going to be John C. Calhoun.

“Who’s that?” Mike asked.

“John C. Calhoun!” Karen said.  “He was Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.”

“I remember that name from history class,” Gina said.

“If that’s true, then you’re related to one of my friends from high school,” I said.

“Huh?” Karen replied, caught off guard by my comment.

“Do you know the Hallorans from Plumdale?  Jessica Halloran? And her sister Jamie, and they have a bunch of younger siblings too.  Jessica said once that she was related to John C. Calhoun.”

“No.  But that’s funny that you know some distant relatives of mine.  Weird.”

“Yeah.  Jessica was one of my best friends.  She took a year off to go volunteer at an orphanage in Guatemala.”

“Wow.  That’s cool.  Adventurous.”

“I know.”  Currently as an adult, I am in Facebook contact with both Jessica and Jamie, but I never did find out if they knew Karen, nor do I think I’ve ever mentioned that I went to Jeromeville with some distant cousin of theirs.

I had noticed earlier that Jared was sitting in the corner alone with his Scrabble board, seemingly paying more attention to the board than the movie, placing tiles on the board.  He was clearly not playing an actual game, since no one else was sitting with him. I walked over to him to see what was going on.

“Hey, Jared,” I said.

“Hi,” he said back, gesturing toward the board.  “Check this out.” Jared had filled the entire board with interlocking dirty words.  Private parts, biology terms, sexual slang, pretty much every inappropriate word I could think of was on the Scrabble board somewhere.

I began laughing.  “That’s hilarious!” I told him.  “This wasn’t a real game, was it?”

“No.  It couldn’t be from a real game,” he explained, pointing toward the middle of the board, “because EJACULATE couldn’t have been played here in a real game.  It’s too many letters, and none of these other words were here before, only this one.”

“Oh yeah.  But couldn’t you… no, I guess not, there’s no shorter word you could have played first.”

“Yeah.  I have three letters left, D, A, and E.  I’m trying to figure out where to put them.”  Jared scanned the board. He put the tiles going down from the D at the end of LAID, so that they spelled DEAD.  “DEAD!”

“That’s not really a sex word, is it?”

“No, but it’s hilarious!”

I pointed at the H in HYMEN and gestured toward the empty space next to it.  “What about HEAD?” I said.

“That works, but I like DEAD.  It’s just funnier.”

“If you say so.  It’s your game.” I did not understand why DEAD was so funny, but it is not important.  I walked back across the room and sat next to Liz and Ramon, directing my attention back to the movie.

“My name’s Forrest,” Ramon said in an exaggerated Southern accent.  “Forrest Gump.”

“Forrest Gump is kind of a cool name,” Mike said.

“Yeah,” Yu replied.  “Except for the Gump part.”  I laughed. Yu continued, “That could be my name.  Forrest Cheng. Or maybe Yu Gump.”

“Yu Gump,” Mike repeated back.  “I’m going to start calling you that.”

I was not looking forward to moving back home and being away from these silly, nonsensical random conversations.  It seemed that these conversations were an essential part of the dorm life experience. Maybe I would have neighbors at my apartment next year who had random conversations like this.  Or maybe I would still get together with some of these Interdisciplinary Honors Program friends next year. I hoped I would find something, because the IHP had really helped me feel like I had a home, a smaller group to belong to within the context of this very large university.  I would need to find a new group next year.

“Hey, Greg?” Liz asked.  “Did you ever figure out your finals schedule?”

“Yeah,” I answered, “and it’s going to be horrible.  I have my three hard finals on the first two days, and then the easy one, math, isn’t until Thursday.  There are less than 24 hours between my last physics class and the final.”

“Oh no.”

“Yeah.  I’m really going to need to study hard over the next few days.”

“I know you can do it, Greg.  And just think, once those three finals are over, you’ll only have an easy final left, so then you get plenty of time to pack and clean your room.  And you’ll get time to hang out too.”

“That’s a good way to look at it.  Thanks.”

“I had a hard schedule like that last quarter, with all my hard finals first.  It wasn’t that bad, though. You’ll do fine.”

“I hope so.”

After the movie, I went upstairs.  I could still get a good two hours of studying in before I went to bed.  I put on Pulse for the second time that day and told myself that when the music ended, it would be time for bed.  That sounded like a plan.

Forrest Gump’s mother said that life was like a box of chocolates, because I never knew what I would get.  I did not know I would get this difficult finals schedule. All I could do now was make the best of it. One thing at a time.  I had three more days of regular classes left, and I would use as much time as possible over those three days to study for physics.  Once I finished physics Saturday morning, I would spend the rest of the weekend studying for my two Monday finals. And once Monday night came, I would do as Liz suggested and let up a bit.  I would still study for the math final on Thursday, but being my easiest one, I would not need all day to study. I would take my time leisurely packing and cleaning. I would go on bike rides.  I would probably spend some time in chat rooms. And I would hopefully have some more of these great random conversations with my IHP friends. The second part of finals week would be nice and relaxing.  It would be fun. And it was only a week away.

pulse

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.