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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

“I understand.  See you next time.”

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” I said.

“Great.  I’ll see you then.”

“Thank you so much,” I said.

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

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


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

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

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

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

“Oh, yes!  Greg, was it?”

“Yeah.”

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

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

“Just leave it here on the desk.”

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

“No.  Take the afternoon off.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Four?” Haley asked incredulously.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah!”

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

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

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

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

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.

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.