March 22-24, 1997.  Spring Breakthrough, or whatever that retreat with the foosball table was actually called. (#125)

I put my suitcase and sleeping bag in a corner of a meeting room at the First Covenant Church of Stockdale.  I looked around, a little apprehensive about sleeping on the floor, in a sleeping bag, with eight other guys in their sleeping bags in the same room.  I did not sleep well in unfamiliar places, particularly with other people in the room who might be snoring or making noise or breathing.  But if I was tired enough, I would probably be fine.  After all, last year I almost got five hours of sleep camping illegally on the beach in Moonlight Cove, so I would probably be able to handle this.

This retreat was called Spring Breakthrough.  Or maybe it was Spring Breakaway, or Spring Breakout, or some other pun based on the retreat being during spring break.  Instead of driving up to the mountains, like we had on the other retreats I had been on with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, we were just hanging out at a church in a nondescript suburban neighborhood in Stockdale, about an hour drive down the Valley south of Jeromeville.  I would learn later that the McAllens, the head staff of JCF, had a connection to someone at this church, which is how we got it for our retreat.

Spring Breakthrough was also open only to second-year and older students.  Freshmen had their own retreat somewhere else for these same three days, called by a different one of the aforementioned cheesy names.  I forget which.  Because it took up three days of a relatively short Spring Break, and because freshmen had their own retreat, Spring Breakthrough had fewer students attending compared to other JCF retreats I had been on, around twenty.

We arrived on Saturday evening, right after winter quarter finals, and for our first meeting, Brian Burr had set up a television and VCR.  Brian, one of my roommates, was on staff with JCF part time, and he was leading this retreat along with the McAllens, the adult couple on staff full time.  I knew exactly what we would be watching, because I had seen Brian working on this video earlier in the week.  Before he started the video, Brian spoke about discipleship, the theme for this weekend.  “Discipleship is intentional by nature,” Brian explained.  “When you disciple someone, you become a part of their lives, to help lead their spiritual growth.  To start you thinking about discipleship this weekend, I have prepared a video showing a very famous discipleship relationship among certain well-known characters.”  I giggled at Brian’s description of his video.  “Pay attention to what you see about the discipling relationships depicted in this video,” Brian continued.

Autumn Davies sat next to me, and when she heard me giggling, she whispered, “What’s so funny?”

“Just laughing at the way he described that,” I said, “because I know what the video is.”

“What is it?”

It’s Brian.  I’ll give you one guess.”

“Oh!” Autumn said, a look of recognition passing over her face.

Brian pushed the VHS tape in the player and pressed Play.  The opening music and scrolling backstory of Star Wars showed on the screen, and for the next hour, we watched an abridgement of the movie trilogy, containing all of the scenes related to discipleship.  I watched Obi-Wan teach Luke about the Force.  After Obi-Wan’s death, his Force ghost led Luke to Yoda, who took Obi-Wan’s place in Luke’s discipleship.

After the video, which in our abridged version ended with Luke seeing the three Force ghosts, we got into groups of three or four to talk about what discipleship meant to us, and to share stories about someone who had discipled us.  Autumn, Janet McAllen, and Evan Lundgren turned their chairs toward me.

“So what did you guys think?” Janet asked.  “Who has discipled you?”

After a pause, in which everyone seemed to be debating whether or not to go first, Autumn spoke up.  “For me, really, it was Leah, and everyone in my Bible study freshman year.  I grew up going to church on Christmas and Easter, but it didn’t really mean anything until I got here.  I met Leah our first day in the dorm, and she invited me to Bible study a couple weeks later, and I made a decision for Jesus after a few Bible studies.”

I did some quick mental math.  If Autumn became a Christian a few weeks into fall quarter her freshman year, which was my sophomore year, that means that she had only been a Christian for a month at the most when I met her, when our group failed so hilariously badly at the car rally.  I never would have guessed this, since Autumn always seemed so intense about living for Jesus.

Evan and Janet told their stories next, and finally it was my turn.  I did not want to share.  I was a little embarrassed.  “I feel like it’s hard to talk about,” I said.  “I don’t know if I want to share out loud, because the person who first comes to mind is in this room.”

“Brian,” Janet said with a look of recognition.

“Actually, I was thinking Eddie, last year when I was having a rough night, and he took me in and invited me over.  But, yeah, Brian too.  And all of you guys.  You, when you told me about sin and Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And Sarah, and…” I looked around, trying to remember if any of my other Building C friends were on this retreat; they were not, Sarah Winters was the only one.  “And my friends from my dorm, who accepted me for who I was.”

“Wait,” Autumn said.  “So you’re a pretty new Christian too?”

“Yeah.  I made the decision to follow Jesus a little over a year ago.”

“I didn’t know that.  You always seem to me like you must have been a Christian for a long time.”

“Funny you should say that.  I was just thinking the same thing about you.”

“That is funny,” Autumn said.  “I guess sometimes the Lord just finds you, and lights a fire in your heart.”

“Yeah.  Someone else said that about me once.”

We shared prayer requests, then returned to the rooms where we were sleeping, Janet and Autumn to one room with the women and Evan and I to the room with the men.  It took me a bit longer than usual to get to sleep, to get used to the unfamiliar noises and sounds, but I ended up sleeping fine after that.


We were staying at a church, and the next day was Sunday, so we all attended the service together.  The pastor of the church introduced us at the beginning of the service; people turned around to look at us, and we all waved.  

After church, we went back to the youth room, where our meetings were being held.  Eddie Baker, John Harvey, Lars Ashford, and Xander Mackey had discovered the foosball table on the opposite end of the room from where we were sitting last night.  I walked up, trying not to interrupt, since they were focused on an intense competition.  

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie said.

“What’s up?” Xander asked.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Can I watch?”

“Sure, dude,” Lars replied.  I watched as the four boys made the ball fly across the table with amazing precision that I never had known to be attainable on a foosball table.  I had played around on foosball tables off and on over the years, but I was never anywhere near this good.  As with most actual sports, everyone around me was better than I was.

John gestured out the window, where Brent Wang and a few others were throwing a Frisbee.  “I’m gonna go outside and play Frisbee with Brent,” John said after their game ended.  “Greg?  You want in?”

“Sure,” I replied.  I grabbed the handles for the defense side of John’s team, even though John had been playing offense; I hoped that Eddie would not mind playing offense.  I did not want to speak up, since that would require admitting that I was not very good at foosball, and blocking shots seemed slightly easier than flicking my wrist and sliding the handles the way the others had been in order to score.  Eddie grabbed the handles for the offense players without questioning this arrangement.

“So I found a foosball table for our house next year,” Lars said.  “It’s used, but I got a good deal on it.”

“That’s awesome,” Eddie replied.

“You guys are living together next year?” I asked.  The other three at this table had lived together last year, but this year Lars and Xander lived in one house and Eddie in another, along with John, who had been playing earlier.

“Yeah,” Xander said.  “Us three, John, and Jason and Ramon.  We got this really nice four-bedroom house on De Anza Drive.  It’s two-story, with a balcony.”

“That sounds cool,” I said as I successfully blocked Lars’ shot.  I was a little disappointed to hear that I had been excluded from The Cool House yet again, although I was not surprised.  I had been reminded so many times this year that I was on the outside of the cliques at JCF, and I had come to accept that.  I realized that I had not yet made plans for housing for next year, and while I had a feeling I would still be able to find something, I also began to panic in my mind.  This distracted me enough that Lars’ next shot went streaming past my goalie.  “Crap,” I said as Xander moved his team’s score counter up.


We had another talk about discipleship Sunday night, and another one Monday morning.  Word spread quickly that there was a foosball table in the room, and most of our free time was spent around that table, playing, watching, or waiting our turns.  Even Brent, who always seemed to bring a Frisbee wherever he went, had eschewed his Frisbee for foosball.

I finally got a win Monday afternoon.  I was playing with Autumn on my team, and Tabitha Sasaki and Evan Lundgren on the other side of the table.  None of us were particularly skilled at foosball, and Autumn and I won by a score of 10 to 8.  After that game, I stepped aside to let the more skilled players back in.

A little bit later, shortly before our final session on discipleship, I left the foosball table and wandered across the room to where we would be meeting.  Janet was writing a table of numbers on a large pad of paper attached to an easel.

Preaching to 100Discipleship of 1
1 year1002
5 years50032
10 years10001024
20 years20001048576
30 years30001073741824

“Exponential growth,” I said.

“Yes!” Janet replied.  “You get it, because you’re a math major.  Isn’t it amazing how effective discipleship can be, when people get discipled and go on to disciple others?”

“Yes.”

About ten minutes later, Janet and a few others walked around the room to gather everyone together for the talk.  When we were ready to begin, Janet announced, “Turn to the person next to you, and tell them, what do you want to take home from this weekend?”

Xander was sitting next to me.  As I tried to think of a deep answer, something I had learned this weekend that I wanted to put into practice in my life back in Jeromeville, Xander said loudly, “I wanna take home the foosball table!”  I laughed at this, as did everyone else within earshot.

“I’m still figuring out what to take away from this,” I said.  “I feel like discipleship isn’t something I’m naturally good at.”

“That’s okay,” Xander replied.  “Sometimes it’s just about how you live.  Spreading the gospel isn’t just about preaching.  People see you helping out, volunteering to help the worship team set up their equipment, stuff like that, and they can see you showing the love of Jesus.  And didn’t you say you’re doing something with the youth group at Jeromeville Covenant?”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Those kids are gonna remember you.  That’s a kind of discipleship too.”

“That’s true.”

After everyone finished, Janet spoke to the group.  “I made a table here,” she said, gesturing to the easel.  “This column shows how many people get reached for Jesus if you preach to a hundred people every year.  But this column over here shows how many people you reach if you disciple one person for a year, and then each of them disciples someone else for a year, and then each of them disciples someone, and so on.  Notice how fast the number grows through discipleship.”  I smiled and nodded, thinking about having learned this in math class, as Janet continued, “And Greg can tell us why.”

What?  Me?  This was unexpected; I was not prepared to speak.  But this was math, and I knew exactly what to say.  I nervously stood up, and after no one told me to sit back down, I began.  “Preaching is a linear function.  The rate of change is always the same, so the same number of people get reached every year.  But with discipleship, the more people who get reached, the more new people they will reach.  The rate of change is proportional to the number of people reached.  That describes an exponential function.  The number of people reached grows faster and faster as more people get reached.”  I sat back down, and all the other students clapped.  I hoped that they actually learned something from my explanation, something about math and about Christian living, and that their applause was not just humoring me as I got an opportunity to use big math words.

As Janet continued talking about discipleship, I kept thinking about what I told Xander: discipleship did not come naturally to me.  I often felt like I was not a very good Christian because I was not good at inviting people to JCF or telling strangers about my beliefs.  But Xander did make a good point; living a life for Jesus can take many different forms.  I seemed to be finding a niche as a youth group leader at church.

The last thing on the schedule tonight was dinner, and we would all be headed home to our respective spring breaks tonight.  Before we went to dinner, though, Autumn suggested, “We should get a group picture!”

“Yeah!” Janet replied.  “Where should we go to get a good picture?”

“Around the foosball table,” John suggested.  “That’s pretty much what we did this whole time.”

Everyone liked John’s idea.  We all gathered around the table and gave our cameras to Dave, Janet’s husband; he took the picture many times, on everyone’s camera, and then handed our cameras back to us.

After dinner, I packed and said goodbye to everyone.  My spring break was only a week, so I would see them again soon.  I had a two and a half hour drive home, plenty of time to think about all I had learned.  I stopped at the first gas station to fill up, and while I was there I used the pay phone to call Mom with an estimate of what time I would be home.  Before I left for the retreat, I had told Mom I would be home Monday night, but I did not know yet what time.  I would not be getting home until after ten o’clock tonight; Mom told me to drive safely, and that she might be asleep on the couch by the time I got there.

I put in a new CD I had recently bought at the Christian bookstore in Jeromeville, by a new band from Georgia called Third Day.  I had heard Eddie and John play this CD the last time I was at their house, and I liked what I heard.  I still had nowhere to live next year.  Neither Brian nor Shawn, my current roommates, would be in Jeromeville next year, so living with them was not an option.  Fall quarter was six months away, but the housing market in Jeromeville was so tight that I needed to make a plan quickly.  Living in The Cool House with Eddie and those guys would have been nice, but that ship had sailed.  I knew enough people by now that if I started mentioning my need for a place to live and roommates for the 1997-98 school year, there was a good chance that someone would know something.  I put the thought out of my mind as I drove; it would be a spring quarter problem, after I got back to Jeromeville in six days.  I had a fourth roommate, Josh, whom I did not see as often, and I did not know if he would need a roommate next year.  I had gotten closer to him lately, though, since he was also a youth group leader at church, and he would be the one who led me to my living situation for the following year.  But that is a story for another time.

Much of the ministry model of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship was based on students inviting their friends to group meetings, Bible studies, or retreats.  This was how I got involved in JCF, and how I learned what it meant to follow Jesus.  But I just was not good at inviting people to things, and sometimes I felt like I was not a good enough Christian because of that.  I knew that God had a role for me in his kingdom, and at least for now, being a youth leader was part of it.  I was still trying to figure out exactly what form my acts of discipleship would take, and sometimes it was difficult to know if I was actually doing God’s will, or just doing what I wanted.


Hey, readers! Tell me about someone who mentored or discipled you in a memorable way.

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March 14, 1997.  The Lord gave you the one he took from me. (#124)

I missed class exactly six times during my years at the University of Jeromeville.  One time, I stayed home from class because I was really sick.  Four times, my appointment for the automated phone system to register for classes for the next term fell at a time when I had class.  If I was planning on signing up for a high demand class, I wanted to register as soon as possible.

The sixth time I missed class was on the last day of classes before winter quarter finals my junior year.  I went to my classes in the morning, but I left campus early, before the New Testament Writings of John class, and the reason I missed class was the most important reason in the world, at least it was if your roommate was Brian Burr.

We all met at the house where Eddie Baker and John Harvey lived, since their house was the farthest east and closest to Capital City.  The sixteen of us took four cars east on Highway 100, across the river and through downtown Capital City, to the movie theater just past Capital East Mall.

“Why are we going to Cap City to see this movie?” a guy in my car named Clint asked at one point. “Isn’t it showing in Jeromeville too?”

“Bigger theater, easier to get tickets,” I explained.  “That’s what Brian said, at least.”

A few minutes later, the sixteen of us who had carpooled from Jeromeville entered the theater, tickets for the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi in hand.  Lucasfilm, the company behind the Star Wars movies, had recently rereleased the first two movies, with new scenes to match the original vision for the movies, and today, the final movie in the series was being rereleased.  I saw Star Wars with Barefoot James a couple weeks after it had been rereleased, and I saw The Empire Strikes Back last Saturday with Brian and some of the same people I was with today.

Brian had seen all of these movies hundreds of times over his lifetime, and The Empire Strikes Back last week was Brian’s second time seeing the rerelease.  I, on the other hand, had only seen bits and pieces of the first two movies a few times, not enough to remember all the details of the story.  The surprising revelation at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, was common knowledge by 1997, even among those who were not huge Star Wars fans.  But the movie still alluded to secrets that were beyond my knowledge, since I had never seen Return of the Jedi.  On the way home from the theater last week, I asked Brian, “The part where Luke flies away from Dagobah, when Obi-Wan says that Luke is the last hope, and Yoda says, ‘No, there is another’… was that referring to something in Return of the Jedi?”

“Yes!” Brian said.  “And if you don’t know, I’m not telling you.  You’ll find out.  I’m not giving it away.”

I could feel the anticipation building as the movie started, with the backstory scrolling up the screen.  I read about Luke Skywalker trying to rescue Han Solo, whom Jabba the Hutt had frozen in carbonite at the end of the last movie, and the Empire rebuilding the Death Star, which the Rebels had destroyed in the first movie.  After the battle with Jabba the Hutt, in which Princess Leia wore the famous steel bikini which I was not aware of before that day, Luke left the Rebels temporarily to finish training with Yoda.  When Luke arrived, Yoda was dying, presumably of natural causes since he was nine hundred years old.  And after giving Luke some final words about confronting Vader, Yoda said, “There is another Skywalker,” as he died.  I moved up to the edge of my seat, knowing that the answer to the biggest question that the previous movie had left for me was coming.

In the next scene, the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi appeared to Luke, and at one point,. Luke asked Obi-Wan about Yoda’s final words.  Obi-Wan explained that Yoda meant Luke’s twin sister; Luke did not know of her existence.  I gasped… it had to be Leia; she was by far the biggest female role in the Star Wars movies.  Luke figured out the same thing a few lines later.

The Rebels blew up the second Death Star, as I suspected they would, with the help of the primitive teddy-bear-like Ewoks.  I always assumed that the Ewoks only existed to be cute and cuddly, and sell Star Wars toys to girls.  Throughout the movie, Luke kept saying that there was still good in his father, and Darth Vader redeemed himself in the end.

“What’d you think?” Brian asked me as soon as we got out of the theater.

“That was so good!” I replied.

“I saw you react when they said Leia was Luke’s sister.  That was a genuine reaction.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“By the way, I’m curious… what was the next thing you thought of after that scene?”

I did not want to be put on the spot.  I did not know what Brian was getting at.  But I did remember something.  “I thought, didn’t Luke and Leia kiss in the last movie?” I said.

“Yes!” Brian exclaimed, laughing.  “That’s what’s so funny about it.”

“Wait,” Clint said.  “Greg?  You’ve never seen this movie before?”

“No.  First time.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  I didn’t know how it was going to end or anything.  I didn’t know Darth Vader was going to turn good.”

“Weird,” Clint replied.  “That’s kind of mind-blowing.  To me, it’s just one of those things everyone knows.  Grass is green.  The sky is blue.  Darth Vader turns good.”

It must have been nice having a normal childhood, I thought, but I just kept my mouth shut at that.  I knew Clint did not mean to be hurtful, so I did my best not to let his comment get to me.


Had this trip to see Return of the Jedi happened in the evening, I would have gone to bed happy, feeling like this was one of the best days ever.  However, it was a Friday afternoon, so my day was not over.  I had Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that night, normally a source of inspiration and fellowship, but also a source of tension at times, because of the cliques within the group.  I was still on a high from seeing Return of the Jedi, being included in that clique, and I responded with an enthusiastic yes when Eddie and John, who had also both been at Return of the Jedi, invited me to go bowling afterward.

The University of Jeromeville had a bowling alley on campus, the only bowling alley in Jeromeville, underneath the campus bookstore.  The school has a bowling team, and the physical education department offers a bowling class for half a unit, which I took in the fall of sophomore year.  I walked to the bowling alley under a sky lit by a half moon, along with Eddie and John, Kristina Kasparian, Lorraine Mathews, Tabitha Sasaki, Jason Costello, Ramon Quintero, Clint who could not believe that I had never seen Return of the Jedi, and Haley Channing.  It had been three months since Haley told me that my feelings for her were not reciprocated, and I was trying to stay friends, but it felt like we did not talk much anymore.  She was ahead of me as the ten of us walked toward the bowling alley, so all I could see was her back, but I could picture her beautiful blue eyes and sweet smile as she and Kristina talked.

“Ready for finals, Greg?” Eddie asked, snapping me back to reality.

“I think so,” I replied.  “At least as ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Are you going to Spring Breakthrough?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Brian said it’s gonna be really good.”

“Good!  I’m glad you’re coming.  Are you doing anything else for Spring Break?  Going to Plumdale?”

“Yeah.  Just hanging out with my family for a while.  What about you?”

“Same.  I’m going to speak at my church back home about the mission trip to China this summer.”

“That’s cool.  How many people from Jeromeville are going to China?”

“Twelve.”

“Wow.  That’s so cool.”

When we arrived, we were assigned lanes 5 and 6.  I put on the rental bowling shoes and went to find a ball, and when I got back, the others had already divided into two groups.  Haley, Ramon, Kristina, Lorraine, and Clint were on lane 5, and I was on lane 6 with Eddie, Tabitha, John, and Jason.  I bowled a strike on my first frame and high-fived the others in my lane.  I then returned to my seat, but that strong opening did not carry through to the rest of the game.  I finished with a score of 111, very average for me.

I looked behind me at some point early in the second game, as I waited my turn.  Ramon and Haley sat at a table behind the bowling area; Ramon was talking about something, inaudible from my vantage point, as Haley listened intently, smiling, laughing occasionally.  Ramon and Haley took their turns in consecutive order on their lane, and after they finished, they returned to their more secluded table to look intently in each other’s eyes.

Being rejected was bad enough, but seeing Haley interested in someone else made the situation so much worse.  Haley’s actions were actively communicating that someone else was better than me.  Furthermore, I was not used to thinking of Ramon as a threat.  Ramon was in my dorm freshman year, and he and Liz Williams started dating just a couple weeks into the school year.  Ramon and Liz were the kind of couple who seemed destined to be the college sweethearts who stayed together forever, but they broke up at the beginning of this school year, after around two years together.  Ramon and Haley seemed to have grown close lately.  Ramon was the cool guy who spoke six languages and played all sorts of musical instruments, and his work had even been on the campus radio station recently.  But for most of the time I knew him, he had a girlfriend, and was not looking to meet girls like I was, so he and I were not in competition.

I was not mad at Haley.  She had done nothing wrong; she had been honest about not being interested in me.  And as much as I was envious of Ramon, he had done nothing wrong either.  I was mostly mad at myself, for not being good enough.  Obviously I had failed somewhere that Ramon had succeeded.  God had not allowed me to be Haley’s boyfriend, and Ramon seemed to have gotten farther than I ever did.  The Lord gave him the one he took from me, I thought.

Something clicked in my mind as that sentence formed.  The sentence was perfect iambic pentameter, like much of the work of William Shakespeare.  Every once in a while, when I am overthinking something or have too much on my mind, I will formulate a sentence that sounds particularly poetic, and the words will just keep coming.  Tonight, my mind was full of thoughts about Haley and Ramon: hearing Ramon’s music on the radio last week, growing apart from Haley, jealousy, anger, and following God’s will for my life even when it was not my own will.  I had been friends with Ramon for two and a half years, but I really did not think I could stay friends with him if he and Haley were together.  I did not want to talk to either of them right now. I did not want to look at them right now.   As I stepped to the lane to take my turn bowling, the words continued coming to mind, words in iambic pentameter, forming a Shakespearean sonnet.  I was distracted, knocking down five pins on my first roll and a gutter ball for the second.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” I said as I walked away from the bowling lanes.  After I used the toilet and washed and dried my hands, I pulled an extra paper towel out of the dispenser and brought it back to the lanes.  I sat a table behind the ball return machine, about six feet from the table where Ramon and Haley were still making googly eyes at each other, and began writing some of the words that had been filling my head.

I heard you on the radio and said,
This talented musician is my friend;
But this is just a lie; our friendship’s dead,
I’ve brought it quite abruptly to an end.

This poem had to be written addressed to Ramon.  The words were not working any other way.  The line I had thought of earlier had to be reworded, since it was in the third person; I almost wrote it next, for line 5, but decided it would come later, at line 7.  Another turn bowling interrupted my thoughts, but I returned to my table a few minutes later and continued writing.

Your life, your friends, your things, these things I see,
And anger builds within my jealous heart;
The Lord gave you the one he took from me,
And made our paths diverge so far apart.

I did not like “things” twice in line 5; I crossed out the first one and wrote “stuff.”  That did not sound very poetic either, but I never came up with a better word to go there.

“What’cha doin’, Greg?” Kristina asked, noticing me sitting alone.  “Writing poems on napkins?”

“Yeah,” I said, turning my paper towel over to hide what I had written from Kristina.

“My friends in high school, we used to do that all the time.  We wrote some pretty weird stuff.  I wonder if those napkins are still there, in my room back home?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I really did not want to share this poem with anyone here.  Kristina walked to the lane to take her turn, not asking anything more about my poem.

Gradually, through the rest of the second game, I finished my poem:

I pray now for forgiveness; I repent,
I lift my sin to Jesus Christ above;
I’d like our path to go where it once went,
And happiness I wish you and your love.
God’s plan for me is not His plan for you,
So I will be myself, and your friend too.

Now all it needed was a title.  The poem was clearly written to Ramon, but I could not use his name, or Haley’s name, anywhere within.  After my next bowling turn, I moved back down to the seats by the ball return machine, with the poem in my pocket.

“Greg?” Eddie asked.  “You okay?”

“Yeah,” I said.  Eddie knew about my feelings for Haley, so I hoped that he would not ask any more about this.  He did not.

Toward the end of the bowling game, the title came to me: “Dear Mr. Q.”  Ramon literally was Mr. Q, his last name was Quintero, but also the name Mr. Q sounded mysterious.  I pulled the poem back out of my pocket and wrote the title at the top.

Because I was so distracted, I only bowled 101 that game, just barely keeping alive my streak of triple-digit bowling scores.  Although I did not bowl particularly often, I had not bowled below 100 since November of 1995, when I was taking the bowling class.

I studied for finals all weekend, feeling discouragement and self-loathing hanging over me.  The two math finals were straightforward, and I had no trouble with them.  Nutrition and Writings of John were a bit more challenging, since they consisted of memorizing facts and writing essay questions.  Professor Hurt had at least given us the topics of the essay questions in advance so that we could take time to prepare, but I had missed the last class to see Return of the Jedi.  I did the best I could in Nutrition, and only one question on the Writings of John final related to the class I missed.

I had a retreat coming up with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship the weekend after finals, Spring Breakthrough.  This was different from past retreats I had been on with JCF; instead of going somewhere up in the mountains, we were just spending a few days at a church in Stockdale, about an hour drive south down the Valley from Jeromeville.  I looked forward to it, though. Brian, my roommate who loved Star Wars, was on staff with JCF, and I had seen him copying clips from his Star Wars VHS tapes to use as illustrations.  He had explained that the topic of this retreat would be discipleship.  I had experienced the beginnings of discipleship, when my Christian friends from freshman year had prayed for me on rough days and invited me to JCF, and when Eddie had repeatedly reached out to me sophomore year.  But now that I was more involved with the group and had made a decision to follow Jesus, I felt less important to these people, and I felt that I would never have a girlfriend as long as I was on the outside of these cliques, or at best on the periphery.

When I talked to Haley three months ago and let her reject me, I was hoping that her definitive answer would close the door and help me get over her.  The events of that night at the bowling alley showed clearly that this had not happened.  Maybe I would never be over Haley until I got interested in someone else to that extent.  I knew of a lot of cute girls, but I was currently not close enough with anyone not already in a relationship to develop into the kind of crush I had on Haley.  Of course, when I did find someone, the new girl would probably just reject me as well, or meet someone else first, and the cycle would begin all over again. Something needed to change.


Author’s note: Tell me in the comments about a time you skipped class.

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March 4, 1997.  Of a different ilk. (#123)

“UJ Campus Radio, 90.1,” the voice on the other end of the phone call said.  I got a little nervous making a phone call early in the morning, but obviously someone at the radio station was awake, since I had the radio tuned to this station and I heard music.

“Hi,” I said nervously.  “Is this Tina?”

“Yeah!” Tina, the disc jockey, replied.  “What can I help you with?”

“This is Greg Dennison.  I lived on your floor freshman year.”

Tina paused for a second, then said, “Greg!  Hey!  What’s up?”

“I was talking to Liz and Caroline the other day, and they told me that you were a DJ for Campus Radio now, and that you were going to play that music that Ramon made on your computer.  Is that true?”

“Yeah!  That’s coming up in about 20 minutes.  Will you be around to listen to it?”

“Yeah.  That’s so cool.”

“Great!  So how are things?  Still majoring in math?”

“Yeah.  Still figuring out what to do with a math degree, though.  And I started volunteering with youth ministry at Jeromeville Covenant Church.”

“That sounds like fun!”

“How long have you been a DJ for Campus Radio?”

“Since fall quarter.  It’s been interesting.  I like it.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Well, I need to get back on the air, but it was good catching up.  I’ll see you around campus, probably.”

“Yeah!  Have a good one!”

A while later, I was done with my morning cereal, reading the newspaper, with Campus Radio 90.1 still on.  This was a freeform station owned by the University of Jeromeville, broadcasting whatever its disc jockeys chose to play. I rarely listened to it, since its disc jockeys played some pretty strange music.  I smiled when I heard Tina introduce her next segment.  “Freshman year, my roommate’s boyfriend was in our room all the time, and I had a nice computer, so he used it to compose these electronic covers of popular songs.”  I smiled nostalgically as I heard Ramon’s electronic reggae version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” on the radio, the same song that I heard loudly blasting down the hall so many times freshman year.  I did not see Tina much these days, but I still often saw Ramon and Liz, the roommate from Tina’s story, at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and at church.  Ramon and Liz had an amicable breakup six months ago, but they remained friends.


That night, I drove to campus for University Life, the college group from another church, not the one I attended.  I made some friends from University Life through a random encounter at the Memorial Union a few months ago.  I had been feeling frustrated at being on the outside of cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, my usual group.  I had been sitting with those U-Life friends at the MU and the Quad fairly often this quarter, and tonight was my third time actually attending U-Life.

U-Life was a very large group, with around two hundred students attending an average weekly meeting.  I looked around and eventually found Alaina and Whitney, two of the U-Life friends I often sat with at the MU. Next to them was a third girl whom I had seen before but whose name I did not remember.  I sat in an open seat next to Alaina.

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

“Just having a good day.  What about you?”

“Good!  We were just talking about our coffee house party.  You’re coming, right?”

“Yeah.  I should be there.  When is it?”

“April 12.  That’s a Saturday.”  Alaina turned to the girl I did not know and said, “Greg is gonna do a dramatic poetry reading.”

“Really?” the girl asked me.  “You write poetry?  Or you’ll read someone else’s poem?”

“I don’t know,” I said, laughing nervously.  “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Come on!” Alaina said.  “You totally should.  Have you met our other roommate, Corinne?”

“No,” I said.

“Hi,” the girl who asked me about poetry said.  “I’m Corinne.  It’s nice to meet you.”  Corinne was shorter than average, with light brown straight hair and brown eyes.

“You too,” I replied.  “I’m sure I can find something to read at the party.”

“It doesn’t have to be anything serious,” Corinne said.  “This party is just for fun.”

Alaina had told me a couple weeks earlier that she and her roommates were planning a big party with a coffee house theme.  I did not know how many people I would know there, and I did not like coffee, but this sounded like a fun way to hang out with these new friends from U-Life.

After the end of the meeting, I talked to Alaina, Corinne, and Whitney for a bit longer.  Next, I wandered around the room looking for other people I knew.  Carolyn Parry, who played guitar and sang in the worship band, was putting sound equipment away when she saw me and waved.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Will you be at our show on Sunday?”

I paused for a couple seconds.  as my brain tried to remember what she was talking about.  Show?  Sunday?  Oh, chorus.  I met Carolyn last quarter when I was in chorus.  “Yes,” I said.  “It’ll be good to see everyone again.”

“Good!”

“I’ll be in chorus again in the spring.  I just had a class meeting at the same time this quarter.”

“Yeah, that happens sometimes.  I haven’t been able to do it every quarter.  I’ll see you Sunday, then?”

“Yeah!”

I walked back out to the car a bit later, heading west on Davis Drive, and then north on Andrews Road.  Today was a good day.  I had all my homework done.  I got to hear Ramon’s music on the radio.  I heard a good talk about Jesus.  And Alaina’s roommate Corinne was pretty cute.  I left campus and entered the adjacent Jeromeville city limits, keeping my speed at 25 miles per hour, which seemed unnaturally slow to me.  Jeromeville was a bicycle-friendly city with low speed limits that the police enforced strictly.  I thought of all of Jeromeville’s famous quirks as I anticipated having a peaceful, relaxing couple hours before bed to close out this great day.

And then I gasped in horror when I realized what today was.

My heart raced as I looked at the clock.  9:23pm.  I was too late.  I had failed.  I finished the trip home, disgusted with myself for forgetting something so important, and when I got home, I tried to avoid talking with my roommates, because I did not want to talk about this.


Jeromeville was a university town.  When a large university is located adjacent to a relatively small city, the university drives much of the cultural and political trends in the city.  Jeromeville had a population of around fifty-six thousand, with over a third of these residents university students; about six thousand more students lived on campus, just outside of the city limits.  Many of the adults living in Jeromeville were university faculty and staff.  As a result of this, Jeromeville readily embraced many liberal and progressive political causes and trends.

Since the 1960s, Jeromeville has made great investments of tax dollars in bicycling facilities.  I enjoyed riding my bicycle recreationally along the paths that ran through the Greenbelts in the newer sections of the city, with wide, safe bike lanes on streets connecting the different neighborhoods.  However, this made driving in Jeromeville a pain.  Many of the major streets had only one lane for automobiles and a slow speed limit of 25 miles per hour.

The five aging hippies who sat on the Jeromeville City Council embraced these causes, refusing to accept the reality that Jeromeville had grown to its current size.  Jeromeville had a well-deserved quirky reputation among people in nearby cities for all the strange decisions made by its city council.  A couple years ago, residents of an older neighborhood were lobbying the city council to pave a dirt alley behind their house.  The dirt was extremely uneven, resulting in puddles forming during the rainy season, staying full long enough to provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes.  The city refused, on the grounds that dirt alleys were historic and paving them would ruin the small-town feel of Jeromeville.  Another relatively busy street in central Jeromeville was unusually dark, with very few streetlights, and residents lobbied for better lighting.  The city responded that more lighting would ruin the small-town environment, making it harder for residents to see the sky, and attracting traffic and crime.  In the real world, the traffic was already there, and dark streets attract crime better than well-lit ones, but the Jeromeville City Council ignored such arguments.

Chain stores and real estate development were particular villains to Jeromeville politicians.  In the last City Council election, twelve candidates, an unusually large number, ran for three open seats.  I voted for the ones whose views I disliked the least, and they finished eighth, ninth, and eleventh.  To lose an election in Jeromeville, all one must do is take campaign contributions from real estate developers.  The elites in charge will repeat ad nauseam in advertisements that their opponents took money from developers; this was a death sentence to any budding Jeromeville politician.

Downtown Jeromeville was sacred ground to the Jeromeville City Council.  The city did everything in its power to ensure a healthy central business area, to avoid the flight to outer neighborhoods that had left so many nearby downtowns empty and decaying.  But this had created some growing pains of its own.  In recent decades, the city had grown across Highway 100 for the first time.  The only route from south of 100 into downtown was Cornell Boulevard, passing under three railroad tracks through a narrow underpass with room for just one lane in each direction.  This underpass was built in 1915, part of one of the original highways traversing east to west across the United States.  The cross-country route had long since been bypassed by a wide freeway, today’s Highway 100, but the 1915 underpass was still in use as a local street.  The clearance was about three feet lower than that of modern underpasses, and occasionally a tall truck would get stuck there. It also sometimes flooded during rainy times.

At certain times of day, traffic backs up terribly at the underpass and for long distances on both sides.  I had heard horror stories about south Jeromeville residents taking close to half an hour to get downtown, a trip of less than two miles.  Downtown itself was growing, making the traffic situation even worse. A shopping center had recently been completed at the corner of Cornell and First Street next to the underpass. The shopping center was controversial in its own right, since the anchor tenant was Borders Books. When this was proposed, it divided citizens into two camps, one camp feeling that Borders matched the intellectual character of Jeromeville, and the other believing that large national chain stores did not belong in Jeromeville, threatening to put local bookstores out of business.  The most vocal member of the second camp was a City Councilmember who owned a bookstore. To me, this was an obvious conflict of interest, but no one in Jeromeville seemed to care.  The bookstore was eventually approved, and many publicly vowed to boycott Borders, because this was considered the right opinion by the Jeromeville elite.

I loved Borders Books.  I went there a couple weeks after it opened, after the hype died down.  It was much larger than any bookstore I had ever seen, and it had a coffee shop where people could sit and read.  They also sold music on compact disc, with headphones to listen to samples of any recording they had in stock, so I could know exactly what music I was buying before I spent money on it.  This store became one of my go-to places when I had time to kill.  If the local independent stores wanted to stay in business, they should add awesome stuff in their stores too.  This was how the free market worked, and I supported it, although I kept somewhat quiet about it because I knew that most Jeromevillians did not approve.

A proposal had recently been put forward to build a wider underpass, two lanes in each direction with a more modern design.  Jeromeville also had a long tradition of direct democracy for certain proposals, so this underpass widening had been placed before the voters.  I had seen “No on Measure K” signs all over town, with a small sprinkling of “Yes on Measure K” signs mostly in south Jeromeville, where people are actually affected by this awful traffic jam.  Last week, I saw organized opposition to Measure K at a table on the Quad, a balding man and a woman with long gray hair.  They displayed a picture of a four-lane boulevard crossing under a railroad track, with a caption that said “IF MEASURE K PASSES, THIS COULD BE IN DOWNTOWN JEROMEVILLE!”  In the fantasy where these people reside, that statement would sway voters against Measure K, but to me the same statement was an argument in favor.

“This does not belong in Jeromeville,” the gray-haired woman at the table said to two students she was trying to sway to her position.  “Vote no on Measure K.”

“I heard that traffic is really horrible there, though,” one of the students said.

“The Power Line Road overpass just opened last year,” she explained.  “We should wait and see how that affects traffic before we spend all this money on something else.”  As she explained this, I realized that I knew who this woman was: Jane Pawlowski, one of the five aging hippies on the Jeromeville City Council. She was frequently in the local news, and occasionally national news, for making some very strange statements.  She was the one who touted the historic character of the puddles in the alleys.  And when Power Line Road was extended into south Jeromeville last year, she loudly advocated, successfully, to spend extra money on a small tunnel under the road so that frogs and other wildlife could cross the road safely.  “Lots of frogs live in that pond, and we can all benefit from knowing that we have this psychic connection with the frog community,” Jane Pawlowski had said.

“The new overpass hasn’t solved the problem,” I said loudly, approaching the table.  “People still get stuck in traffic on Cornell Boulevard.”

“But does this eyesore really belong in Jeromeville?” the balding man asked me, gesturing toward the picture of the four-lane road.

“Yes!” I replied.  “We’re a city of fifty-six thousand people, and we need to build the infrastructure to support that population.  It looks safe and modern, and traffic is going to flow freely.”

“I guess we’re just of a different ilk,” Jane said.

“You got that right,” I replied loudly.  “And that’s the first intelligent thing you’ve ever said.”  I walked away, with the other students around the No on Measure K table staring at me.

I knew as soon as I walked away that I should not have said that.  It was unnecessarily unkind.  I arrived at the Writings of John class that I had with many of my Christian friends; Taylor Santiago was standing outside waiting for people.  I told him what had happened.

“’They will know we are Christians by our love,’” Taylor said, quoting a song.

“I know,” I said.  “It just makes me angry that these pretentious intellectuals who hold on to hippie fantasies and use words like ‘ilk’ have undisputed control of Jeromeville.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Taylor suggested.  “Learn from this, and be kind if this ever happens again.  And if you really want to, you can contact her office and apologize.  She’s a politician, so she’ll have public contact information.”


I never did apologize to Jane Pawlowski.  I would take out my anger on these people with my vote.  Except, as I drove home from U-Life that night, I realized that I had completely forgotten to vote.  This vote had been on my mind for weeks, and once the day of the election arrived, I did not think about voting at all.  I had failed all of those who supported Measure K.

I read the newspaper the next morning and learned that Measure K had failed, with about 65% of the residents voting No.  My one vote did not end up making a difference, but I was still angry with myself for forgetting to vote.  It was not like me.

More interesting was the map of the vote broken up by precinct.  Every single neighborhood south of Highway 100 had a majority of Yes votes, since people on that side of town actually have to drive through the inadequate underpass. Only one of about twenty precincts north of 100 had a majority Yes vote.  At the time, Jeromeville City Council members were elected at large, by the whole city, representing the whole city.  No one on the City Council lived in south Jeromeville, and there was no requirement that members of the City Council live in different parts of the city.  The opposition to this measure was purely driven by elitists in the old part of Jeromeville, who do not use this underpass often, imposing their will on the people most directly affected by the underpass.

The next morning, I rode the bus to class, still feeling ashamed of myself.  I sat next to Tara, the cute brown-haired girl who I often saw on the same bus.  She asked me how I was doing, and I said, “Not well.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, sounding concerned.

“I wanted to vote Yes on Measure K, and I completely forgot.  And it failed.”

“But that was a lot of money to spend on that overpass,” Tara replied.  She became somewhat less attractive to me that day when I found out she had been against Measure K, but at least she was against it because of government spending, not because of some fantasy about small-town feel.  That was a more acceptable reason to me.

The 1915 underpass remains to this day; Cornell Boulevard has never been widened.  Jane Pawlowski was right; I was of a different ilk than most people in Jeromeville.  Had I researched the local culture of Jeromeville before I came here for school, I probably would have gone to school somewhere else.  However, in hindsight, I am glad I came to Jeromeville.  I found a community here, and I found a great church where I was getting involved beyond just the college group.  Jeromeville, with all its quirks, was growing on me.  I may not ever vote for people who win elections in Jeromeville, but God was in control no matter who won elections on Earth.  And one day, I would leave this world behind and spend eternity in heaven with others who were truly of my ilk.


Author’s note: What are local politics like where you live? Share an interesting story in the comments! And don’t forget to like this post and subscribe to this blog if you enjoyed what you read!


February 24-28, 1997.  Cambria’s anthropology paper, and Bible study begins falling apart. (#122)

For the last few weeks, I had been setting my alarm for 5:30 in the morning.  I kept hearing from my Christian friends about the importance of starting every day in Scripture, so I had been trying to do that.  Shawn and I shared the largest bedroom in this apartment, and Shawn woke up just as early to travel across the Drawbridge to Laguna Ciervo for student teaching, so I was not waking him up by doing this.  I wondered, however, how effective my Scripture reading really was, considering that I spent much of my extra time being miserable about having gotten so little sleep and nodding off while I tried to pray.

I decided to try something else today.  I did not wake up quite as early, and I packed my Bible in my backpack and brought it to school with me.  After my first class, I had an hour free, the perfect time to spend with God.  I also had the perfect place in mind.

The University of Jeromeville Arboretum extended for a mile and a half along the south end of campus, following a dry creek bed that was now functionally a long, narrow lake.  On its banks were planted trees and plants from around the world, a long, narrow strip of nature right on campus.  I walked directly south from my class in Wellington Hall, past Shelley Library, past Evans Hall where Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met, past the administrative offices in Marks Hall, and past the law school building, which backed up to the Arboretum.  I turned right and walked westward along the path on the north bank of the creek.  A large oak tree stood to the left with a cluster of succulents on the right, and the water tower loomed about two hundred feet away.  I continued walking a little ways and found a bench on the side of the path, in front of some kind of large bush, overlooking majestic oaks on the other side of the path. I sat down and opened my Bible.

In December, I traveled to a conference held by the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. All attendees received a Bible that included a plan to read the Bible in a year, a few chapters from different sections each day.  Today was February 24, but I was quite a bit behind at this point; the last day I had read was February 12.  I read the passages from February 13 next; I was not trying to catch up anymore.  I was beginning to accept the fact that I would not finish in a year, and that was okay.

After I read, I prayed for a while.  I thanked God for this beautiful place to sit on campus, with birds chirping, squirrels running up and down trees, and ducks swimming by.  I prayed that I would stay calm and focused in studying for upcoming midterms.  I prayed for the urban missions project that my friend Taylor Santiago would be part of this spring and summer.  I prayed that I would know the career that God was leading me to.  I prayed for anything and anyone else I could think of, including Chloe, my Bible study co-leader who had recently stepped down from that position without sharing why.


The rest of that day was uneventful in a good way.  I had been home for about half an hour that afternoon, sitting at my desk working on math, when I heard the doorbell ring.  I was expecting a visitor, but it always made me nervous having someone enter my private home and see how I lived.  I had gotten used to the idea of sharing my home with roommates since the four of us moved to this apartment in September, but it still did not feel ideal.

I walked down the stairs to answer the door, but Brian was already downstairs; he got there first.  “Hey, Cambria,” he said.

“Is Greg here?” Cambria asked.

“I’m here,” I said, walking down the stairs.

“What are you guys up to today?” Brian asked.

“I’m interviewing Greg for a paper I’m writing,” Cambria explained.  “You ready, Greg?”

“Sure,” I replied.

Cambria Hawley was a freshman; I knew her from JCF.  She appeared to have mixed European and Asian heritage.  She was of average height, with brown hair and an athletic build from having played water polo in high school.  Cambria was named after a beach town in central California; her parents had vacationed there before she was born, and they liked the town’s name well enough to use it for their daughter.  I do not remember if I knew the story behind Cambria’s name yet at the time she came to our apartment.

Last week at JCF, Cambria had asked me if she could interview me for a paper she had to write in an anthropology class.  “I need to interview someone who experienced a change in their culture or belief system,” she had told me.  “Like someone who moved to another country, or someone who practices a different religion than they grew up with, or something like that.  I remember that you said you grew up Catholic, so I think you would have an interesting perspective on this.”  I had told Cambria that, yes, she could interview me, and this was why she had come over now, three days later.  She sat at the dining room table and took out a notebook and a pen from her backpack; I sat next to her.

“How old were you when you left Catholicism?” Cambria asked.  “And what exactly would you call yourself now?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “‘Christian’ seems a little vague, since technically Catholics follow Christ too.  ‘Evangelical Christian,’ maybe?”

“That’ll work.”

“It was a gradual process at age 19 and 20.”

“So this was recent?  I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah.  Last school year.  I lived alone, and I wanted to stay in touch with my friends from freshman year now that we weren’t all in the dorm together.  They were all involved with JCF, so I started going to JCF large group with them.”

“That was fall quarter?  Of last year?”

“Yeah.  1995.  As I started making friends at JCF, I started hearing a lot about having a relationship with Jesus.  And something about my JCF friends just seemed different, in a good way.  One day during winter quarter, I was having a rough day, I saw Janet McAllen on campus, and we just got to talking.  She started asking me if I knew Jesus.  I wasn’t sure what she meant, so she explained to me how sin created separation between God and humans, and Jesus died to pay the price for that sin so that we could have eternal life and a relationship with him.”

“So it was mostly the influence of friends, more so than family or a pastor?”

“Yeah.”  From the way she asked that, I wondered if she was connecting my answer to something specific that she had learned in class, such as a list of ways that people may be influenced to leave their belief systems.  “Well, the McAllens are campus ministry leaders, that’s kind of like pastors in a way, but they’re friends too,” I added.

“Were you part of a Catholic church before?  What happened when you left?”

“Yes.  I went to Mass at the Newman Center.  And I didn’t leave right away,” I explained.

“Why not?”

“I didn’t feel like I had to.  Catholics believe in Jesus too, and the things I was learning at JCF helped me understand the Catholic Mass better, how all the rituals have their roots in deep worship experiences.”

“Interesting.  So why did you leave?  You go to Jeromeville Covenant now, right?”

“I started seeing more and more that the Catholic students didn’t really know Jesus, and many of them didn’t want to.  To them, Catholicism was just part of their culture; they weren’t really serious about living out their beliefs.  And the people in charge at the Newman Center had some questionable interpretations of what they claimed to believe.  I was in a place where I needed to learn more about the Bible from people who were actually living it out.  And just like with JCF, I had a lot of friends who went to J-Cov, so I started going to church with them.”

“And when was this?”

“October.”

“Just this last October?  Wow, that really was recent.”

“Yeah.”

“How is being a Christian different from being Catholic?” Cambria asked.

“There is much more of an emphasis on my personal relationship with Jesus, on really knowing Jesus personally.  And there is less of an emphasis on rituals, saying the right things at Mass, going to Reconciliation, stuff like that.”

“Reconciliation?”

“It’s also called ‘confession.’  You talk to the priest about ways you have sinned and what good things you can do instead.  Evangelical Christians focus more on telling God your sins yourself, in your personal prayer time.”

Cambria wrote some notes, then proceeded to ask me more questions, including asking about my family and friends’ responses to my newfound Christianity, and about changes in my everyday life that came about as a result of this.  After about half an hour of talking and answering questions, she told me that she had enough to write her paper.  “Thanks for letting me interview you,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” I replied.  “I hope that helped.”

“What are you up to this week?” she asked.

“Just the usual.  It’s gonna be another busy week of school and work.  I have The Edge Wednesday and Bible study Thursday.”  I chose not to tell her that tomorrow I was going to University Life, another Christian group on campus run by a different church.  I had been feeling disillusioned with JCF at times, and I had been checking out that other group.

“What’s The Edge?”

“The junior high youth group at J-Cov.  I met some kids from there after church one week.  And Taylor Santiago is going away for the spring and summer to do a mission trip, so he asked me if I would be interested in taking his spot on the youth staff.”

“That sounds so cool!  I would love to be a youth leader!”

“It’s been a lot of fun so far.  I’ve only been there a couple weeks.”

“Whose Bible study are you in?  Is this a JCF group?”

“Yeah.  Evan Lundgren is the leader.”  I started to say that Chloe had been the co-leader, but I thought her recent decision might not be something to share with the world. I just said, “He had a co-leader, but she quit last week.”

“Quit?  Really?”

“Yeah.  I don’t know what was going on.  Evan said she wouldn’t be part of the group anymore, and that she had some decisions to make.  From what he said, it makes me think that she isn’t a Christian anymore..”

“Oh my gosh,”  Cambria said, sounding concerned.  “It sounds like there’s gotta be something else going on with this girl.”

“Yeah.  But it wasn’t my place to pry.  We were down to just five people last week.  Me, Evan, Jonathan Li, Jill Nguyen, and Amy Kilpatrick.  And I’m hearing that they want to keep expanding the Kairos ministry next year, and add other small groups that are specifically for certain kinds of people.  I’m not in any of the cliques that get picked for the Kairos ministry, and I don’t fit any of those categories, so I don’t know if there will be a Bible study for me next year.”

“I’m sure you’ll have a group next year,” Cambria said.  “They have to have one for everyone.  I’m gonna be in a Kairos group, but I know there will be other groups.”

“No offense, but why do they have to handpick future leaders like that and have separate groups for them?  It just feels exclusionary.”

“Hmm,” Cambria said.  “I had never thought of it like that.”

“I’m sorry.  I’m just frustrated with the way this year’s group is falling apart.”

“Five people in a small group doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  You can have a more involved discussion.”

“That’s true.  I could probably step up and be more involved in the discussion, too.”

“There you go.  It’ll be a good group for the rest of the year.”


Evan and his roommate Jonathan hosted our Bible study at their apartment fall quarter, but in January Evan said that their other roommate needed the house for something on Thursdays, so they would not be able to host anymore.  I volunteered my apartment, after checking with my roommates to make sure it was okay.

On the Thursday night after Cambria interviewed me, I put my studying aside and went downstairs with my Bible after I heard Evan and Jonathan knock on the door.  While the three of us made small talk about how classes were going, Jill arrived and joined our conversation.  A few minutes after that, Evan said, “We can get started now.  It’s time, and I think it’s just going to be the four of us tonight.”

“Amy isn’t coming?” I asked.

“No,” Evan said.  “Do you know Glen Marshall?”

“Yeah.  Kinda.”

“Amy went on a date tonight with Glen.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  Since being involved with JCF and Jeromeville Covenant Church, I had heard multiple talks and lessons warning against becoming romantically involved with non-Christians.  Glen’s housemates all went to JCF, and I had heard them repeatedly mention that Glen was not a Christian, particularly whenever the lesson at JCF or church involved sharing the message of the Gospel with friends.  Why was a Christian girl like Amy interested in this Glen guy?  And why do these rules, which seemed to make it even harder for me to find a girlfriend, not apply to others?  Of course, I knew that I did not want a non-Christian girlfriend in the first place, but it still bothered me that people were not following the rules.

We had begun a study of 1 Corinthians in January, at the beginning of the quarter, and it appeared likely that it would take us the entire year to finish.  During the study, my eyes drifted ahead on the page to a part of the book that we had not studied yet, where Paul wrote, “Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.”  It seemed like my Christian friends often made jokes about this verse, and the gift of singleness, but many of them ended up in relationships, so they obviously did not take it literally at face value.  But it was hard not to feel like God had forcibly thrust the gift of singleness upon me, and upon few to no others.


Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met the next night, and afterward I asked Cambria how her paper turned out.  “I think I did well,” she said.  “I wrote about how you went from a more ritual-based belief system to one based on an individual relationship.”

“Yes,” I said.  “That sounds right.”

“And you went from a complex belief system to a simple one.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  Something about the way she said that surprised me.  I wondered if “complex” and “simple” in this case had specific meanings in that field of study, because I had never really thought of evangelical Christianity as being any less “complex” than Catholicism.  But maybe she was right.  Evangelical Chrisitanity offered a simple plan of salvation: just believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.  Catholicism had hoops to jump through and sacraments to perform, or at the very least a much stronger emphasis on these than evangelical Christianity.

But if Christianity was so simple, why did I feel like there were so many rules to follow?  Why did some people get picked to be in Kairos groups and others did not?  Why did I have to get over the head with messages about how being single is a gift from God, and how Christians should only be in relationships with other Christians, only to see Amy skip Bible study to go on a date with a non-Christian?  Something about this did not seem simple to me.  From what I heard, Amy and Glen did end up in a serious long-term relationship.  I do not know if Glen ever found Jesus.

And if it were actually true that Chloe had turned her back on Christianity, what would happen to her?  Could one who was saved by Jesus Christ be lost?  I had heard that Christians interpreted the Bible differently on that topic.  Regardless of one’s position, it was entirely possible that Chloe was really good at following the rules to give the appearance of being a good Christian, but had never had her heart completely transformed in the first place.  Only God knew what Chloe really believed in her heart.  I prayed that night that she would find her way back to Jesus.

I spent all weekend thinking about what I really believed.  I did not feel like I had an unusually strong or close relationship with God, but knowing that a Bible study leader like Chloe could just walk away from Jesus made me wonder if my faith was strong enough.  Was I a good enough Christian?  Did it mean anything that I often got left out of the cliques at JCF?

I knew that Christianity was not a religion of following rules.  But I was seeing more and more that many Christians acted like it was.  They also acted judgmentally toward those who did not follow the exact same rules as themselves. I recognized that I was judgmental sometimes as well, such as how I disapproved in my mind of Amy’s date with Glen.  It was difficult to discern sometimes which rules were God’s actual commands and which were cultural.

I do not know what happened to Chloe; I did not see much of her after she stopped attending JCF.  I hope she found her way back to Jesus somehow.  While I still had a lot of unanswered questions about myself, I knew that all I had to do was keep seeking the answers in prayer and Scripture.  God’s Word would never steer me wrong


Author’s note: Have you ever made a major change in your cultural or religious beliefs? Tell me about it in the comments.

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February 21, 1997. A productive day, in more ways than one. (#121)

“So when Jesus said, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am,’ the people he was speaking to would have recognized ‘I am’ as what God said to Moses,” Dr. Hurt explained.  “Where’s Lorraine?  I feel like she would have something to say about this.”

Lorraine Mathews was a religious studies major, specializing in Christianity; I knew her from Jeromeville Christsian Fellowship.   I was not a religious studies major.  I took this Writings of John class, and its prerequisite the previous quarter, because I wanted to learn more about the Bible.  I had gotten involved with JCF sophomore year, through friends, and a year ago this month I made a decision to follow Jesus.  I grew up Catholic, where Bible reading consisted of a couple of paragraphs from three different books read aloud by the priest each Sunday, and I wanted to know more about the Bible.

I did not know why Dr. Hurt thought Lorraine would have something to say about this passage, but I did know exactly why she was not in class today.  In a somewhat uncharacteristic move for me, I spoke up, drawing attention to myself and hoping to get a laugh.  “She’s watching Empire Strikes Back,” I said, loud enough for all 150 students to hear.

“Oooooooh,” a few students said, as others chuckled.

“She skipped class for The Empire Strikes Back?” Dr. Hurt repeated.  “Hasn’t she seen that a bunch of times already?”

“This is the new one!” an unidentified student said.

“There’s a new one?”

“Yeah!  With added scenes.”

“Really.  Well, that’s too bad she missed class today.”

After the fact, I felt a little bad.  Maybe I should not have said that.  Maybe Lorraine would be unhappy with me.  She can be a bit feisty sometimes.  But I said what I said.  I wished that I had been watching The Empire Strikes Back with them.  Lucasfilm, the Star Wars production company, was in the middle of rereleasing the three movies with added and changed scenes to better match director George Lucas’ original vision.  The Star Wars movies were not a large part of my childhood, but my roommate Brian was a huge fan.  Brian had watched the new Star Wars multiple times in the last few weeks.  Today he and his friends were watching the next movie, on the first day it hit theaters.  I had seen Star Wars with my friend Barefoot James a few days ago, but Brian said that I could tag along the second time he saw Empire Strikes Back, and James could too.

After the John class ended, I wandered over to the Memorial Union to find a table and get homework done.  It was sunny but cold, so the indoor tables were crowded, but not as crowded as they would be on a rainy day.  I saw Ajeet Tripathi and Brent Wang from JCF sitting at a table.  Ajeet had a book open but did not appear to be actively reading it. 

“‘Sup, Greg?” Ajeet asked.

“Nothing,” I said.  “Just looking for a place to sit for a couple hours.  May I join you?”

“Sure,” Brent said.  “How many more classes do you have today?”

“None–”

“Why are you still here, dude?” Ajeet interrupted.  “It’s Friday afternoon!”

“I need to go to office hours for geometry.  We have a midterm Monday, and I have a few questions.”

Todd Chevallier, another of Ajeet and Brent’s housemates, arrived at the table and said, “Greg.  How’d you beat me here?”  He was coming from the John class also.

“I don’t know.  I guess I just walk fast?”

“Maybe.  Oh, yeah, I had to pee too,” Todd said.

“Greg, did you say you’re taking geometry?” Brent asked.  “Like we all took in high school?”

“It’s a lot more advanced than that,” I explained.  “In this class, we get a lot into the theory behind it, and how to construct a proof.  We also learned about the undefined terms and the foundations of geometry as a logical system.”  I looked up and saw the blank stares on the others’ faces, a familiar sight when I explained anything I learned as a third-year mathematics major to non-mathematics majors.  “It’s the theory behind what you do in high school geometry.”

“Uhh, sure,” Todd said after a pause.  The conversation went into a lull, and I got out my geometry book to work on homework.  Ajeet started singing, “Da da,” followed by some clicking noises, then “Da da da da da da,” six notes of equal duration with the two notes in the middle a minor third lower than all the other notes.  Ajeet repeated the riff, and Todd joined in; I recognized it from a song I had heard numerous times on the radio.

“What are you guys doing?” Brent asked.

“I’ve had that song stuck in my head all day,” Ajeet explained.

“What song?”

“‘Santa Monica,’ by Everclear.  ‘We could live beside the ocean, leave the fire behind…’”

“I’ve never heard it.”

“Really?  It’s on the radio all the time.”

A while later, I looked up from my studying to see Alaina Penn walking by.  Alaina was involved with University Life, another Christian group on campus, and I knew her through mutual friends.  Alaina saw me and waved, walking toward our table.

“Hey, Greg,” Alaina said.  “Mind if I pull up a chair?  If I can find one?”

“I actually need to get going,” Brent said.  “You can have my seat.”

“Thanks!”

“See ya, Brent,” Ajeet said.

“Have a great day,” I added as Brent said goodbye to us and walked away.

I was about to introduce Alaina to Ajeet and Todd, but I was quite well acquainted with the embarrassment of trying to introduce people who already know each other, so first I asked, “Do you guys know Alaina?”

“No,” Ajeet answered as Todd shook his head in the negative.

“She goes to U-Life.  I met her through mutual friends.”

“Were you at U-Life this week, Greg?” Alaina asked.  “I didn’t see you.”

“No,” I explained.  “I had other plans on Tuesday.”

“That was the night you went to see Star Wars with James, right?” Ajeet asked.

“You ditched us for Star Wars?” Alaina asked.  “It’s okay, I’m just messing with you.”

“Wait,” Todd said.  “Greg?  You go to U-Life too?”

I’ve been once.  Two weeks ago.  Alaina and her friends invited me, and I thought it might be nice to check it out.”

“I went a couple times freshman year.  Their large group meetings were a lot like JCF.”

“I noticed that too.”  I did not tell Todd or Ajeet the complete reason why I wanted to try out U-Life, that I felt frustrated at being on the outside of the cliques within JCF.

“Spring training is starting soon!” Ajeet announced.  “Do you guys follow baseball?”

“No,” Alaina answered.

“I used to,” I replied.  “I went to maybe three or four Bay City Titans games every year with my family.  I moved out right when the players went on strike, and I never got back into it.”

“Bummer,  But at least you like the right team,” Ajeet said.  “Baseball is of God.”

“Whoa,” Todd replied.  “Blasphemy?  ‘Baseball is a god?’”

“I said baseball is of God, not a God.  Baseball is God’s gift to us.”

A while later, I heard a new voice say, “Hey, guys.”  Ben Lawton and Whitney Felton, two of Alaina’s friends from U-Life, approached.  “Mind if we join you?”

“Go for it,” I said.  The table next to us was now empty, and I moved aside so that they could push the empty table next to us and make more room.  Whitney introduced herself to Ajeet and Todd; Ben had met them before, since he occasionally attended JCF also.  It was Ben who had first introduced me to Alaina.

“What are you up to the rest of the day?” Ben asked me a bit later.

“I’m going to a professor’s office hours.  What about you?”

“I have a class at 3.”

“A class Friday at 3,” Todd repeated.  “That’s brutal.  It’s bad enough that Ajeet and I have class Friday at 2.”

“We should probably get going for that,” Ajeet added.  “It was nice meeting you guys.  Greg, I’ll see you tonight at JCF?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Have a good one.”

I continued working on homework.  A few minutes after Ajeet and Todd left, Alaina said, “So Whitney and I had this great idea the other day.  We’re gonna throw a coffee house party.  We’ll make all kinds of special coffee drinks, and we’ll decorate the house like a coffee shop.”

“And we’ll have poetry readings, and we’re hoping someone will play live music for part of the night,” Whitney added.  “And we’ll make art to put on the wall.”

“That’s a great idea,” Ben said.  “When is this?”

“Oh, not any time soon.  We’re too busy this quarter.  We’re thinking maybe April.”

“Sounds like fun!”

The three of them started discussing who they could ask to play music and make artwork, naming people I did not know.  At one point, Alaina asked, “Greg, what do you think?”

“Oh,” I said, unaware that I was included in this discussion since it seemed to revolve around U-Life people.  “That sounds like a lot of fun!  Keep me posted.”  I left out the detail that I did not like coffee; it still sounded like fun even without coffee.

At around quarter to three, I stood up and said, “I should probably get going.”

“Me too,” Ben replied.

“You know what’s really funny?” I added.  “When I sat down here two hours ago, it was all JCF people at this table.  And the table gradually transitioned into U-Life people.”

“That is funny!” Alaina said.  “Greg, you just have a lot of friends.”

“I guess I do.  Have a good weekend, you guys!”

“Thanks!” Whitney replied.  “You too!”


For the last year, I would have said that Dr. Thomas was my favorite mathematics professor, but now it was a toss-up between her and Dr. Samuels.  Dr. Samuels was a much better teacher than most of the professors I had.  His was the only math class I ever took that did not feel like just a lecture.  He called on students at random, like a high school teacher might, and he would pause class a few times each hour and tell us to turn to our neighbors and summarize what we just learned.  This helped, especially on days when I could not stay awake.

Four other students came to Dr. Samuels’ office hours that day; apparently I was not the only one who needed refreshing on these topics.  From this class, I was beginning to see geometry in a new light.  My high school geometry textbook had said that every logical system had to begin with undefined terms, and that “point,” “line,” and “plane” were undefined terms in Euclidean geometry.  Why were they undefined, I thought?  It seemed lazy.  One could at least describe the concepts of points, lines, and planes using English, right?

After Dr. Samuels’ class, the concept of undefined terms made more sense.  Geometry begins with basic postulates, such as that two points determine a line.  The terms are undefined because these assumptions determine all the properties that a geometer would need to know about points and lines.  Furthermore, one could construct a geometric system where “point” and “line” were understood to mean something else, and all of the theorems would still apply in that system, since they were based on those basic assumptions.  If “point” were understood to mean what would normally be called a line, and “line” were understood to mean what would normally be called a point, some of the basic postulates would still be true.  Two lines, in the real world sense, determine one point.  This thought blew my mind.

After Dr. Samuels answered my question, he said, “By the way, Greg, can you stick around for a while?  I want to ask you something after we’re done here.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I was going to listen to everyone else’s questions anyway.”  I felt a little nervous over the next twenty minutes, wondering what Dr. Samuels wanted to talk to me about.  Was I in trouble?  I did my best to concentrate on what my classmates were asking.

After the last person left Dr. Samuels’ office, he said, “So, Greg.  What are your plans for after graduation?  I always ask this of strong students like you.”

“I’m not really sure,” I replied sheepishly.  If Dr. Samuels thought I was a strong student, I should have a better answer than that.  “I’ve been trying to figure that out.  I went to the Math Club’s career fair, and nothing really stood out to me.  Dr. Thomas told me about REU programs, so I’m thinking about that for this summer, to get a sense of what grad school would be like.”

“Have you ever considered being a teacher?  I’ve done some work with secondary education, and I’ve heard the way you explain things to others in class.”

Of all the reasons Dr. Samuels might have wanted to talk to me individually, this was not what I was expecting.  For years, I had said that I would never be a teacher, because of the politics involved in public schools.  Many of my high school teachers were active and outspoken politically, with views that I disagreed with.  I had always assumed that I would stay in school forever and become a mathematician, but my disillusionment with the career fair had left my future plans undecided.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I didn’t think much about teaching at first, but everything feels up in the air now.  And I work as a tutor at the Learning Skills Center, and I do enjoy that.”

“If you ever want to give it a try, you can get two units on your transcript as Math 197.  You’ll help out in a classroom at Jeromeville High for the quarter, and at the end you’ll write a short paper about what you did and what you learned.  If you’re trying to figure out your career plans, it would be a great way to immerse yourself in the world of teaching.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It sounds like it.  When do I have to let you know by?”

“Sometime next week should be good.  Think about it.”

“I will.  Thanks for letting me know about this.”

“You’re welcome.  This state is always looking for good teachers, especially ones with strong mathematics backgrounds.”

“Yeah.”

I left Dr. Samuels’s office and walked toward the bus stop.  This was a new wrinkle in the fabric of my life.  Could I be a teacher?  I tried to picture myself in a classroom with thirty sullen teenagers who called me Mr. Dennison.  I was sure it would be challenging, but it could be fun and enjoyable as well.  I enjoyed my tutoring job, I always enjoyed explaining math to people, and I had been spending a lot of time around younger people through volunteering with the youth group at church.

“Greg!” an enthusiastic female voice shouted as I approached the bus stop.  I saw Yesenia Fonseca, one of the first students I ever had as a tutor, waving at me.  “What’s up?”

“Just thinking,” I said.  “My professor just asked me if I had ever considered being a teacher.  I’d never really pictured myself as a teacher.”

“You’d totally be a great teacher!” Yesenia replied.  “I had another tutor last spring quarter, and she wasn’t good at explaining at all, like you were.”

“He said I could get units for helping in a classroom at Jeromeville High.  I’m thinking I might do it.”

“You should!”

Yesenia’s bus arrived just seconds before mine; we said goodbye and headed home.  Shawn, one of my roommates, was studying to be a math teacher.  He was doing his student teaching at Laguna Ciervo High School, across the Drawbridge in a suburban neighborhood just outside of Capital City.  When I got home, I told Shawn about what Dr. Samuels had said.

“You should go for it,” Shawn said.  “I think you’d be a good teacher.  We definitely need good teachers.  The teacher I’m working with is terrible.”

“Oh yeah?”

“He’s just mean.  He keeps telling kids, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’  I mean, I get you have to establish authority, but there’s got to be a better way.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t see you like that.  I think you should try it.”

All weekend, I could not get this off my mind.  This had been a productive day, in more ways than one.  I had gotten a lot of work done sitting in the Memorial Union.  I had learned of an upcoming party at Alaina and Whitney’s house, another connection with a new group of friends.  And Dr. Samuels had given me something to think about regarding the future.  Me, Mr. Dennison, teaching high school kids about algebra and geometry.

Sure, Shawn was not having the best experience with student teaching.  But I was not Shawn.  Hopefully I would have a better experience.  Yesenia had told me that I would make a good teacher, and as a former tutee, she would know.  I would tell Dr. Samuels on Monday that I wanted to help out at Jeromeville High; the worst that could happen was that I would discover that I would not like it.  I would still get two units for it.  It was an option to explore, and that was what I needed right now.


Author’s note: Who was your favorite teacher, and why?


February 14-18, 1997.  Taking my first step into a larger world. (#120)

I was nine months old when the world first experienced the Star Wars phenomenon in 1977.  As such, I was too young to have seen the movie, or its first sequel The Empire Strikes Back, on the big screen in its original run.  I remember the hype surrounding the next movie in the series, Return of the Jedi, which was released when I was six.  I did not see Return of the Jedi, but I saw the other two movies a couple times over the years during my childhood.  Star Wars creator George Lucas had repeatedly said that he planned to make more movies past Return of the Jedi, as well as three other movies telling the backstory of how the primary villain Darth Vader turned to evil.  In the fourteen years between Return of the Jedi and my junior year at the University of Jeromeville, no more Star Wars movies had been made.

I recognized most of the major characters from Star Wars, but by age twenty, I did not have a detailed recollection of the specific storylines of the movies.  Star Wars just was not a huge part of my childhood.  Therefore, when George Lucas’ company announced that the original three movies would be rereleased in theaters in early 1997, with new scenes to match his original vision, I at first considered this a minor curiosity, something that might be fun to go see, but not something around which to revolve my life.

For my roommate Brian Burr, seeing Star Wars on the big screen again, in this new Special Edition, was a huge deal.  Brian was older than me; he would have been three and a half when Star Wars was first released, so he grew up with Star Wars more than I did.  He announced a while back that he was going to see each movie on the big screen three times.  The movies were being released on Fridays, and Star Wars was not worth missing class over, but I told Brian to keep me posted about the second or third times he saw the movies, so I could go too.

The Special Edition of Star Wars was now entering its third week in theaters, but so far Brian had not said anything to me about seeing the movie.  I was starting to feel left out, like I had from so many cliques already over the last few months.  Furthermore, today was Valentine’s Day, and even though I had gotten brave and talked to the cute girl on the bus this morning, my general failures at love still made me feel discouraged.

After my two math classes, I had New Testament Writings of John with Dr. Hurt.  Dr. Hurt’s New Testament classes were very popular with Christian students at UJ.  I was part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship; I had recently started attending Jeromeville Covenant Church and their college group, 20/20; and I had friends who were part of University Life, the college group from the First Baptist Church of Jeromeville.  The Writings of John class had around 150 students; I knew and was friends with many of them.

I had taken Introduction to New Testament with Dr. Hurt last quarter to satisfy a general education requirement, and I was taking this class just because I was interested in the topic.  I was learning a lot about the Bible and life as a Christian from JCF and church, but Dr. Hurt’s classes taught me to look at the Bible from a scholarly perspective, which I had never done before.  Earlier in the quarter, we spent two whole days studying one word in the first verse of the Gospel of John, for example.  In English, the verse was usually translated as “In the beginning was the Word,” but “Word,” Logos in Greek, could mean word, study, reason, discourse, or a number of other concepts that were difficult to translate.  God’s Word in this sense was more than just words, it was what God used to speak the universe into being, and Jesus was this Word in human form, in a way that twentieth century English could not explain well.

“Hey, man, what’s up?” Taylor Santiago said as we walked out of Dr. Hurt’s class.  Brent Wang, Noah Snyder, and Mike Knepper had all been sitting near us, and we all walked outside together.  “I see you’re wearing black today.”

“Yeah,” I chuckled.  Bah, humbug to Valentine’s Day, I thought.

“Was the black shirt on purpose?”

“Kinda,” I said.  “Did you guys see Eddie today?

“No,” Brent replied.

“He was wearing a shirt that said, ‘I’m available.’”

“No way!” Taylor exclaimed, laughing.

“But then on the back,” I continued, “it said, ‘Send me.  Isaiah 6:8.’”

“That’s awesome,” Brent said.  Pete and Mike laughed.

“Hey, guys, what’s so funny?” Barefoot James said, walking up to us.  James was a sophomore, a year younger than us.  Two weeks ago, I had started volunteering with The Edge, the junior high school youth group at J-Cov; James was also a volunteer with that group, as were Taylor and Noah.  I told James about Eddie’s shirt, and he replied, “Oh yeah!  I saw that!  That was great.”

“So do any of you have plans for Valentine’s Day?” Brent asked.

“Nope!” Taylor replied.  The others all replied in the negative as well.

“Things didn’t work out for you guys, Mike?” Noah asked.

“I told you,” Mike replied, “Courtney just wants to be friends.”

“Aww,” Taylor said.  “What about you, Greg?  Any ladies we should know about?”

“No,” I said.  I did not know how, or when, to take the next step with the cute girl on the bus.  It happened all too often that I would meet a cute girl and never see her again, or I would take my time getting to know a cute girl while some other guy was busy asking her out.

The others here did not understand; they, or at least some of them, had had girlfriends before.  Taylor and Pete had both been romantically linked to a girl in our freshman dorm, Danielle; she was not together with either of them anymore.  And a few months ago, I thought for sure something was going on between Mike Knepper and Courtney; if I could see it, it must have been really obvious.  Mike had even told me once that he liked Courtney.  But apparently she had just wanted to be friends.

Courtney was a total babe, a freshman, friendly and flirty, with long blonde hair.  I had been seeing more of her the last couple weeks, since she was also a leader at The Edge.  She seemed to spend a lot of time around another of the leaders, Brody Parker, and I was starting to wonder if there was something going on between them. That would explain why she was no longer interested in Mike Knepper.  Although Courtney was very attractive on so many levels, I never considered myself to be interested in her as more than a friend, with all of that competition from other guys like Mike and Brody.

I was ready to talk about something other than Valentine’s Day, so I mentioned the other thing I had been brooding about inside.  “I also still haven’t seen the Star Wars Special Edition,” I said.  “I wanted to go, because I barely remember the original movies.”

“I haven’t seen it yet either,” Barefoot James replied.

Without thinking, I blurted out, “You wanna go see it?”  I had been waiting for two weeks for an opportunity to see Star Wars, and when my mind processed that a chance had fallen into my proverbial lap, I took it.

“Sure,” James replied.

“When?  What works for you?”

James thought for a minute, then said, “Tuesday night?  I don’t have anything going on then.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll look up the times it’s playing.  Will you be at church on Sunday?  We can figure it out then.

“Yeah,” James said.  “Sounds good.”  Of course, Barefoot James on Tuesday night was not exactly a Valentine’s Day date, but at this point what mattered was that I really wanted to see Star Wars.  I made plans with someone, and this was progress.


It turned out that the only show that worked on Tuesday night for Barefoot James was at 10:20, later than I would have liked to start a movie on a school night.  But I really wanted to see this movie, and I had already made a commitment to James.  I could survive on one day of getting less sleep.

I drove downtown and arrived at the theater a few minutes after ten o’clock.  I did not see James outside, nor could I see him inside in the lobby.  I was usually early showing up to things like this, so I stood outside the entrance, waiting for James to arrive.

As my watch ticked past 10:10, 10:15, 10:20, I continued looking across the nearly deserted G Street, wondering where James was.  Had he stood me up?  Had he forgotten?  Had something happened to him?  I wondered what the protocol was for this kind of situation.  How long should I wait before assuming that James would not come?  And in that situation, should I buy a ticket and watch the movie by myself, or should I just go home?  If I did give up on James and watch the movie by myself, how would James know that I was inside the theater?

I got excited when I saw a guy with light brown hair and stubble approach from my left, but as I started taking a step toward him, I noticed that this was clearly not Barefoot James.  As this guy’s facial features came into view, he began to look less like James, and I also noticed at that moment that he was wearing shoes.  It was now 10:26, and my mind was still racing, confused about how to handle this.  Maybe I should just go inside and watch the movie before I missed too much of it.  But if I told the person at the ticket booth to watch for someone fitting James’ description, to pass on the message that I was inside, would she do that?  Would the girl at the ticket window pack up soon if there were no other shows starting that night?  Had the movie even started yet?  How much did I miss?  How much time did I have?  Or should I just go home?  I would give it five more minutes before I decided.

Fortunately, I did not need to make this decision, because James approached from my right on the opposite side of the street at 10:29, waving when he saw me.  He was wearing sandals; I had known James for over a year now, and this was the first time I had ever seen him not barefoot.  “Sorry I’m late,” James said.  “Let’s go.”  As we bought and paid for our tickets, James explained, “I would have been on time, except I got halfway here and remembered that I wasn’t wearing shoes, so I had to go back.  This movie theater is one of the only places I’ve never been able to get into without shoes.”

“I see,” I said.  As we walked toward our theater, I asked, “Why don’t you wear shoes anyway?  I’ve never known.”

“I’ve just never liked shoes,” James explained.  “I think they’re uncomfortable.”

“I see,” I replied.  It was true that shoes were often uncomfortable, but personally, my feet would get too cold if I always went barefoot.  I did not like going barefoot.

The movie theater in Jeromeville had six screens; Star Wars was in theater 3.  We walked in while a preview for an upcoming movie played.  “Oh, good,” I said.  “We didn’t miss anything.”

The theater was about half full; we sat toward the back near the center.  The preview that played as we sat down was the last one, and the movie began after that.  I felt anticipation building as the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, the Lucasfilm logo, and the text “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” appeared on the screen.  A few people cheered as the music started and the backstory text scrolled up the screen; I clapped with them a few times.

I had only seen Star Wars a couple times in childhood, and it had been several years, but I remembered bits and pieces of the plot.  Although the characters were familiar, most of the movie felt like a new experience to me.  I watched intently as Princess Leia hid a top secret message inside the memory of the droid R2-D2 and launched him and his companion C-3PO in an escape pod to find Obi-Wan Kenobi. The droids were found by scavengers and sold to a farm boy named Luke Skywalker.  Luke helped the droids find Obi-Wan, who then explained to Luke about the Force.  Obi-Wan said that the Force was an energy field that holds the galaxy together.

“Sounds kind of like the Logos,” I whispered to James.  “In the beginning was the Force.”

“Whoa,” James replied.  “That’s probably some kind of blasphemy or something.”

A few minutes later, in the movie, Luke and Obi-Wan met the pilot Han Solo in a seedy bar. They paid him to take them and the droids to Leia.  As they left the bar, a green-skinned gangster stopped Han and asked him about a shipment that Han had previously lost.  The gangster shot his blaster, missing Han to the side; the special effects for that part looked uncharacteristically awkward, not the smooth, realistic effects that Star Wars was known for.  Han then shot back, killing the gangster.

“Han shot first,” James whispered.

“Huh?” I replied.

“Han shot first.  You know about that, right?”

“Oh, yeah, I read about that,” I said as the significance of that scene dawned on me.  The most controversial change made for the Special Edition of Star Wars involved Han Solo’s gun battle with someone named Greedo.  In the original movie, Han shot Greedo unprovoked, but in the Special Edition, the scene was altered to make it look like Han shot in self-defense, so as not to portray Han as a cold-blooded murderer.  Many fans believed that the original scene was more in line with Han’s smuggler and mercenary background.  I did not realize at first that this dead green gangster was Greedo.

I continued to watch the movie.  Obi-Wan began to teach Luke about the ways of the Force.  Darth Vader found Luke, Obi-Wan, Han, and the others, and battled Obi-Wan to settle some unfinished business from their past.  Luke escaped that battle and found the Rebels, who then began making plans to go on the offensive.  I tried to take in as many details as I could, so that I would be able to discuss the movie with Brian and other Star Wars fans.

As the movie ended and the credits began, I said to James, “That was good.”

“Yeah.  That new scene with Jabba the Hutt was interesting.”

“Honestly, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Star Wars.  What was that part like before?”

“It just wasn’t there.  It was a whole new scene.  Jabba didn’t show up until Return of the Jedi.”

“Oh, okay.”

“So do you have plans to see The Empire Strikes Back yet?” James asked as we left the theater.  “It comes out Friday.”

“I know Brian and his group already got tickets for Friday.  But I heard him say he’ll want to go a second time.  I’ll ask if I can get in on that, and I’ll let you know.”

“Great, man.  I need to get to bed, I have class in the morning.”

“Me too.  I’m gonna be tired tomorrow, but it was worth it.”

“Yeah!  I’ll see you tomorrow at The Edge?”

“Yes.  Drive safely.”


I did not see Brian until I got home from school Thursday, two days later.  Brian was busy for much of Wednesday, and I was gone for much of the day at school and at The Edge.  Wednesday evening at The Edge.  (After the students went home from The Edge, Courtney and Brody sat in a corner talking, oblivious to the world; it really did look like something was going on between them.)

Brian was happy to hear that I had seen Star Wars with Barefoot James.  “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world,” he said, quoting what Obi-Wan had said to Luke after beginning to teach Luke about the Force.

“Are you still going to see Empire again after the premiere?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Brian said.  “Probably on a weekend, next week or the week after.  You wanna come?”

“Yes!  And James does too.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll keep you posted.”

I may not have grown up with Star Wars, like many kids my age, but tonight I really had stepped into a new world. I was a Star Wars fan now.  This movie was going to be part of my life.  Or at least I would be a Star Wars fan after I saw Return of the Jedi, since I still had no idea how the trilogy ended.  My Jedi training was not complete yet.  Brian had the original versions of all three movies on VHS tapes, but I wanted to wait and see the other two Special Editions with friends first.

After I saw all three Special Editions, I watched all the movies again, using Brian’s tapes.  I bought my own copy of the Special Editions on VHS later that year.  The first of the prequels, telling the story of the future Darth Vader when he was a child, was released in 1999, and one of the most exciting moments of my Star Wars fandom was seeing the first showing of that in a group of sixty of my closest friends.  Yes, sixty.

But that is a story for another time.


Author’s note: Are you a Star Wars fan?


February 13-14, 1997.  Fall away. (#119)

I clicked Print and watched the printer run, then I stapled the three pages of my story together.  I glanced over it, proud of my little creation, feeling especially clever since I had hidden a secret message in the story.


“Fall Away”
by Gregory J. Dennison, February 1997

Here we go again, I thought, as I opened the door and saw her sitting there, her hair gently blowing in the light breeze.  She was talking with someone I did not recognize.  I wondered how I should react.  It seemed like a little devil and a little angel had appeared on my shoulder, as if in a cartoon.  The former told me to walk on by and say nothing, and the latter told me I should try to be friendly and at least say hello.  I wasn’t sure how to act, since I still had trouble dealing with the time she rejected me.  I have tried my hardest not to be bitter.  I watched her as I walked by.  She did not see me, so I kept right on walking.

Also, over the past few weeks, it seems like she and I have been drifting apart.  We were once such good friends, and I had hoped so much that our friendship would turn into something more.  When I finally got brave enough to ask her out, she rejected me.  It was a friendly and sympathetic rejection, but a rejection nonetheless.   A movie was playing on campus that night, and we had mentioned that we both wanted to see it.  I asked her if she wanted to see it with me, and she said she would, but she had to get up early the next morning.  She did not want to stay out late.  That was kind of the last straw for me.  A couple weeks later, I told her how I felt about her, and she told me she did not feel the same way back.  I decided, though, that our friendship seemed too important to throw away, so I would try to stay friends with her rather than avoid her.

Love never works like that, though.  Another month had passed, and my feelings for her were coming back.  In light of this, I became hesitant to pursue our friendship, because I feared that my feelings would get in the way like they did before.  Also, in the past month or so it has seemed like she and I have naturally drifted apart.  When she and her friends are all together, it seems like they stick together and don’t really include me as much.  I would still consider them my friends on a one-to-one basis, but as a group they seem kind of exclusive.

Every table seemed full as I scanned the room for a place to sit and eat lunch.  I spotted two of my friends next to an open seat, but it looked like they were busy talking about something serious, so I didn’t want to bother them.  I continued looking and saw someone else I recognized, but I heard someone calling my name first.  I looked up and saw a girl who I had met about a month ago, sitting with a bunch of her friends who I barely knew.  She asked me if I wanted to sit down, so I did.

“You look tired,” she said.  I agreed.  I proceeded to get out the lunch I had packed, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bag of tortilla chips.  After saying a short prayer, I began eating.  I thought about the situation.  I looked at the people around me at the table.  I didn’t really know them well, but they seemed really friendly.  This was also the second time this week that I had sat with them at lunch time.  Maybe this group was destined to become my new friends.

Curious to see what was happening around me, I looked up.  I saw the girl I saw earlier that day, the one who had rejected me.  She was talking to the two friends I had almost sat with.  I looked down, unsure of what to do.  Friendship is a valuable treasure, and I really hate to lose a friend.  But ever since that day she turned down my offer for a date, I have found it so difficult to connect with her.  We had talked a few times in the weeks since that happened, but it never seemed the same as it was before.  We rarely hung out together anymore, and when we talked, it was rarely anything more than hi and how are you.

Her pretty blue eyes looked in another direction, away from my table, as she began walking toward me.  I quickly moved my head down and looked intently at my food for about thirty seconds, so that when I looked up again I could be sure that she was gone.  I began to regret my decision after it happened.  I felt like a really unfriendly jerk.  I wondered what had come over me.  I’m not exactly the most friendly person in the world, but I have never noticed myself consciously avoiding a friend either.

Although I convinced myself after the rejection that nothing would ever happen between us, and I was comfortable with this decision at first, I seemed to feel worse about it every day.  Something had gone wrong.  I had wanted to remove my desire for a romantic relationship with her in exchange for a continued friendship.

Nothing I tried was working, though.  I had discussed my feelings with a close friend of ours.  He had felt the same way toward the same girl at one time.  He finally told her the truth, and although she did not feel the same way toward him, they had grown closer as friends.

None of this happened in my case.  I never told her how I felt about her, but more importantly we have not stayed friends.  I have a really hard time carrying on a conversation with her.  Maybe I should just have a long talk with her, apologize for avoiding her, and let her know that I wish we could talk more like we used to.

I finished eating and decided to go to class some time later.  I made up my mind that I would deal with this situation again as soon as I had an opportunity to talk to her.  A friend is a terrible thing to lose.  God would want me to face my problems and not run from them like this.  

Now, though, might not be the time to stay friends.  It would make it harder for the feelings to go away, for me to get over her rejection.  I did not know what I should do.  As I walked along, thinking about what I really felt toward her, I saw her, sitting at a table eating lunch.  She did not see me.  I started to go talk to her.

Going that way suddenly felt like a bad idea; I took one step toward her and chickened out.  I looked at her, to see if her eyes would drift up in my direction.  They did not.  I had run away from her again, the third time that day.  And somewhere, off in the distance, a rooster crowed.


It was late afternoon on Thursday, and I had been working on this story off and on for a week.  Most of the events in the story actually happened to me.  One day last week, I saw Haley Channing three times during my lunch break at the Memorial Union, and I just could not bring myself to talk to her.  I thought that telling her how I felt two months ago was the best course of action to get over her.  There was an outside chance that she liked me too, but if she did not, at least I would know.  It hurt to hear that, but some things have to hurt before they feel better, like ripping off a bandage quickly.  Things had not gotten better; now I just felt awkward around her, and my rejection felt like another painful reminder of the cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and my position on the outside.

After the third time I ignored her, I thought about Jesus’ prediction that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed.  The title of the story was taken from Jesus’ words preceding this incident: “You will all fall away.”  Peter insisted that he would never do such a thing, but he did, and he heard a rooster crow afterward.  I had just denied Haley three times, and I added the part about the rooster at the end of the story to allude to Peter’s denials.  I did not actually hear a rooster in real life.

The new friend who called me over to sit with her on that day was Alaina from University Life, the college ministry of a different church from the one I went to.  A while back, on another crowded day in the Memorial Union, I was looking for a place to sit.  I saw Ben, an acquaintance who was involved with U-Life but also attended JCF sometimes, and he was sitting with Alaina.  Since then, I had often seen one or both of them at lunch, and I had met some of their other friends.

Two days ago, I took a significant step closer to this other group.  I headed to campus in the evening and paid two dollars for a parking spot in the public lot on Davis Drive near the Barn.  I hated paying for parking.  A daily parking permit cost one dollar my freshman year.  The following year it increased to two dollars for the day, but still one dollar for evenings for people arriving after five o’clock.  This year the price increased to three dollars for the day and two for the evening, and I heard next year it would be three dollars any time.  The cost was increasing much faster than inflation, tripling in three years.  If this exponential increase continued, the cost of a daily parking permit in the year 2021 would be $19,683.  (The actual cost of a daily parking permit in 2021 was twelve dollars, increasing twelvefold in twenty-seven years; I still found that outrageous.)

I crossed the street and walked into Harding Hall, looking for the big lecture hall inside.  I followed the faint murmur of voices down the hall.  As I approached the room, I saw a large sign that said WELCOME TO UNIVERSITY LIFE with a large Christian cross on the left.  The setup looked very much like that of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, with people filling out name tags near the entrance and a live band in the front, probably to play worship music.

“Hi,” the guy with the name tags said.  “What’s your name?”

“Greg.”

The guy wrote my name on a name tag, unpeeled it, and handed it to me.  I stuck it on my shirt in the center of my chest.  I walked into the large lecture hall, looking around for a seat, but before I sat down, I heard someone calling out, “Greg!”

I looked around and saw Alaina waving at me.  “Hey,” I said, walking toward her.

“You made it!  Come sit with us!”  Alaina led me to a seat near the center of the lecture hall, next to her roommate Whitney, our friend Ben, and a few others whom I had met but needed to look at their name tags to remember their names.

The rest of the night at U-Life was structured much like JCF; I would not have been able to tell the difference, other than the presence of different people there.  The group was led by an adult, the college pastor from the church that ran U-Life.  The band played a few worship songs, someone made announcements, the pastor gave a talk about something from the Bible, and they finished with more songs.  I saw a few other familiar faces around the room.  Carolyn Parry, whom I knew from being in chorus last quarter, was in the worship band.  I also recognized another math major named Melissa Becker, several people from my Introduction to New Testament class last quarter and New Testament Writings of John class this quarter, and Rebekah Tyler from my freshman dorm.

I enjoyed U-Life, with the intent to come back some other time.  But I did not want to give up on JCF, even though it was cliquish and I would run into Haley there.  Yesterday, the day after I went to U-Life, I finished writing my story, “Fall Away,” which I had been working on over the last week.  I printed it just now, when I got home from class.  I was still holding the printed copy of Fall Away when my roommate Shawn walked into the room.

“Hey, Greg,” he said.  “What’s that you’re reading?”

“I wrote a story,” I replied.

“Really?  What’s it about?”

“Something that happened to me last week that I thought would make a good story.”

“Can I read it?”

I debated whether or not to let Shawn read the story.  My desire to share and discuss my work won out over wanting to keep the details of my romantic pursuits private.  I handed Shawn the story as I got out my textbook for Euclidean Geometry and began working on homework.

“‘By Gregory J. Dennison,’” Shawn read aloud.  “What’s the J for?”

“James.  It was my dad’s brother’s name.  He died in an accident before I was born.”

“I’m sorry.  But you have a story to go with your name.”

“Yeah.  And Gregory was after one of my dad’s good friends.”

“That’s cool,” Shawn said.  “My parents named me Shawn because they liked the name.  And they spelled it right too.  None of this ‘Seen’ stuff.”  Shawn had intentionally mispronounced the traditional spelling of Sean as if it rhymed with “mean,” and I chuckled.  “I mean, I know it’s Irish, but hey, do I look Irish to you?”  Shawn definitely did not look Irish; he was born here in the United States, but he was of Chinese descent.  This made me laugh even harder.

Shawn continued reading my story as I turned back to my math homework.  A few minutes later, he said, “That was pretty good.  So there’s a girl you liked, and she didn’t like you back, and you can’t get her out of your head?  And you didn’t want to say hi to her?”

“Pretty much.

“Is it someone I know?”

“Maybe.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t want to say.”

“Come on, you can tell me.”

I had a feeling Shawn might want to know whom the story was about.  I could have told him I did not want to reveal this information, but I had a feeling he would keep bugging me about it.  Besides, my story had a secret, which could make this fun.  “Promise you won’t tell anyone.  Or make fun of me.”

“I promise.”

“I hid a secret message in the story.”

“What?” Shawn said.  I put my math homework aside, watching Shawn’s reaction as he searched for the secret message, looking carefully at the words on the page.  “I can’t find it,” he said finally.

“Read it out loud,” I said with a mischievous grin.

“‘Here we go–’”

“Stop,” I interrupted.  “Now go to the next paragraph.”

“‘Also, ov–’”

“Stop.  Next paragraph.”

“‘Love ne–’”

“Stop.  Next paragraph.”

Shawn looked over the entire story, then began reciting the first words of each paragraph.  “‘Here, also, love, every, you, curious, her, although, nothing, none, I, now, going.’  I don’t get it.”

“Try again.  Start from the beginning.

“H–”

“Next paragraph,” I interrupted, as soon as I heard Shawn make a sound.

“A–”

“Next paragraph.”

“L– Oh, wait a minute.”  Shawn flipped the three printed pages back and forth quickly, with a look of understanding on his face.  He had figured out that I was trying to tell him to look at only the first letter of each paragraph, not the first word.  “Haley Channing,” he said.  “It’s too bad she didn’t like you back.  She’s a cutie.”

“Yeah, she is.”

“You know what they say.  Women… can’t live with ‘em…”

“Can’t live without ‘em?” I added

“Can’t shoot ’em,” Shawn replied, finishing a famous comedic quote.

I chuckled.  “I’ve never heard that.”

“Women are always trouble.  If it weren’t for women, O.J. Simpson wouldn’t be in the news all the time.  You heard he lost the civil case, right?”

“Yeah.  And now he owes the families millions of dollars.”

“He totally did it.  He should be in jail.”

“Yeah.”

“Seriously, though, don’t give up.  If something was meant to be, God’ll make it happen somehow.  And don’t let it get you down.  Just live your life.”

“I know.”


Despite Shawn’s advice not to let my romantic failures get to me, I still decided to wear black for Valentine’s Day the next morning.  I did not wear solid black, though; I wore faded blue jeans with the black t-shirt from Urbana that said “What have you seen God do lately?”

The bus was crowded today; the air was damp, the sky was gray, and the weather forecast called for rain by mid-morning at the latest.  No one I knew got on at this stop, although I recognized some people from previous bus rides: a pale-faced guy with a big blond beard, an Asian guy with unkempt hair, and a pretty girl with wavy brown hair and big brown eyes.  When the bus arrived, I was one of the last from our stop to board.  Even though this was only the second stop on the route, the 8:35am bus on a cold, rainy day filled up fast, with over half of the seats already taken.

I looked up and breathed in sharply when I saw the pretty brown-haired girl right in front of me, next to an empty seat.  “May I sit here?” I asked her.

“Yeah!” she replied.  She smiled.

“Thanks.”  The bus stopped once more on Maple Drive, then turned left on Alvarez Avenue and stopped twice more.  I looked up and saw that the girl next to me was looking in my direction, so I turned and made eye contact.  “How’s it going?” I asked.

“Pretty good.  How are you?”

“I’m okay.  Glad it’s Friday.”

“Yeah.  Me too.”

Trying to think of something else to say, as we headed south on Andrews Road, I asked, “What class are you headed to?”

“Bio 101.  It’s really hard.”

“I’ve heard.”

“What about you?  What classes do you have today?”

“Advanced calculus, Euclidean geometry, and New Testament Writings of John.”

“How is that John class? I’ve heard good things about it.”

“It’s good.  I have a lot of friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship in that class too.”

“My roommate and I were talking about looking for a church.”

“I go to Jeromeville Covenant,” I said.  “The one right back there, on the right.  And Jeromeville Christian Fellowship too, but that isn’t affiliated with a church.”

“Maybe I’ll check those out sometime.”

“Yeah.  That would be cool,” I said.  “Hey, what’s your name?  I know I’ve seen you on the bus before.”

“Tara.”

“I’m Greg.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Tara said, motioning to shake my hand.

“Nice to meet you too,” I replied as I shook Tara’s hand.  She smiled, and I smiled back.  Maybe this Valentine’s Day would not be so bad after all.


Author’s note: Did you find the secret message? Have you ever written something with a secret message hidden inside?

“Fall Away” is an actual story I wrote when I was younger. I hope I have grown as a writer since then, because reading it again now, it really wasn’t that good. I only made minimal changes to it for inclusion in this episode, in order to resolve continuity errors between the original story and the way I have told the backstory now.


February 5, 1997. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. (#118)

I walked toward the church and entered the fellowship hall building, which was called The Lamp.  The building was quiet and empty, much different from Sunday mornings when 20/20, the college Sunday school class, met here.  A small group of people around my age sat in a circle near the middle of the group, reading what appeared to be copies of the same paper.  I recognized most, but not all, of the people in the circle from the college group.

“Greg!  You made it!” Taylor Santiago called out from the circle, motioning me over.

“Yeah,” I said.  “So what do I need to do?”

“Just hang out.  After everyone gets here, we’re going to go over the plan for the night.”

I sat in the circle in between Taylor and a girl with bushy light brown hair whom I did not know.  Taylor handed me my own copy of the paper; it said THE EDGE, 2/5/97 at the top.  Below this was a schedule for the night, along with a discussion outline for small groups at the end of the night, and a list of which students would be with which leaders in these small groups.  I noticed that one group was listed as “Taylor/Greg,” and that this group included Ted, Zac, and Danny, the three students whom I knew.  Taylor had told whomever made this schedule that I would be coming tonight.

“How’s it going, Taylor?” Noah Snyder asked.  I knew Noah from the college group; he and Taylor had been friends since their early teens, before they both came to the University of Jeromeville.  I had also seen his name in the church bulletin with the title “junior high intern”; I thought that meant that he actually got paid part time to have a leadership role with The Edge, the group for junior high school students here at Jeromeville Covenant Church.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.  I was vaguely aware that someone else entered the room during our conversation, but I did not pay attention until I heard a familiar female voice say, “Greg?”

I looked up and saw a girl with straight dark blonde hair standing next to her boyfriend, a stocky, muscular guy a little bit shorter than her.  “Hey, Abby,” I said.  “Josh.”

“Greg?  Are you gonna be an Edge leader?” Josh asked.

“Maybe,” I replied.  “I’m checking it out.  I might be taking Taylor’s spot when he leaves spring quarter.”

“Well, I hope you enjoy it!”

“It’s so much fun!” Abby added.

Across from me in the circle was a tall guy who looked older than me, maybe around twenty-five.  He had short, almost buzzed hair, and a toothy grin; I knew from having been around J-Cov the last four months that this was Adam White, the youth pastor.  “You two know each other?” Adam asked when he saw Josh talking to me.

“Yeah,” I said, although the fact that Josh lived under the same roof as me, and I had no idea that he was an Edge leader, made me wonder if I really knew him at all.  I did not say this, though, because I really did feel bad that I did not know this.  I did not know that Abby was an Edge leader either, and I had known her even longer than Josh.  “He’s my roommate.”

“That roommate you never see who works weird hours?” Taylor asked.  “That’s Josh?”

“Yeah!”

“I never knew that!”

A few minutes later, after everyone had arrived, Noah gathered us to begin the night.  “We have a new leader,” he said.  “Greg, why don’t you introduce yourself?”

“I’m Greg,” I said.  “I’m a junior, a math major.  I’ve been going to J-Cov and 20/20 since October.  But I know a lot of you from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and Taylor was in my dorm freshman year.  Three boys from The Edge decided they wanted to hang out with me a few weeks ago after church, so I’ve been getting to know them.  Taylor told me about how he’s going away for six months, and since I’ve been hanging out with those boys, he asked if I’d be interested in trying out The Edge and taking over his small group for the rest of the year.”

“So they just decided they wanted to hang out with you?” Noah asked.  “Who are they?”

“Ted Hunter, and Zac, and Danny,” I said.  “I don’t know the others’ last names.”

“Danny Foster,” the bushy-haired girl next to me said.  “That’s my brother.”

“Oh, okay.” 

“That’s hilarious that the kids just went out and found you to be their leader,” Adam said.  “I’m Adam.  I’m the youth pastor.  Who else here do you know?”

I looked around the circle, pointing at people.  “Taylor, Noah, Martin, Courtney,” I said.  “Abby and Josh.  And James,” I added, purposely not calling him Barefoot James to his face.  I knew these people either from rom JCF or 20/20, or both, but some of them I did not know were Edge leaders.  The others introduced themselves next; Danny Foster’s sister was named Erica.  A scruffy-looking guy I had seen at 20/20 but did not know was named Brody, and a girl with long dark hair was named Kate.  Finally, a girl with short, chin-length blonde hair introduced herself as Charlotte; I had never seen her before.

“Nice to meet you guys,” I replied.

Noah then discussed the plan for the rest of the night, and when we finished this, he asked if there were any prayer requests.  “I have one,” I said.  “Pray that I will seek God’s will for my life, that I’ll know if working with The Edge is part of it.”

“That’s a good one.  Anyone else?”

Each person in the circle shared a prayer request.  Some were specific, like Taylor’s upcoming mission trip, Charlotte’s midterm, and Kate’s sick uncle; others just asked to thank God for a good week.  We each then took turns praying for the person on our left.  When my turn came, I said, “God, I thank you that Taylor has this opportunity to go to Chicago, to serve you.  I pray that all of those around him will see your love and your message of salvation through his actions and his attitude.  I pray that you will bless him with safe travel, and a good adjustment to a new living situation.”

After everyone finished praying we all looked back up.  “Go love those kids!” Noah said in a way that suggested that he said this every week at this point.

“So what do I do now?” I asked Noah.

“Just hang out.  It starts at 7, but kids will gradually trickle in, and we’ll do announcements at 7:15.  If kids ask you who you are, just tell them.”


Over the next twenty minutes, the room gradually filled with twelve- through fourteen-year-olds of all shapes and sizes.  Of the boys I knew, Ted was the first to arrive.  “Greg!” he shouted when he saw me.  “You’re here!”

“I know!  And I’m going to be in your small group with Taylor.”

“Great!”  Ted saw Danny walk in and motioned for him to come over.  “Danny!” Ted exclaimed.  “Look!  Greg’s here!”

Zac arrived a minute later, and the boys moved on to do something else a minute after that.  I walked around, trying to take in the atmosphere.  Music that I did not recognize played on the speakers, something that sounded like the typical girl-rock of that era, but this singer had a distinct voice, a little bit like that girl from the Cranberries, but not really. The lyrics, and the fact that we were at church, made me think this was a Christian singer.

“Who is this singing?” I asked Taylor.

“Sarah Masen,” he answered.  Yeah, I did not know that one.  Working with The Edge, I learned quickly that there were many, many Christian singers and bands that I did not know.

“Are you a new leader?” I heard a voice say next to me.  I turned and saw a small girl with blue eyes and brown hair looking up at me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m just checking it out for now.”

“You’re tall.”

“Yeah,” I chucked.  “I know.”

“What’s your name?”

“Greg.”

“I’m Samantha.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said.

At 7:15, Adam called everyone to attention, speaking through a microphone.  Around forty students were in attendance.  “Is there anyone new here tonight?” he asked.  Two students walked up to the stage.  I saw Taylor motioning for me to follow them, so I did.

After Adam introduced the new students, he came to me.  “Greg, what’s your name?” he asked.  He had done this for the new students as well, using their names while asking for their names, and the first time, students laughed at this.

“Greg,” I said.

“Where do you go to school?”

“University of Jeromeville,” I answered.  When the new students named their schools, students from that school cheered, but for me, everyone cheered for UJ.

Adam asked the new students a silly would-you-rather question next, and I was no exception. “Would you rather wear shorts in freezing weather or long pants in hot weather?”

“Neither,” I said.  “But if I had to pick, probably long pants in hot weather.”

“Everyone, welcome Greg!”  The students cheered for me again..  When the room got quiet, Adam said that it was time to play a game.  “Tonight, we are going to have a giant rock-paper-scissors tournament!”  Some of the students made excited cheers, while a few groaned in disappointment.  “You just walk to someone, count one-two-three, and then make the sign for rock, paper, or scissors.”  Adam demonstrated the three hand signs, a fist for rock, all the fingers lying flat next to each other for paper, and two fingers extended for scissors.  “Rock crushes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock.  If you lose, go to the back of the room.  If you win, find someone else who won, and play again.  We’ll keep playing until there are only two people left, and the winner of that final game gets…” Adam trailed off as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the grand prize.  “A five dollar gift card to Lucky!”  During our meeting earlier, I wondered aloud if students would really be motivated by a grocery store gift card; Noah assured me that, to junior high schoolers, the thought of being able to spend five dollars on junk food was major excitement.  The reaction from the crowd when Adam showed them the gift card confirmed Noah’s statement.

A few minutes of mass chaos ensued as students ran off to find opponents.  As a leader, my job was to watch for students who had lost and were trying to jump back into the game.  I noticed one, and when I told him to go sit in the back, he refused, but he lost his next match anyway.  Finally, the group had been winnowed to two: Ted Hunter and a girl named Shawna.  The rest of the students had gathered around either Ted or Shawna, with most of the boys cheering for Ted and most of the girls cheering for Shawna.

“Here we go,” Adam announced.  “This is the final game, Ted versus Shawna.  Ready?  One, two, three!”  Ted placed his hand in the rock position, and Shawna chose paper.  Paper covers rock.  Shawna made an excited exclamation, and her supporters cheered wildly as Adam presented her with the grocery store gift card.

Courtney and Brody took the stage next for announcements, most of which involved the upcoming Winter Camp.  A week from Friday, many of the students would be traveling up to the mountains for the weekend.  In addition to fun activities and Bible lessons, some of the students would visit a nearby ski resort on one of the days, with everyone else staying behind to play in the snow.  In this part of the United States, only high elevations got snow, and most of the population lived in low-lying valleys.  I did not travel to snow regularly growing up, and I had only seen snow three times.  Winter Camp sounded like fun; maybe if I was still volunteering with The Edge a year from now, I would go to Winter Camp.

Adam brought a guitar on stage next for worship, and Abby joined him, along with Courtney and Brody who were already there.  The first worship song was one that I did not recognize; it sounded much more like a children’s song than the worship songs we sang in the college group or at JCF.  Courtney and Abby got on stage to lead the students through hand motions during the refrain of the song.  Many of the students got excited to do the hand motions.  Personally, I thought the hand motions were dumb.  I stood in the back and sang without doing the hand motions.  I had never spent time around Christian youth group kids, so it was surprising to me that these students enjoyed the hand motions and did not find them corny and distracting, like me.  I was glad that they were having fun, though.

After the third song, Adam stayed on the stage, alone, with the microphone.  “How many of you have ever experienced getting picked last for a team?”  A few hands went up.  “How many of you always get picked first?”  A few other hands went up, with murmurs of arguments from some who seemed to disagree with those students’ assessments of themselves.  Adam then read from the First Book of Samuel about God sending Samuel to Jesse of Bethlehem, to choose a King of Israel from among Jesse’s sons.  Samuel saw seven good-looking young men pass by, but God instead chose David, the youngest, who had not been invited to meet Samuel.

Adam then read names of students and told them which small group they were in.  I assumed that someone adjusted the list as students were arriving, since the boys Taylor and I got did not exactly match the list I received at the beginning of the night.

Taylor and I walked with Ted, Danny, Zac, and three other boys to one of the children’s Sunday school rooms, in another building closer to the parking lot.  The boys sat in small child-size chairs around a table, and Taylor sat in an adult-size chair, facing them.  I could not find another adult chair, so I sat uncomfortably in a child chair next to Taylor.

“Have any of you ever been picked last for something?” Taylor asked.

“I hate when they have students pick teams like that,” Zac replied.  “One time, in, like, fourth grade, we were playing basketball in PE, and I got picked last  But I ended up scoring the winning basket.  It was awesome.  It was my only basket too.”

“Was that the game where you accidentally tripped Jonathan?” one of the other boys asked.

“Yeah!  And he got a bloody nose!”

“Why do you think David’s dad didn’t ask him to come meet Samuel?” Taylor asked.

Zac, whose Bible was actually open, said, “Because the rest of his family probably thought there’s no way he would be the king.”

“Yeah.  Pretty much.  David was the youngest.  They just thought he was only good for feeding the sheep.  But what did God see in him?”

None of the boys said anything, so I decided to jump in with a hint.  “It’s right there in the Bible passage we were reading.”

“The Lord looks at the heart!” Danny exclaimed excitedly, pointing at those words in his Bible.

“Good!  Now turn near the back of the Bible, to First Timothy 4:12.  Does anyone want to read?” Taylor asked.

Zac and Ted argued over who would read, then they began reading together.  “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.”

“Paul wrote this to Timothy, but he could have written it to you,” Taylor explained.  “Just because you are young, it doesn’t mean you can’t influence the world around you for Jesus. 
King David was young too, and he led the nation of Israel and wrote a bunch of the Psalms.”  

The small group met for a total of about twenty minutes.  We discussed more about God looking at what is on the inside, and young people making a difference for Christ.  We got more distracted as the night went on.  Taylor asked me at the end of the small group time if I would close the night in prayer.  I was not prepared for this, but I figured I could easily wing it.

“Jesus,” I said.  “Thank you for this opportunity to be a leader with The Edge.  Thank you for all of the wonderful students I met tonight.  I pray that all of us will realize that, even though we are young, we still have a role to play in the Kingdom of God.  I pray that we will remember this as we go through the week.  In the name of Jesus, Amen.”


The students and leaders mingled in the fellowship hall after small groups finished. Parents came to pick up students, and when the crowd had thinned significantly, we began putting things back in closets and cleaning the fellowship hall.

“So what did you think?” Courtney asked me as we moved a folding table to a closet.  “Are you gonna come back next week?”

“Yeah!” I said.  “This was a lot of fun!”

“Good!” she replied.

The events of the night replayed in my mind as I drove home, around nine o’clock, and as I worked on math homework for the rest of the night until bedtime.  If The Edge became a permanent activity for me, I would not have time to be a Bible study leader with JCF, as I had thought about doing over the last couple months.  But maybe that was a good thing.  Maybe God wanted me here, working with junior high school students and this friendly group of youth leaders at J-Cov, instead of navigating the cliques that seemed to dominate JCF.  

Since Jeromeville is a university town, many students spend all of their time there interacting almost exclusively with people affiliated with the university. But when I went to church the following Sunday, I realized that I recognized some of the students from The Edge at church.  Danny and Ted sat next to me, and as I was leaving, I saw Samantha, who told me again that I was tall.  I reminded her that she had just told me this on Tuesday, and she replied, “I know.  I’m just in awe of your height.”  I smiled.  At six-foot-four, I towered over this petite young teen by more than a foot, so I guess that was pretty impressive to her. If Samantha wanted to remember me as the tall guy, that was fine with me.  Certainly I could have been remembered for something worse.

I was looking forward to being a leader with The Edge for the rest of the school year, and possibly for longer after that.  I had only been attending Jeromeville Covenant for four months, and I was already making connections beyond the college group, on the other side of Jeromeville not associated with the university.  J-Cov was starting to feel like my new home.


Readers: Are you, or were you ever, part of a church youth group? Or any other type of youth group? What was your favorite thing about your youth group? Tell me in the comments.


February 3, 1997.  Taking inventory. (#117)

I pulled into a parking place at Capital East Mall with Evan Lundgren, Tabitha Sasaki, and two freshmen whom I did not know well in my carpool.  A few weeks ago, the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship staff had asked for volunteers for a service project.  The Nordstrom department store in Capital City took inventory once a year, hiring many one-day temporary employees to help complete the job in a reasonable amount of time.  Some of these temporary employees came from church groups, with the money they got paid going directly to the group.  The money that JCF raised tonight would be used for scholarships to send students on retreats that they might not otherwise be able to afford.

As we walked into the store, I looked around.  I had never been inside Nordstrom before.  “This is definitely fancier than anywhere I shop,” I said.  “So where do we go now?”

“The Customer Service desk in the back of the first floor,” Tabitha replied, pointing.  “Over there.  Follow Eddie and Raphael and Armando posing as Lars.”

We caught up to the other guys from JCF whom Tabitha had pointed out.  I looked at Armando, who Tabitha said was “posing as Lars.”  I had only met Armando a few times; he was one of Lars’ roommates, but he did not attend JCF.  I noticed that he was wearing what appeared to be Lars’ usual pair of Birkenstocks, with a flannel shirt tied around his waist, exactly as Lars would be dressed.

“So why is Armando posing as Lars?” I asked when I caught up to the group.

“Lars had to back out at the last minute,” Armando explained.  “And someone needed to take his place, because we signed up to bring a certain number of people.  So I’m Lars tonight.”

“That makes sense,” I said.  I found it amusing that Armando had gone so far as to dress up as Lars.

“It’s kind of weird experiencing life as Lars, dressed like this,” Armando said.

“Last year, when we did this, I got assigned to lingerie,” Eddie said.  “We got there, and all the guys were like, uhh…”  I laughed.

After we checked in at the Customer Service desk, we were ushered into the employee break room in the back.  We then waited around for half an hour, to give the actual employees time to close the store.  Other temporary employees besides our group were waiting in the break room, and more people trickled in over the next half hour.  I wondered where these other people came from, if Nordstrom just advertised for one night temporary employees off the street, or if they came from groups raising money like we did.

A well-dressed woman stood up in front of the group, welcoming us and explaining how things would work.  Each of us had been assigned to a specific department within the store, and each of us would be paired with a Nordstrom employee.  She explained the procedure for counting, double-checking, and recording the numbers on a form.   “Remember, you’re here to work for the next five hours,” she reminded us after explaining everything else.  “If you finish your department early, you will be assigned to another department that isn’t done yet.  The store is closed, so you’re not here to shop.  If you need a bathroom break, return quickly.  And no unnecessary conversations.”

As soon as she said that last part, I suddenly felt much worse about this night.  Unnecessary conversations were what made tedious nights of menial labor fun.  Oh well, I thought.  I was here to serve God, to raise money for JCF, not to have fun.  And if the night was too terribly miserable, I would remember this and not sign up to work this event next year.

The woman began naming names and telling us to go to different departments, where a manager from that department would give us further instructions.  After a few minutes, she said, “Ramon Quintero, Anna Lam, Raphael Stevens, Greg Dennison, Autumn Davies, and Sarah Winters.  You’re in women’s shoes, on the second floor.”  Women’s shoes.  Good, I thought. No awkwardness of staring at panties and bras all night.

When we arrived at the shoe department, six Nordstrom employees, well-dressed like the manager from downstairs, waited for us.  I looked at them to see who we would be working with.  A middle-aged woman with glasses and hair in a bun.  A slim, straight-haired Asian girl in slacks.  An attractive blonde girl around my age with a sweet smile, wearing a dress that showed off her figure in a way that was flattering but not sleazy.  An older man in a dress shirt, who made me think of Al Bundy from the TV show Married With Children, who also sold women’s shoes for a living.  Two other young adult women whom I did not get a good look at.

“Hi, I’m Cathy,” the woman with the bun said.  “I’m the manager of the shoe department.  Each of you will be partnered with one of us.  I’ll be working with Raphael.  Where are you?”  Raphael raised his hand, and she continued assigning partners as we raised our hands to indicate who we were.  “Sarah, you’ll be working with Jennifer.  Ramon, you’re with Ron.  Greg, you’re with Keziah.”

“Huh?  Who?” I said awkwardly, suddenly startled.

“Keziah,” Cathy repeated.

“Keziah,” I said back, a little confused.  I was expecting someone with a normal name like Jennifer or Kimberly or Amy.  I had never heard of anyone named Keziah before.  As Cathy finished assigning partners, I looked over the six employees, wondering which one was Keziah.  I assumed that Ramon’s partner Ron was the man.

“We’re almost ready to start.” Cathy said after assigning the rest of the partners.  “I’ll show you which aisles you’ll be working on.  Keziah, can you go get the clipboards?”

“Sure,” the attractive blonde said, walking toward the door to the storeroom.  I felt like I had hit the jackpot.  Of course, it was a typically cruel twist of fate that I would be working with a total babe but prohibited from having unnecessary conversations with her. Maybe I could at least impress her by doing a good job.

“I’m Greg,” I said to Keziah after she returned and passed out the clipboards.  “I’m your partner.”

“Hi, Greg!  Nice to meet you!”

“You too!  Keziah, was it?” I asked, pronouncing it like Cathy did with the accent on the middle syllable.  “Is that how you say it?”

“Yeah!” Keziah replied.

“I, um,  just wanted to make sure I was saying it right.”

“You got it!  I know it’s unusual.  I was named after my great-grandma.”

“That’s cool.  It sounds Old Testament.”

“I think so.  I don’t really know the meaning of the name,” Keziah said.  “So are you ready to get started?”

“Sure.”

“We’re over here.”  Keziah led me to our first aisle, where she said, “So we just count the number of boxes on each section of each shelf, and we record it here.  Do you want to count or record?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t matter to me either.  We’ll be trading off anyway.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll start by counting.”  I counted the first two sections, then said, “I feel like I should know who Keziah was in the Old Testament, since I’m here with a Christian group.  But I don’t.”

“Who are you here with?”

“Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  It’s a chapter of an organization called Intervarsity.”

“We have Intervarsity too, I think.  I’ve seen signs around campus.  But I’ve never been.”

“Where do you go to school?”

“Cap State.”

“Oh, okay,” I said.  Keziah did not seem to be a stickler for the rule about unnecessary conversations, so after I counted a few more shelves, I said, “I went to Intervarsity’s national convention in Illinois over winter break, and we all got Bibles with a daily reading plan in the back, to read the whole Bible in a year.  I’m going through that, but I’m a few days behind.  So eventually I’ll learn who Keziah was.”

“That’s cool,” Keziah replied.

We continued counting the boxes on the shelves.  I called out a number, which Keziah wrote on the clipboard.  “What are you studying at Cap State?” I asked when we got to the end of an aisle.

“Early childhood education.”

“Nice.  You want to be a teacher?”

“Yeah.  Hopefully something like second or third grade.”

“That’s cool.  I’m a math major.”

“Math.  Math was always a struggle for me.”

“That’s because you never had me for a tutor,” I blurted out awkwardly.  “I work as a tutor also.”

“You’re probably right,” Keziah said, smiling, as she wrote more numbers.  “What do you want to do with your math degree?”

“I’m not sure.  I’m trying to figure that out now.  We’ve been talking a lot about careers in Math Club.  I just know I like math.”

“If you like tutoring, would you want to be a teacher?”

“I don’t know.  I always thought I wouldn’t, because of all the politics involved.”

“That’s true,” Keziah said as I counted more boxes and told her my totals.  “We need good teachers, though.  I had a really bad teacher in high school who ruined math for me.”

“That’s too bad,” I said.  “So that’s the end of the aisle.  Now we double-check, with you counting instead and me recording, right?”

“Yeah.”  Keziah handed me the clipboard as we walked back to the beginning of the aisle.  All of our numbers matched for the first several sections.  We eventually got to one where we did not match, so we counted a third time, very carefully, until we agreed on the correct count.

“Did you grow up around here?” I asked as we approached the end of the aisle.

“Yeah.  I was born in Pleasant Creek, but we moved to Capital City when I was four.”

“That’s cool.  I’m from Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.   I’ve been to Santa Lucia a few times with my family.  I love it there!  Did you go to the beach a lot growing up?”

“Kind of,” I said.  “Mostly when I was little.  It’s usually too cold for the beach, I think.”

“True.  I remember it doesn’t get very hot there.  But it feels nice going there when it’s hot here.”

“It does.  At least at first.”

After we finished that aisle, Keziah and I had three more aisles of shoes to count.  We recorded and double-checked all of our numbers, and we routinely violated the rule about unnecessary conversations for much of that time.  I learned about many things, including Keziah’s most memorable family vacation, her annoying roommate from last year, and why her old math teacher was so awful.  I carefully avoided football as a discussion topic, since she went to Capital State, Jeromeville’s bitter football rival.  Fortunately, no one was there to get us in trouble for talking.

When we finished filling out our final counting form, Keziah said, “That’s it!” 

“Yeah,” I replied.  “And with over an hour left.”

“Good job!”  Keziah smiled and put her hand up, and I high-fived her.  “I get to go home now, and hope to get some sleep before my 9am class.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I have to get up early too.  I knew I wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight.  But I think I have to go be assigned to help somewhere else, until we’ve done the whole five hours.”

“Oh, that sucks.”

“But we’re raising more money for our group.”

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

“It was really nice meeting you,” I said.

“Yeah!  Have a good night!  I hope you sleep well!”

“You too!”

I walked back downstairs to the break room, to wait for a new assignment.  I kept thinking about how Keziah had probably walked out of my life forever, and I had just let her go without doing anything.  Should I have said something, or would that have just made things worse and more awkward?

“You okay, Greg?” I heard Sarah Winters’ voice ask.  I looked around; I had been staring off into space, not noticing people around me, while awaiting a new assignment.  Sarah and Angela had also recently finished counting women’s shoes, and Eddie was also there, from another department, waiting for a new assignment.

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Just thinking.

The manager from the beginning of the night walked into the room.  “They need four people upstairs in lingerie,” she said.  “I’ll tell them you four are coming.”

“Lingerie,” I repeated.  “Of course it had to be.”

As we approached the lingerie department, walking past aisles of women’s underwear, Sarah turned to Eddie and me and said, “Fix your eyes on Jesus,” chuckling.

Since the actual Nordstrom employees got to leave when they finished their assigned section, those of us who were just arriving in the lingerie department were no longer being paired with an employee.  I began counting bras, but Eddie realized he did not have the correct form, so he went to find the lingerie department manager.

I found a bra on the floor and picked it up.  “Why is this on the floor?” I asked.  “I found a bra on the floor; do we count this?”  Eddie was talking to a manager and did not hear me.  I looked down at the bra that I was holding; it was quite large.  Trying to get the attention of someone who could answer my question, I asked loudly, “I found a 38-DD bra on the floor; do we count this?”

“Greg!” Sarah said from the next aisle over.  “Shhh!”

I did not know what to do with the bra, nor did I find any like it on the rack, so I put it with some 38-C bras that were nearby.  Close enough.  They did not appear to be strictly sorted by size anyway.  Eddie returned, and we began counting bras and writing numbers on the clipboard, focusing on our work and not saying much.  I missed working with Keziah.  She was fun to talk to.  Keziah and I seemed to hit it off well, and now I was probably never going to see her again.  

 By the time we finished counting the bras, it was almost time to leave, and most other departments had finished as well.  We returned to the break room to wait for everyone else to finish, and once Tabitha, Evan, and the rest of my carpool had arrived, we walked back to the cars.

“How’d your night go?” Evan asked as we walked toward my car with the others in our carpool.

“Good.  I got a really friendly partner who wasn’t too strict about the no-talking rule.”

“That was nice that you guys got to talk.  We didn’t.”

As I drove across Capital City and crossed the river back into Arroyo Verde County, the rest of my car was quiet.  Since it was very late at night, and most of us had classes in the morning, the others used the twenty-five minute ride back to Jeromeville to doze off, giving me time to ruminate on the events of that night.

I felt like I had missed an opportunity.  I had enjoyed talking to Keziah, getting to know her, and now I would probably never see her again.  I wished I knew how to ask her out.  I wished I knew how to ask if we could be friends and stay in touch.  The obvious answer of just telling her would not have worked for me.  I would have found a way to make it awkward and uncomfortable just by trying to be honest; being awkward just came naturally to me.

Also, if I did that, it might become public knowledge that I liked Keziah, which felt like it would be too embarrassing to deal with.  Seven years ago, in middle school, I admitted to Paul Dickinson that I liked Rachelle Benedetti, and I was mortified over the next couple months to learn that many other people knew that I liked Rachelle.  Back then, I imagined people making fun of me for thinking that I had a chance with Rachelle, just as people now might hypothetically make fun of me if they found out that I liked Keziah.  I had no chance with a girl like that, so I should just forget about her.

Keziah probably did not like me back anyway.  She probably had her pick of all the big men on campus at Capital State and had no need for an awkward guy from the other side of the Drawbridge.  Maybe we were doomed from the start, with Jeromeville and Capital State being such bitter football rivals.  I also had no idea whether or not she was a Christian.  I kept hearing from JCF and the college group at church that I should only be dating Christians, because relationships should be built on a solid foundation of faith.  Also, Christian women were less likely to be involved in things that I found unattractive, like excessive drinking or promiscuity.  I was probably better off not pursuing Keziah romantically.

But, as I dropped off everyone in my carpool and headed back to my apartment, I could not help but wonder if I was selling myself short.  Maybe Keziah and I would have been compatible after all.  Maybe I was making too many assumptions.  Either way, I would never see her again, and she would become another missed opportunity to toss on my ever-growing pile of regrets in life.  I went to bed, with my alarm set to go off in less than five hours, hoping to sleep off the stench of failure.


Readers: Tell me in the comments about someone you wish you could have stayed in touch with.

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post. Nordstrom, Inc. was not involved with the creation of this post.


January 23-28, 1997. Time to start thinking about the future. (#116)

I walked into Kerry Hall and pressed the Up button for the elevator.  As I waited for the door to open, I noticed a flyer for the event I was going to on a bulletin board.  I walked over and read the flyer, even though I already knew the time and place of the event; we had discussed this upcoming event in detail at this month’s Math Club meeting.

MATHEMATICS CAREER FAIR
Presented by the University of Jeromeville Math Club
January 23 – 3-5pm – 450 Kerry

Kerry Hall, home to the offices of the mathematics and statistics departments, was easy to navigate; each of its six floors consisted of one straight hallway about two hundred feet long. Room 450 would be at the low-numbered end of the fourth floor.  The first digit of the room number was the floor, but for some reason the numbering on each floor started in the 50s at the end close to the elevators and ended in the 90s at the other end.  I wondered if this was because each floor of adjacent Wellington Hall only had room numbers ending between 01 and 30, so that way the two buildings would not repeat room numbers.  I also wondered if I was the only person on the Jeromeville campus who actually thought about such things.

I got off on the fourth floor and turned left, where I expected room 450 to be.  A sign next to an open door said 450 – GRADUATE STUDENT STUDY ROOM.  I did not know that this room existed, probably because I was not a graduate student.  On the other side of the door, a sign that said MATHEMATICS CAREER FAIR had been taped to the wall.  I cautiously walked inside.

I recognized several students I knew from Math Club.  Sarah Winters was picking up brochures from a table; she looked up and saw me in the doorway.  “Greg!” she said, waving.  Although Sarah was also a mathematics major, and one of my best friends, we had never had a math class together.  I knew her because she had lived downstairs from me in the dorm freshman year, and I also knew her from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and from my church.

“Hey,” I said to Sarah.  “How are you?  What table is this?”

“School of Education,” she replied.  “I don’t know yet if I’m going to stay in Jeromeville for my teacher certification program.  I’m thinking I’ll probably move back home, but I may as well look into all the options.”

“Good idea.”

“Are you still not interested in being a teacher?”

“Probably not,” I replied.

“You’re still working as a tutor, right?  Why aren’t you interested in teaching if you like tutoring?”

“I like helping people learn math, but I don’t want to get involved in all the politics involved in public education.”

“Yeah, that’s one thing I’m not looking forward to.  What about private school?”

“Don’t private school teachers make less money?”

“Yeah, but if you really love what you do, money shouldn’t be an object.  Would you want to teach at a community college, or a university, or something like that?”

“If I stay in college forever, I’ll probably end up being a professor and having to teach.”

“That’s true.  Is that what you want to do?”

“I always kind of thought so, but I’m starting to realize I need to explore my options.”

“Well, you came to the right place.”  Sarah gestured across the room.  The UJ School of Education table where we were now was the first in a row of four manned exhibits.  At the far end of the room, the rest of the furniture that was usually in this room appeared to have been pushed to the side, to give fair attendees room to mingle.  I was not sure exactly how many exhibitors I expected at a career fair, but the answer was definitely more than four.  This was disappointing.

“I need to go,” Sarah said.  “Enjoy the rest of the fair!”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “I’ll see you around.”

After Sarah left, I walked to the next table.  “Are you interested in being an actuary?” a man in a business suit asked me from behind the table.

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “I’m kind of just gathering information right now.  I hear a lot about actuaries when people talk about math careers, but I’m not sure exactly what you do.”

“Basically, we predict the future,” he explained.  “We use mathematical modeling to make predictions, which are used by insurance companies to determine rates and risk assessment figures.”

“I see.”

“I represent the Casualty Actuarial Society.  We give the exams that actuaries have to pass.”

“Do you go to grad school to get a degree to be an actuary?”

“Usually not.  You get hired first for an entry-level position, and your job training includes prep for the exams.  Then you get promoted after you pass the exams.”

“I see,” I said.  “I’ll think about that.”  I took his brochure and put it in my backpack, although from his description, being an actuary sounded incredibly boring and unfulfilling.

I next went to the table for Sun Microsystems, a computer company big enough for me to have heard of it.  “Hi,” the woman at the table said.  “We’re looking for applied math majors with computer programming or computer engineering experience.  Is that you?”

“Not really,” I said.  “But can I have a brochure, in case I change my emphasis?”

“Sure!”

I took the Sun brochure and put it with the others.  I had chosen not to major in computer science, because I did not want a hobby to turn into work.  I also knew that most of my technology skills were vastly out of date.  I had grown up with only my childhood Commodore 64 until I got my current computer as a high school graduation present, years after the Commodore had been discontinued.  I had taken two computer science classes sophomore year and learned to code in Pascal and C.  Computer Science 110, Data Structures, counted in place of an upper-division mathematics class toward my major; I had registered for the class this quarter and got put on the wait list, but I did not get in.

The fourth and final table was for Graduate Studies in the UJ Department of Mathematics.  I took their brochure as well to learn about the different programs offered, although much of that information I already knew from the course catalog.  This career fair felt like a giant disappointment.

An older student named Brandon, whom I knew from Math Club, asked me as I was leaving, “So what did you think?”

“It was a little disappointing.  Nothing really stood out to me.  I still don’t know what I want to do.”

“Don’t forget, the Engineering Career Fair is coming up on Tuesday.  You should look at that one too, if you’re looking for what you can do with a math degree.”

At that moment, a familiar woman’s voice said from behind me, “Greg? I just overheard what you were saying; can I talk to you for a minute in my office?  I have something you might be interested in.”

“Dr. Thomas,” I said, turning around.  “I didn’t see you here.”  I had taken Combinatorics from Dr. Thomas sophomore year, and she was my favorite mathematics professor so far.  She explained things clearly, in non-broken English, and she made an effort to get to know students more than most of my professors had.  She also attended Math Club meetings sometimes.

“Sure,” I said.  I followed Dr. Thomas upstairs to her office on the far end of the fifth floor.

“Are you familiar with REU programs?  Research Experiences for Undergraduates?”

“No,” I said.

“The National Science Foundation has programs that you can apply to and do research in your field.   Some of them, you can get credits for, or you get paid a stipend.  I’m trying to start an REU here at Jeromeville, but there are programs like this at schools all around the country.”

“I see.”

“A colleague whom I’ve worked with runs the program at Williams College in Massachusetts.  And three are others much closer if you don’t want to travel that far.  It’s a good way to get a sense of what graduate school is like.  Being that you’re an excellent math student, wondering about your future, I think it would be good for you to apply to REUs.”

“Sure,” I said.  “What do I have to do?”

“Here’s the brochure from the NSF,” Dr. Thomas said, handing me a paper.  “They have a website with links to different schools’ programs, and you can find all the instructions on how to apply there.”

“I will look into that,” I said.  “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.  And whatever happens, with how well you do in math, I know you’ll figure out what you want to do.”


The Engineering Career Fair was much larger than the Mathematics Career Fair; I expected it to be, since it was being held on the floor of the Pavilion, where the UJ Colts basketball teams played.  Engineering was also a much more popular major, and one more directly connected to industry.  A sea of tables, probably close to a hundred of them, covered the floor.  The region around San Tomas, Sunnyglen, and Willow Grove, a little over a hundred miles to the south, was a hub of technology companies; I expected that many of them had representatives here looking for people with computer experience.  Surely someone here would have a career option for pure mathematics majors.

I had not brought résumés to the career fair.  Next year, when I would be close to graduation, it would be more important to do so, but today was still mostly about gathering information.  Of course, if I found an internship for this summer that I wanted to apply to, I would still need to make a résumé and send it in.  We had discussed making résumés at this month’s Math Club meeting, and I mostly just felt frustrated and unaccomplished.  “I don’t know what to put on my résumé,” I said to Brandon at one point.  “I don’t have any work experience, or skills.”

“Sure you do,” Brandon replied.  “Just put what you can do.  On my résumé, I put ‘problem solver.’  Because when you give me a problem, I’ll solve it.”

“Hmm,” I said.  I was not a problem solver like Brandon.  I had tons of unsolved problems in my life, and padding my résumé with vague embellishments that I could not back up with action or experience would not help solve any of them.

I walked to the first table in the row closest to me.  A pile of mechanical pencils lay on one end of the table.  “May I have one?” I asked.

“Sure,” the woman behind the table said.  I read the pencil: NNC DATA SOLUTIONS, INC., SAN TOMAS.  “What’s your major?” she asked.

“Math.”

“Pure math?”

“Yeah.”

“We’re looking for computer science majors with experience in coding.  I don’t think we have any positions or internships for pure math.  Sorry!”

I continued up and down each row of tables, picking up lots of free pens, pencils, notepads, and foam balls to squeeze for stress relief purposes, each with companies’ names and contact information printed on them.  And I got the same story from each one of them: they were looking for computer science or engineering majors, not me.

At one point, I walked to a table I had not visited yet, for a company in Sunnyglen called West Coast Technologies.  I grabbed their free pencil and notepad.  “Do you have a résumé?” the woman behind the table asked.

“No,” I said.

“You need a résumé to apply for a job,” the woman replied, in a condescending tone.

“I’m just gathering information this year,” I explained, trying to hide my shame and frustration.

“What’s your major?”

“Math.”

“We’re looking for computer science majors.  But, hey, maybe ten years from now, when you’re wondering why you chose math for your major, you’ll go back to school for computer science, and we might have something for you!”  She made an amused chuckle.

I walked away without saying another word to the West Coast Technologies lady.  Who does she think she is?  How exactly does mocking an applicant to his face help your company recruit employees?  If I did go back to school in ten years, I thought, I certainly would not apply to work for West Coast Technologies.  Hopefully they would be out of business by then.

I continued past the next table.  I had only three tables left to visit, and I could tell from the names of the companies represented that they were looking specifically for engineers.  I turned toward the exit, not watching where I was going, and almost bumped into someone who was facing away from me.  As I looked up at this guy, who was about an inch taller than me, I realized that I recognized this tall guy with curly dark blond hair, and I became even more embarrassed.

“Sorry, Todd,” I said as he turned around.  “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

“Hey, Greg,” Todd Chevallier replied.  “No problem.  What are you up to?”

“Looking to see if there are any options for math majors here.  There aren’t.”  I told him about the condescending lady from West Coast Technologies, as well as the unsuccessful Mathematics Career Fair from the previous week.

“Well, what do you want to do with your math degree?”

“I’m not sure.  I always assumed I would just stay in school forever and become a professor, but now I don’t know anymore.  And I’m starting to stress about it.”

“Have you thought about going into teaching? It seems like a lot of people with math degrees do that.”

“I don’t want to be a teacher,” I explained.  “I don’t want to deal with the politics involved in education.”

“Yeah, I get that.  Don’t stress, though.  You have time to figure things out.  You’re only a sophomore.”

“I’m a junior.”

“What?” Todd exclaimed, with a puzzled look on his face.

“I’m a junior.”

“But I thought you and I were both new at JCF last year.  Freshman year.”

We were.  But it was my sophomore year.  I didn’t go to JCF freshman year.”

“Really.  Wow.  It’s weird that I never knew that.  I guess you do need to start thinking about your future.”

“I know.”

“Good luck.  Pray about it.  I’ll see you Friday?”

“Yeah.”


I rode my bike home more slowly than usual, feeling disappointed and discouraged.  I pulled a random CD from the shelf; it was New Adventures In Hi-Fi, the recently released album from R.E.M.  More disappointment; I did not like this album as well as their previous ones, although it did have a few good songs. I played it anyway.

I looked through the brochure that Dr. Thomas gave me.  I connected the computer to the dial-up Internet and went to the main website for the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.  I found the list of schools offering REUs for mathematics; there were quite a few, but none were nearby.  If I ended up doing this for the summer, I would have to travel, but that was not necessarily a bad thing.

School was what I was good at, so I always assumed I would stay in academia forever.  However, even that felt uncertain now.  And unless I changed my mind about being a teacher or an actuary, I had no other career options.  The good news was that, with my future so wide open, I could try different things and see what I did and did not like.  But this would require some work, and I always felt anxious about possibly making the wrong decision.  I got out my homework for tomorrow’s Advanced Calculus class and worked on that, putting aside my career uncertainty for now.  I knew that God had a plan, and I felt encouraged that Dr. Thomas believed in me, but all of this still felt overwhelming.  It was time to start thinking about the future, but none of this was imminently urgent, so planning my future career could wait.


Readers: Have you ever been told anything unusually cruel when being turned down for a position, or for something else?

Disclaimer: None of the corporations or organizations mentioned in this story were involved in its writing or production, and this is not a sponsored post.  Some of the corporations and organizations are fictional.