The pale green 1964 Plymouth Barracuda, with rust in the wheel wells, pulled onto State’s new campus in the Middle Patapsco Valley neighborhood.
The February wind was brisk. When they got out of the car, Chet zipped his leather jacket as high as possible. He had missed the first semester. A bout with pleurisy kept him in bed until mid-October.
Richard said, “When I’ll introduce you around the table, grab a free chair. You can hang there. I have to hurry to the library building for my 9 o’clock class.”
“What if they don’t like me?”
“That is possible,” he teased Chet. “What would you do if somebody said they didn’t like you at Lincoln’s?”
Chet smiled. “I’d tell them to piss off.”
“That’s the attitude,” Richard paused, “although skip the slang. On to more important things. Are you ready for your classes and when do you finish today?”
Chet unfolded a sheet from the front of his notebook. “My first class, Calculus 151, starts at 10, then English 101 at 12 and Chemistry 101 at 1. and ending with Economics 119 at 3. The campus map shows the buildings.”
“No need to say the entire course name and number. Econ will do,” Richard said. “Four classes today. Heavy.”
“Not at all. I want to get my money’s worth. I’ve got Western Civ on Tuesday and Thursday, plus Chem lab on Tuesday and calc problem Thursday afternoon.”
“You’re a glutton for punishment. My four classes meet Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Today I finished at 5. And, Chet, be friendly and open, not suspicious. All people are not out to get you.”
Richard swung open the door into the cafeteria.
It was a huge open space crammed with tables and students. The long wall with the outside was nearly all windows, brightening the cafeteria all the way to the inner serving lines and vending machines.
The acrid smell of overcooked bacon assaulted Chet’s nose. In a recess beyond the tables, he saw a food line. The mellow sound of Otis Redding, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”, eased Chet’s nerves.
Richard waved to a girl with blonde highlights in her cute bob and to a boy with wispy sideburns leaning his elbow on a tall stack of thick textbooks, talking with her. “Kiki, Avery,” he called out to them. Other students at the table looked up from their trays and open books.
“Everyone, this is Chet,” Richard said. “Today’s his first day.”
The other students at the table nodded and returned to their activities, but Kiki said, “Hi. How come you’re starting mid-year?”
Before Chet could reply, Richard said, “Have a seat, Chet.” He glanced at his watch. “Ed Psych starts in seven minutes. Later.”
Chet took a chair on the other side of Kiki from Avery. “Pleurisy kept me on my back until mid-October. Too late to start.”
Avery removed his arm from the stack of books.
“Fundamentals of Biology,” Chet read the top title aloud.
“Yes.” Avery turned his attention to the newcomer. “Kiki and I are in fundamentals together. I hope your illness is not a case study for us.”
“I hope not. I’m not taking biology this term, maybe later,” Chet said. “I’m into chemistry.” He looked closer at Kiki. “Are you a bio major, too?”
“Heavens no,” she said. “It’s too lab focused. I like to be with people. It’s nursing for me. Several bio courses are required. So is Chem 101. Perhaps…”
“Chet,” Avery cut Kiki off, “biology is endlessly fascinating, isn’t it? It’s my major. I’m also taking Bio 210 this semester.”
“You were saying, Kiki,” Chet tried to pull her back into the conversation.
Kiki stood up. “No, Avery must talk.” Impatience marred her fine features. “Time for a hot tea.”
Avery pulled a dark text from the stack, The Population Bomb. “If the Earth’s population continues to explode,” he said, “we won’t need a nuclear war to end the world. We’ll run out of food and resources before that.”
Chet listened as the bio major recited alarming statistics which boded ill for humanity. Were they verifiable facts or just convenient numbers that Avery made up? More than that, he wondered if Kiki would return.
When she did, she addressed him. “Perhaps we could talk later. Now I’ve got to get in touch with my body. Interpretive Dance.”
Other students at the far end of the table and other tables got up for classes that started at the half-hour.
“I’ll save you a seat in Bio,” Avery called after her.
As she left the cafeteria, a tall, muscular guy with a lacrosse stick entered.
Several students came in from the other direction and took the table’s far side. They gave a quick, “Hey, everybody” to the table, then continued among themselves. Chet heard snatches of the unreasonableness of a survey course having two tests, a final, and a project.
Lacrosse guy flicked the ball to a half-an-inch of the ceiling as he strode up to the table. Without missing a beat, he took Kiki’s seat and scrunched as close as possible to Avery.
“I feel her heat, wispy guy. Be Brave warmed the seat just for me,” the lacrosse guy said. Only then did he notice Chet. “Say, I don’t know you. What are you doing, sitting at my table?”
“I just started today,” Chet said. He saw a similarity between this jock and some hardheads in the neighborhood. “I’m Chet. Richard introduced me, but you weren’t here.”
“Everybody knows me. I’m Bart, Barton Alexander, center attacker and team captain.” He leaned the lacrosse stick with the ball in the netting against a vending machine. “Richard, the teacher gonna-be. He’s alright. You can stay.”
“Mighty generous with a seat you don’t own.” Chet stuck his hand out.
Bart tried to grab Chet’s fingers, but he slid his hand forward, negating the intent.
Although Bart had the strength advantage, Chet had a diversionary intelligence. “I’m surprised you’re on this campus. Everyone knows the main campus is the sports powerhouse.”
Bart shook that off. “By the time I graduate, this campus will be the new lacrosse powerhouse.”
Avery stood up. “You mean, if you graduate. The actual truth is his grades weren’t good enough for the main campus.”
That broke Bart’s concentration and his handshake. “Oh, yeah. You don’t know what you’re talking about, wispy. My dad wanted me nearby, so I can man the office when he’s visiting clients.”
Avery shook his head. “The story making the rounds is you begged your dad to get you into any school, so you wouldn’t be drafted. In return, he demanded you work in the office as payback.”
Bart spun toward him. “What’s your problem, new guy?”
“Very similar to yours, Barton. My father insists my major be economics. So he can be sure I can pay him back for four more years under his roof.”
“Humph.” Bart got up and checked his wallet. Chet saw a thick wad of bills. “I burnt so many calories at gym, it’s time for a morning snack. Wicked hash browns.”
“Look at the time, Chet. Ten of ten. Didn’t you say Calc was at 10?”
“No, I didn’t,” Chet said, “but it is. How did you know that, Avery?”
“A magician never reveals his secrets. Come on. I’m going that way.”
Chet said, “Have a good snack, Bart.”
Bart smirked. “Hang in there, Chet. Be Brave, Avery.”
~ ~ ~
Mr. Griswold, the calculus teacher, said he wouldn’t start lessons until the second class. Instead, he told the class about math in his day job at the Applied Physics Lab. At first, Chet felt gypped that his instructor wasn’t a full-time professor, but then Griswold drew an arc from the Earth to the Moon and said that instantaneous course corrections were based on the Taylor’s series. Chet didn’t know what that meant, but that calculus dealt with such problems thrilled him. Ever since he got a chemistry set in the sixth grade, Chet spent any spare money he had on chemicals. First, it was random mixing to see the results. His interest sharpened until his purchases focused on chemical propellants. He never knew how high his rockets would go. In fact, more than one of them exploded rather than flew.
The calculus handout mentioned epsilon-delta proofs and derivatives. He’d seen those terms when he paged through the thick text last night. To think by the end of the semester, he’d know what they meant. And to be able to solve intriguing word problems, like the distance a missile would fly, before gravity brought it back to Earth.
After Griswold released the class, Chet returned to the cafeteria for an early lunch. Kiki was at the table. Another nursing student sat with her. Other students he didn’t know were also at the table. Some waved or nodded their heads. One merely raised her eyebrows to greet the newcomer.
“Chet, sit with us.” Kiki patted the table in front of an empty chair. “Linda is in nursing, too.”
“Nice to meet you, Linda. I was worried I’d have to eat in solitude.”
“We would never force you to do that. Would we, Linda?”
The table population ebbed and flowed. Students arrived after classes, others left for their next classes, visited friends at other tables, ate lunch, and talked. The table buddies reminded him of the gang at Lincoln’s corner. Names were not foremost until they were needed.
When they finished their lunch, Linda took their trays to the conveyor belt.
Opening a purple notebook, Kiki flipped to an inner section. “We have chem tomorrow. If I have questions, can I come to you for help?”
“Of course. I’ll gladly help you.”
“Last semester,” she said, “I crammed before every test. I felt as dumb as a dropout hanging on a corner selling drugs. I need to improve on my C+ to be accepted into nursing school.”
Linda returned and heard Kiki’s request. “Wait, a minute. Chet, you’re just starting this semester. You’re in Chemistry 101. We’re in 102.”
Chet nodded to her first statement. “That’s true, but…”, he searched for an answer that wouldn’t be bragging. “I’ve looked through the textbook. It covers both semesters. None of it is new to me. I’ve been reading chemistry at the Enoch Pratt since the eighth grade.”
A frown crossed Linda’s face. “If that’s true, you would have placed out of chemistry.”
Chet would not reveal he took the SAT and chemistry advanced placement for another student. The two hundred bucks paid his college application fee and a good chunk of his textbooks. “I didn’t take it since my father insists I can’t major in it. Only econ or something that leads to a steady office job so I can pay him back. That’s his condition for room and board now that I’m out of high school.”
Kiki looked surprised. “You don’t live in the dorms?”
“No,” he said. “Can’t afford it. I take it you do. And Linda, you too?”
Kiki said, “Everybody does.”
Linda shook her head slightly. “There’s a few students that commute. That guy Richard lives in the inner city somewhere.”
“He and I commute together.” Then the words ‘inner city’ penetrated Chet’s consciousness. “Is that a problem?”
“No, no,” they echoed each other.
After a moment, Kiki asked, “Your father’s making you pay for college?”
Chet didn’t like to reveal his personal business, but he remembered Richard’s advice—be more open. “I won a scholarship. Pays tuition, but not room, board, or books.”
Linda stood up. “We get the picture. Kiki, our class starts in a few minutes. Let’s go.”
They smiled as they left, but Chet had felt the attitude shift.
~ ~ ~
The chem handouts held no surprises, although the first midterm test was the same day as his calc midterm.
English class awakened his fear of failure. Writing essays had been his high school bugaboo. They consumed more attention with less reward than any of his other subjects. Fortunately, Miss Silverman, the English instructor, idolized James Bond. The in-class midterm would be based on Ian Fleming’s creation.; otherwise, weekly assignments of 500 to 1000 words were due every Monday. There goes his weekends.
After English, Chet found a quiet desk at the far end of the social studies building. Marking his calendar, he breathed a sigh of relief that his English midterm was a week after calc and chem midterms.
He paged through econ history text, getting an idea about the arrangement of information, looking for special terms that leaped out from graphics. Nothing particular caught his attention, so he put that book aside and tried his hand on the problems at the end of calculus chapter one.
The econ class was in a tiered lecture hall with the professor, seventy-five feet away in the center pit, a miniscule figure. The professor droned into a microphone that added a hiss to his words. Chet’s intention of taking notes fell by the wayside. After this long, first day, his eyes glazed over.
At the end of the class, all he recalled were feudal obligations, serfs, and peasants. Chet headed back to his new base, the group table in the cafeteria.
Bart was wolfing down a late afternoon burger and fries. At the far end of the table, Avery had his head looked up from a thick, green-covered text.
Chet got a large steaming coffee. He took a seat diagonally across from Bart, who gave him a nod of acknowledgement.
Avery reached into Chet’s notebook and pulled out loose papers. “What do you think of the syllabi?”
“Syllabi? Is that a fancy way to say syllabuses?” He asked.
Bart stopped eating. “No, it’s the prissy way. If there’s a prissy way, Avery will take it.”
“Au contraire, Barton. It’s the proper way,” Avery said. “How’s your first day been, Chet?”
Chet considered before answering, “Okay, but it blows me away all the information I’m going to learn.”
“The first day of the semester is always the best,” Avery said.
“No,” Bart said, basketballing his trash into the nearby bin. “No, the last day is always best. However, the first day could be better. Perhaps you’ll head for your next class now.”
Avery snorted. “The air is rancid around him. You coming, Chet?”
“Not yet, man. I gotta re-energize after my last lecture. I’m waiting for Richard. I’ll catch you later.”
After Avery left, Bart said, “Thank god, you’re not sucked in by his wispiness.”
Now that Avery was not there, Chet tried to get a better understanding of their argumentative relationship. “What’s up with you two?”
“Let’s see. His I’m-smarter-than-you attitude, that only he knows what’s right, and yet girls flee from his presence. Plus, he enjoys sticking pins in insects, butterflies, and frogs.”
Chet let that comment lay unanswered. He sipped his coffee and mulled over the strong, odd, negative way his two new friends, fellow students, acted. He knew how this would end in his blacktop Patapsco neighborhood. Was college so different?
~ ~ ~
They left at 5 in Richard’s green Plymouth Barracuda.
As they drove off the campus, Chet enjoyed the wide streets with spacious, well-maintained houses, pleasantly different from the jammed streets and crowded houses of Patapsco.
Richard turned WCAO on the radio. “How did your first day go?”
“Very good. I am excited by the course material and everything I’m going to learn this semester. I’m even going to learn how to calculate the altitude my next rocket will achieve.” Chet hoped that he would.
“I know that feeling,” Richard said, “but this semester, I’m more cynical. Ed Psych blew my mind this morning. This behavioral psychologist, B. F. Skinner, insists learning occurs only if we give rewards to students.”
“What’s wrong with that? It worked for Sister Beatrice at St. Jerome’s. She’d throw penny candy to anyone who gave a correct answer to a difficult problem.”
Richard shook his head. “It’s okay once in a while, but Sister’s trick didn’t work with all students. After her class moved on to the upper grades, indifferent students were still indifferent.” He laughed. “Just with a few more cavities. Anyhow, a teaching method based on rewards assumes kids are like pigeons, Skinner’s experimental subjects. Are humans merely large pigeons? I think not.”
“Okay, already.” Chet raised his hands up in surrender. “On the people level, what’s the deal between Bart and Avery?”
Richard turned down the radio volume on “Lady Willpower.”
“There’s a long story, but the crux of it occurred at the ‘Meet Your Classmates’ event last summer. That evening, Avery was pontificating about the value of biology, his knowledge, and learning. He ended up declaring sports were cotton candy for idiots. Naturally, when Bart heard that, it burned the hell out of him. His high school won the state lacrosse championship twice with him as captain.”
“That was foolish of Avery,” Chet said.
“Stupid, tactless, impolite, impolitic. There are many ways to characterize his words, but that’s not the end. Later that evening, on the dance floor, Avery asked Kiki to dance while Bart was nearby. Kiki declined and said to Avery that he should be brave. Someday a person would appreciate his particular charm.”
“Avery is an idiot himself,” Chet said. “I’ve heard the taunt ‘Be Brave’ a couple times today.”
“Yes, Avery lacks some social skills.” Richard hesitated, then forged on, “Yet I admire Avery for how he’s handled Bart’s ribbing and Kiki, too.”
Chet shook his head. “I don’t get that. Avery should cut them off.”
“That’s how you would handle it and your world would have shrunk. Avery stays friends with Kiki, helping her understand biology. Bart is a lost cause, but Avery won’t give up his other friends because of Bart’s jibes.”
~ ~ ~
“You’re late, Mister,” Father said to Chet as he entered the dining room. “Dinner starts at 5:30 sharp. You know that.”
Barbara, his sister, shook her head. “We couldn’t wait. You know I arranged my shift at the phone company so I could be on time for evening dinner.”
“Henry,” his mother said, while shooting Barbara a dark look, “our boy’s in college now. He has late classes.” She turned to Chet. “Sit down. The food’s still hot. We want to hear about your first day.”
“The first day was great.” He filled his plate with meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and string beans.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Barbara said. “Mother, Father, may I be excused? Philip’s taking me to the Crest to see ‘Hello, Dolly’.”
“Yes. Go,” Father said. “Thank god, you’re not interested in the smut, like ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’.” He turned back to Chet. “On to important issues. How was your business course?”
Chet took his time swallowing. The calculus rocket story would piss his father off, so he wouldn’t mention that. “The History of Economics was so boring. Peasants must work for lords who protected them from marauders. No money changed hands. Everyone had a defined job. Their work and place in society was fixed.”
Father sipped his coffee, then said. “It’s not that way anymore. Anyone can do anything.”
Without thinking, Chet said, “But you say I must major in some business occupation.”
“Paying your mother and me back for providing food and a roof over your head is only fair. Barbara pays us rent until she moves out.”
“Henry,” Mother said to Father, “let the boy tell us about his first day. There will be plenty of time to discuss money later. Did you make any friends?”
Chet nodded. “Richard introduced me to some students. We all sit together at a special table in the cafeteria.” He didn’t want to mention Kiki yet. He thought a diversion would be best. “The students are like the kids at Lincoln’s…”
“I doubt that,” Father said. “College students aren’t like the hoodlums who led you into old Widow Halsey’s house. I had to bail you out of that disaster.”
“Please, Father, let me finish. I didn’t mean the kids were identical. Most students don’t live at home. They live in the dorms.” He skirted away from the money implications, as neither he nor his parents were happy about that. “In another way, they are quite different. College kids say out loud things that would get you busted in the lip around here.”
“They cuss, you mean?” Mother asked
“No. They say nasty things to one another when they talk.”
Mother tapped Chet on his forearm. “I don’t want you picking up that habit.”
“I won’t,” he said. “It’s a horrible trait, but I did learn one thing from it. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself rather than avoid confrontation.”
Father’s eyebrows bunched together. “Are you hinting at something?”
Chet gritted his teeth and mustered his strength. “Yes, sir. I’m going to ‘Be Brave’. I am not majoring in economics. I’m majoring in chemistry.”
“No way in hell,” Father reflexively said.
“I will still pay you back. A chemist’s salary is more than an office worker’s.”
With a shake of his head, Father dismissed that. “You don’t know that. You’re just making stuff up.”
“Henry, let’s not talk about this anymore right now.” Mother turned to her son. “Chet, as soon as you finish eating, go upstairs. In addition to your schoolwork, you have a new assignment. What was that phrase you used?”
“Yes, that. Be brave and find out the starting salary for chemists and for new hires in big corporations. That’s due by Saturday. Until then, no more money talk.”
~ ~ ~
Image mosaic in Heraklion Archaeological Museum / CC0. Public domain