College years are a time of great learning, yet not all lessons are academic.
I fought butterflies when I first entered the student hall on a cold February morning. Fortunately Otis’s mellow “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” played over the loud speaker.
Most of the freshmen must know each other, having started together in the fall. Bed rest for pneumonia had postponed my start. My high school buddy, Greg, said he’d introduce me to his friends and led me over to a large circular table where a gaggle of kids were busy gabbing.
Kind of like the dinner room table Sunday afternoon playing cards. The words were a hum rather than meaningful. A couple of people got up and said hi to Greg, they had Western Civ now, so we could have their seats. They added they knew I was Chet and they’d meet me later.
Greg introduced Avery, a shy bio student with a wispy goatee. We nodded. I leaned forward to shake, but Avery stood up. “Time for modern dance. I better meet some girls there.” Carrying a spiral binder, he headed to the far door.
“Good luck with the women,” a deep voice from the other side of the table said.
“That’s Barry,” Greg said.
Barry looked athletic. “So you’re the chem genius, Greg warned us was coming.” He stuck out his hand and almost crushed mine when I shook it.
Thankfully Greg interrupted this test of strength that I had already lost. “Barry, let me introduce Chet to Kaki.”
Kaki turned out to be a girl. “Nice to meet you, Chet. I’m in the nursing program. Did I hear you’re chemistry major? If I get stuck, can I ask you questions?”
School was turning better—a good-looking girl who I’d have a readymade excuse to talk to. “Of course, but I doubt you’d need any help.”
She simpered, like I imagined a coquette would rather than knew from direct knowledge.
“Hey, here comes Scott.” Barry interrupted my pleasurable thoughts. He pointed to a guy taking a seat across the table. Scott shook his unkempt mop of blond hair and flicked a lacrosse ball just hard enough to kiss the ceiling of the room.
A girl with long, brown hair rushed up and gestured for Greg to move so she could sit next to Kaki.
“Linda,” Kaki said, “this new guy is Chet. He can help us if we get stuck in chem class.” Turning to me, she added, “Linda’s in the nursing program with me.”
“So true,” Linda said, “but I won’t need any chemistry help. I understand that fine. But that doesn’t mean I’m not glad to meet you Chet.” She reached her hand over and took mine with a smile.
Turning to Kaki, she said, “Kaki, you shouldn’t have skipped class. I got you copies of syllabus and the handouts, but he took roll.”
Barry chimed in. “That doesn’t make any difference, girls. You nurses will never earn more than a fraction of what doctors do.”
“Son of a bitch,” Greg said. “Why can’t you be nice, Barry?”
“Just telling the truth. You got a problem with the truth?”
“I don’t care if he does or not,” Linda half-rose in her seat, “counting truth by dollars is the wrong measure. Nurses are more important to the day-to-day life of patients than anyone else, including doctors.”
The to-and-fro continued with a fair bit of heat, then Linda zinged Barry that sports were worthless entertainment. I listened as the group talked, trying to learn what was what and who was who. It was like trying to draw sense out of the conversation between Ace and Buster when they talked of something Buster didn’t want me to understand.
There were several hours between my 8 a.m. calculus class and my next. People chatted, but I paged through those handouts and my next textbooks, listening with half-an-ear until Avery returned from modern dance. He said to no one in particular, “I took modern dance so I could meet women, not to be part of a public performance.”
I could understand his plan. I’m shy myself. Besides being a middle child with a father who demanded quiet a raised hand rather than fairness and nuns who condemned enforcing discipline, I submerged my desires. Listen before doing. Even hanging on the street corner during high school, I steered away from being alone with certain people who took pleasure in breaking rules.
“Avery, don’t sweat modern dance,” Barry told him. “I took it last semester. It was a cinch. Just,” he sent a sidelong glance to Scott, “be brave.” Barry smirked. Scott laughed and grabbed his lacrosse racket as the two of them walked away.
As I got up to find my next class, I wondered about that smirk and the snarky laugh.
Greg pointed to my schedule. “Let me see it. I thought so; your lab is in the next building after mine. Let’s go. It’ll take some time to get there.”
I left the student union reluctantly. The table intrigued me, but class called. I wanted to learn so much that now I was here, I couldn’t blow it.
Hurrying past the gym, my question bubbled out of me. “Why is Barry so weird with Avery? I mean, I get that he dislikes him because Avery’s a brain, but why is he so obnoxious.”
Greg opened the building door. “Let’s go inside. There’s a little story to that, but it’s too cold to chit-chat outside.”
“Did you notice the oddness of Scott’s laugh? And ‘Be brave.’ That’s an odd phrase, for a sports guy to use.”
Greg nodded. “Barry’s a bit strange.”
“Yes, what’s the story?”
“Okay, here’s the Cliff Notes version. You remember me telling you about the Summer Orientation, down on the Severn.”
I nodded and he continued. “On Saturday night was a dance, hosted by the Dean and administration. Everyone was to be on their best. Barry was telling everybody how he scored a winning goal and said his body was perfect since he was made in God’s image. Avery heard this and said, ‘Yeah, after your ancestors spent a million years as apes.’ It took me and a couple of other guys to stop Barry from pulverizing Avery.”
“Even my short acquaintance with Barry tells me he wouldn’t take being contradicted, much less with mockery, very well.”
“Ever since, Barry puts him down. He likes to get Avery’s goat.”
I wondered at that. “I thought college would be different than hanging with ordinary kids.”
Greg snickered. He opened the door to let some students out and to give him time to tease me. “Didn’t your parents teach you anything? Never mind,” he shook away my confusion, “it’s time for class. See you back at the student hall later.”
Sitting at the table, waiting for my first chem class, I ignored Barry, mulling over simple opposition of the “White Room” with black curtains, when Kaki and Linda returned. Kaki asked where Avery was. Barry chortled. “Be brave. He’ll return.”
For an instant, I saw Linda’s smile replaced by intense dislike. Quickly, Kaki said they had another class, but tell Avery they’d meet him in the library to discuss bio.
My intro chem class only lasted 15 minutes. I return directly to the table. We’re such creatures of habit. We return like lemmings to the same building, same table whenever we can. I wonder what psychology will have to say about that. As I reached the table from one direction, Avery arrived from another.
Barry sniggered. “Avery. Kaki and Be Brave said they’d meet you in the library.”
A cylinder clicked in place.
“Barry, why did you call Linda, Be Brave?”
But Scott, not Barry, answered. “You wouldn’t understand. You missed the big event.”
“I have heard about Orientation, if that’s what you mean.” I countered.
“Scott,” Barry cut in, “shut up. I can tell my own story. Here’s how it was, Chet. Avery pitied suckered Linda to the outdoor patio at the dance. He tried to put the moves on her, in the way of an earthworm. Squiggly and repulsive. She wasn’t having any of it and told him, ‘Be brave. Someday you’ll find someone.’ I suppose every worm has its day.”
“So now you slight Linda and taunt Avery with ‘Be Brave.’”
“No, chem man. I’m telling Avery to stand up against the words, be brave.”
On the way home from my first day of college classes, Greg asked, “What did you learn today?”
First I thought of calculus and chemical principles then the feudal economy and modern composition, but the biggest eye opener was Barry. In his version, he skipped the putdown Avery laid upon him and focused on the verbal snub Avery received from Linda.
“College kids may be smarter than kids on the corner …” I paused, considering, then finished. “… but not better.”
Image mosaic in Heraklion Archaeological Museum / CC0. Public domain