Hello! My name is Greg Dennison, and I write the blog Don’t Let The Days Go By. It is an episodic continuing story set in the 1990s in the western United States, about a university student (also named Greg) making his way in life. This episode takes place in the middle of freshman year, when Greg had a terrible day that led to an important lesson.
As a child, I read a book called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. In the book, everything goes wrong for Alexander, from the moment he wakes up until he goes to bed. Some of the bad things involve his older brothers or kids at school, and some of them are just freak accidents. Alexander repeatedly makes comments about wanting to run away to Australia, to leave his bad day behind.
I felt like Alexander today.
I had to turn in a math assignment incomplete. The problem in the textbook used something called Lagrange multipliers to find the dimensions of a can that has minimum surface area for a certain volume. I knew how to do this a different way, but I just could not figure out one problem from the homework. It was possibly the first time in my life that I did not understand something from math class. I emailed my instructor and everyone I knew who had taken the class before. So far, my friend Pete, who was a quarter ahead of me in math, told me that he never understood Lagrange multipliers either, and Gurpreet, the RA on my floor, said that his instructor skipped that lesson.
After math class, I went to the library to work on a paper for another class. A couple years before I started, the UJ library stopped using a physical card catalog and switched to an electronic system. I remember feeling frustrated last quarter, trying to figure out how that worked, but I had figured it out by now. I wrote down the locations of a few books that would be helpful. Two of these books were checked out, not due back until after my paper was due, and the others had little useful information.
I was having a bad day.
When I got to the dining hall at lunch time, I saw Megan, a resident advisor in a different dorm, sitting with a few other girls, probably some of her residents. “Hey, Greg,” she said. “Come sit with us.” She gave me a friendly smile, which I tried my best to return. Early this quarter, Megan had cut her hair short and dyed it green; I personally liked it before better, but I did not say so out loud. Her natural color, on the darker side of blonde, was growing back at the roots, and there was something strangely familiar yet out of place about that combination of hair color.
“I got your email about Lagrange multipliers,” Megan said after I sat down. “I don’t think we learned that. I still have my Math 21 book, and none of that section looked familiar.”
“A guy in my building said the same thing. He took 21C last quarter, and he didn’t remember it either.”
“Yeah. But it was on your homework?”
“I don’t understand why it would be on my homework if no one learns it.”
“Me either. Sorry I can’t help,” Megan said. “How’s your day going other than that?”
“Honestly, it’s been a frustrating morning,” I explained. While I was telling her about not finding the library book, I made a connection in my mind that caused me to have to put a lot of effort into holding back a giggle. I was smart enough not to say out loud what I had realized.
Megan’s hair, with the fading green and the roots growing back, looked like lawn that needed watering.
“I’m sorry you’re having a rough day,” Megan said. “But it’s Friday! Are you doing anything this weekend?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Working on that paper, if I can find any sources that aren’t already checked out.”
“Just relax and take it easy. Or do something fun with your friends.”
“We’ll see. I don’t know who’ll be around.” Besides, I thought to myself, I don’t really know how to make plans with friends.
“We’re going to head back to the building now,” Megan said when I was about halfway done with lunch. “I hope your day gets better, Greg.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “Have a good weekend.”
A few minutes later, as I was climbing downstairs out of the dining hall, I saw Andrea from my math class with a well-dressed guy in a sweater. “Hey,” she said, seeing me.
“That problem on the homework with the Lagrange multipliers,” I said. “Did you get that? Because I didn’t.”
“I had no idea what was going on with that problem,” she said. “I don’t think she ever went over that in class.”
“I know. I’m confused too.”
“Greg? Have you met my boyfriend, Jay?”
“Hi,” I said, hoping my disappointment would not show. “I’m Greg.”
“Nice to meet you,” Jay said, shaking my hand.
“Have a great weekend!” Andrea said.
“Thanks. You too.”
I walked back to my room and lay down on the bed, face down with my head in the pillow. The cute girl from math class has a boyfriend. And the cute older girl could not help with Lagrange multipliers. So much for the day starting to turn around.
I got off my bed after about fifteen minutes and checked my email. The dialup modem clicked and whirred, and a notification appeared that I had one message, It was from Mary Heinrich, the president of the Math Club.
Date: Fri, 03 Mar 1995 12:44 -0800
Subject: Re: Lagrange multipliers
Hi Greg! I’m pretty sure my professor skipped that section… sorry I can’t be more helpful! Hopefully I’ll see you at the Math Club meeting next week.
So there it was. No one could help me with Lagrange multipliers. The instructor had not replied yet, and her office hours were at the same time as one of my other classes.
Maybe my day would get better if I did something else. I got in the car and headed east toward Capital City. Mom had given me an errand last night when we were on the phone. My brother played on a youth basketball team, and the parents wanted to get a present for the coach. The coach’s favorite player was Mitch Richmond, who played for Capital City, which had just changed its logo this season. The parents wanted to get the coach a Mitch Richmond jersey in the new design. Mom said that I could buy the jersey, since I live near Capital City; I could bring it home during spring break and she would pay me back. I was a little irritated at Mom volunteering me to do something, but at least I got to explore somewhere new.
I crossed the river into Capital City and continued to the mall, about twenty miles from Jeromeville. This mall was huge compared to the one where I grew up. I walked up and down the entire length of the mall, just to browse and people-watch, or in my case, cute-girl-watch. I stopped at a music store and bought R.E.M.’s Monster and Soundgarden’s Superunknown. There were a few other CDs I wanted to buy, but I did not feel right spending all that money.
Upstairs, I found a sports merchandise shop. I looked through the basketball jerseys and found many of the best players of the day: Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Charles Barkley. But no Mitch Richmond. That made no sense. In the ten years that Capital City had had professional basketball, Mitch Richmond was the best player who had ever played here. What kind of store carries no merchandise of an All-Star player from the local team?
“Looking for something?” a store employee asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “A Mitch Richmond jersey.”
“Hmm,” the guy said, with a look on his face that suggested he knew little about basketball. “Let me try to find one for you.” I did not follow basketball closely in 1995; basketball was Mark’s thing. Baseball was still on strike, and hockey was not big here in the Valley, so football was the only sport I followed closely. But I knew enough about basketball to know Mitch Richmond.
The employee came back after a few minutes. “Yeah, we don’t have that.”
“We’re in Capital City! This store doesn’t make sense! It’s like a store in Chicago that doesn’t sell Michael Jordan jerseys!” I turned my back and left the store in a huff.
At the other end of the mall was another store that sold sports merchandise. I had the opposite problem here: numerous Mitch Richmond jerseys in different sizes and styles. I did not know what Mark’s coach would want, or what size he wore.
“May I help you?” the guy behind the cash register said.
“I don’t know,” I said angrily. “I was sent here to buy a Mitch Richmond jersey for someone I don’t know, and I’m not sure what he wants or what size he wears.”
“You kind of need to know the size for that one, don’t you. Can you find out?”
“I’ll be back,” I said, again storming out of the store. I hated this. I did not need to be sent on this errand in the first place. I was in way over my head, and I was not even going to get anything out of it. I got the two CDs, but I could have gotten those at Tower Records without leaving Jeromeville.
I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
I think I’ll move to Australia.
I could ask Caroline for some pointers, since she was from Australia.
Instead of going to Australia, I went to a pay phone. My parents had something called a calling card, where they could make a call from any phone in the country and have it billed directly to them. They told me the PIN number, so I could call them from anywhere and they would pay for it.
“Hello?” Mom said, answering on the second ring.
“Why did you send me on this stupid errand?” I shouted, starting to cry.
“Whoa. Where are you?”
“I’m at Capital East Mall, in Capital City. I came here to look for a Mitch Richmond jersey, like you asked me to. I don’t know what size he wears, or what design or color he wants.”
“Don’t worry about it! If you don’t want to get it, I’m sure we can order one.”
“I’m all the way here. I don’t want to leave empty handed.”
“Get any of the designs. I’m sure he’ll like it. And he wears extra large.”
“But I don’t want to get him something he doesn’t like.”
“I’m sure it’ll be okay. And it’s a gift. He’ll appreciate the gift.”
“Maybe. I’ll go back to the store and see.”
“You do that. It’s okay. How was school today?”
“I’ll call you over the weekend from home, so it’ll be cheaper. I don’t want to have a personal conversation out in public.”
“Good idea,” Mom said. “Are you going to be all right?”
“I think so.”
“I’ll talk to you this weekend, then.”
I hung up the phone and sat on a bench, trying to hide the fact that I had been crying. Eventually I went back to the last store and got the jersey, the black one in extra large. Mom said get anything, so it was not my fault if the coach disapproved.
The rest of the night was boring. I sat alone at dinner. I listened to my new CDs. R.E.M. seemed to be going in a different direction from what their last two albums sounded like, but I liked it, and the Soundgarden album sounded darker as a whole than the two songs I knew. I read for a while and went to bed a little before midnight, falling asleep quickly.
I woke up with a start, hearing voices and laughter coming from the hallway. The clock said 1:21 AM. Whoever was talking was doing so after hours, breaking the rules, and I was furious because they woke me up. Could this day really get any worse? I lay in bed for a few minutes, but the voices were just loud enough that there was no way I would be able to go back to sleep. Who were these loud, rude people? Probably those weird stoners and partiers who lived upstairs at this end of the third floor.
In one corner of the room near the closet was a large cardboard box, shaped like a cube about two feet on each side. The box had originally held my computer, but now all that was inside was the foam packing material. I used the box as a small table now. There was nothing on it, and more importantly, it was the first non-lethal object I could find to throw at whomever was being so inconsiderate outside my doorway. I picked up the box and opened the door, squinting at the sudden brightness coming from the hallway.
Taylor, Pete, Caroline, Charlie, Krista, and Sarah were sitting in the hallway. This was not whom I expected to see, not the partiers from the third floor. This made the whole experience feel even worse, because these people were some of my closest friends. And they could not even be considerate enough to let me sleep.
I threw the cardboard box at the wall forcefully, glaring angrily at the others and screaming incoherently for about two seconds. The box hit the wall and almost fell on Sarah, bumping against her shoulder. Sarah looked at me, stunned, as did the other five. I ran across the hall to the stairwell and stomped off downstairs and out of the building.
Without thinking about what I was doing, I walked to the car. I knew I had blown it. I had made a big mistake, and everyone had seen my true colors, my inability to control myself. It did not matter anymore that I was a successful student at a prestigious university. I was just that scared little kid who blew up and lashed out when life got to him, like I had been all through elementary school.
I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
I think I’ll turn on this car and drive all the way to Australia.
I had always struggled with these kinds of outbursts all my life, especially when I was young. I was bullied and teased all through school, called horrible names for no reason other than that I was an easy target, because I was different. No one taught me to stand up for myself or to fight back. No one taught me how to be confident or find people who would build me up. So I would take it and take it and take it for days, for weeks, until I would finally explode, throwing furniture, and pushing and hitting people. Then my teacher and my parents would scold me and say that I needed to learn to control myself, and I would get suspended from school.
I had been that kid all my life, and I always would be. There would always be people around me to tell me condescendingly that what I did was wrong, even though I knew that. Some adult authority figure would come along eventually and tell me that I needed to be pumped full of pills to fix me. And the pills never worked.
This year was supposed to be different. I was finally free of everything that held me back in Plumdale, and I could make a fresh start in Jeromeville. But this was no fresh start. It was the same old dumpster fire that my life had been for eighteen and a half years. I did not know why I was here or what I wanted to study. I did not have a girlfriend. And nothing would change as long as I kept making mistakes like this.
I sat in the car for about another fifteen minutes, thinking about these things and trying to calm down. I closed my eyes. I opened them again. I took a deep breath. Whatever I messed up tonight, whatever mistakes I made, giving up would not make things better. I had nothing to lose by learning from this and moving forward. This experience was not a reason to quit school.
I was ready to put this behind me for the night. It was late, I was tired, and it was time to go back to bed. I would apologize to everyone in the morning, but it probably did not matter. I had blown it in front of my new friends. They had seen me for what I was. I knew that what I did was wrong, and I also knew that they were all going to tell me that I was in the wrong and make me feel worse about it. I had violated the rule about quiet hours, so Amy or Gurpreet would probably get involved. And I deserved it. I was just going to have to bite the bullet and let them scold me and tell me how badly I had behaved. I just hoped I would not get kicked out of the building, or out of UJ entirely.
I stepped out of the car and took a deep breath. I walked back to Building C, like a dog with my tail between my legs, ashamed of the way I had behaved. I got to the front door and scanned my key card. The door clicked, and I pulled it open.
Nothing I had seen or experienced in my eighteen and a half years of life so far had prepared me for the scene that was waiting for me in the lobby.
To be continued…