Creative Nonfiction

Geology Rock Stars

by Lin Salisbury

        I have a confession to make – I didn’t finish college until I was 47 years old. My daughter and I graduated the same year from the University of Minnesota. I hadn’t intended for it to go that way, but I got busy raising children, working, and procrastinating. My degree happened in stages. I took a class at a junior college, got an A, patted myself on my back to assure myself that I was college material, and then immersed myself in potty training and PTA meetings and a job as an event planner. Once the kids were out of elementary school, I started taking classes at the University of Minnesota – but only the ones that interested me – the writing classes. These classes were in the MFA program, and back then, if there was room, you could send the professor a writing sample and beg entry. I took all the classes I could get into this way, and then one day, I couldn’t; there was a class I wanted to take that was only offered to students enrolled in the MFA program.  I met with the professor, thinking that maybe because she had allowed me in so many of her other classes, she would budge. She couldn’t. She looked at me with puzzlement, “Why don’t you apply for the MFA program, then you can take any class you wish?”

       My face reddened. My ears burned. I looked down at my hands and twisted my ring. I had been outed.

       “Because I haven’t finished my undergrad degree.” The clock ticked on the credenza behind her. I cringed.

       I was ashamed that I hadn’t finished my degree. It was a baseline measurement of success for most people. Many of my friends had master’s degrees and big jobs. A few had had their books published. At parties, they shared stories about dorm living and twenty-five cent pitchers of beer at the local bar. I usually sat quietly, not adding to the revelry.

       My professor paused and then made an extraordinary offer; her generosity and kindness made me cry. She said that she would mentor me if I wanted to enroll. Her offer was a gift . . . she was a Regents Professor and an accomplished author. I’d be stupid to pass up the opportunity. 

       I enrolled and registered for eighteen credits my first semester. Though I had finished most of my credits in my area of concentration at that point, I had not taken my generals. Not. One. Single. Credit. My science and math skills were not just rusty, they were corroded. 

       I registered for the Geology and Cinema class, an ingenious class designed for someone just like me – science averse – where we would watch bad movies like “Tremors” and “Earthquake” and our professor would lecture on all the bad science they contained. It was fun until the tests, because you still had to pass, which meant that you had to understand plate tectonics, rock formation, mineral composition, and the geologic time scale. The lectures were held in an auditorium that sat 1,000 students. I was the invisible student sitting in row fourteen. 

       Labs were different. They were small and more intimate, and students sat at tables set up in quads. I was anxious the first day of labs. Most students taking Geology 101 were eighteen-year-old freshmen. 

       The first day, a young man plunked himself down in my quad and blinked naively in my direction, hoping to make a good impression.

       “So, like, are you the T.A.?”

       “No, like, I’m old enough to be the T.A.’s mother,” I said, suddenly conscious of the wrinkles around my eyes. My oldest son was a decade older than this kid. I felt hideous, stupid, and exposed, wearing my boot cut jeans and ankle boots, a wannabe, another Cher, an old lady trying to pass herself off as a University Student. 

       It’s not like I hung out in the dorms or stopped at the Kitty Kat Klub for a late-night beer after studying. I drove home to the suburbs each day after my last class, made dinner for my youngest son, or if he had soccer practice, popped a Lean Cuisine (or two) into the microwave, before settling at the kitchen table for the rest of the evening to study. And I was okay with that. But the blatant acknowledgement of my “oldness” by someone whom I had to consider my peer for the next twelve weeks was unnerving.

       We came each Wednesday to geology lab to scratch rocks with nails and play in a manufactured river to determine the course of eddies and flows. We charted earthquakes. We learned about mass wasting and much to the surprise of my young male tablemates it had nothing to do with Friday nights at a nearby frat house. And somehow, they came to accept me . . . a forty-six-year-old mother of three from the suburbs who reminded them to do their pre-lab exercises and turn in their post labs before the end of the day.

       At the beginning, it was my least favorite class. I would never need geology to write, I told myself. Yet, to complete my degree, I had to have a physical science lab. I am an introvert, and it was difficult to work up the energy for group labs. 

       By the second week, I enjoyed their company. When I arrived early for class, several students engaged me in conversation. They didn’t make fun of my reading glasses, or that I often forgot they were on top of my head and would pat my pockets and root through my purse for them. They were less intimidated by my age than I was by theirs. I relaxed. I decided to be myself. 

       As a lab group, we were required to make a presentation the last week of class. Our T.A. announced that we must come with ideas the following week—and each contribute something to the project. He wanted it to be educational—based on something we’d studied—yet not dull. Entertain him, he said.

       The following Wednesday I sat down at the table with my lab partners and looked from one to the other in anticipation.

       “So, what did you come up with?” I asked each of them in turn.

       There were two shrugs and a, “nothing.”

       My heart raced and my face flushed. Good, I thought. I was convinced that my idea was a good one, now I just needed to sell it. 

       “Well,” I began, “Since no one else has an idea, I guess we’re stuck with mine.” I grinned. 

       “Great!” Joe said, almost too quickly, clearly relieved that someone, anyone, had something for us to run with. The other two, Kaj and Jordan, eyed me suspiciously.

       “What’ve ya got?” Kaj asked.

       “An interpretive dance of mass wasting styles,” I paused while their minds caught up. “And since it was my idea—I get to be the narrator.”

       They paused, looking from one to the other. The room hummed around us. Plans were being made.  

       “Which means . . .” Kaj held his hand out twirling it in the still air to cajole me to come out with it already.

       “You guys are the ballerinas.” I high fived him.

       There was a brief silence. I could see them slide from relief that someone had come up with a plan – to horror at the thought of what they would have to do – and on to being the good sports that I believed they were at heart. I smiled and nodded at each of them—selling the idea, selling my confidence in my idea—and waiting. Joe started laughing first. Kaj snickered and shook his head. Jordan was not convinced until the T.A. came around and asked us for our plan. When I outlined it for the T.A., he became animated, “That’s a great idea!”

       Jordan was now on board. If the T.A. thought it was great, Jordan thought it was great. He was not going to make a fool of himself for a C, but the T.A.’s enthusiasm convinced him it was worth the risk.

       “Here’s the plan,” I said, when the T.A. moved on to the next group.

       The next week, the guys came prepared. Since mass wasting involved rockfall and mudflow, both of which were accelerated by the addition of water, they each decorated a white garbage bag that they would wear with their identity: Kaj was mud, Joe was water, and Jordan (at six foot four and 250 pounds) was rock. Over the course of the week, I’d written the narration and Joe had burned a CD with four different classical music selections that represented the different speeds of mass wasting styles. The dances, we’d decided, would be improvisational. We outlined which dancers would need to perform for each style of mass wasting and indicated whether the dance would be fast or slow.

       When presentation day arrived, we sweated as the other groups began. They were dull, grounded in fact, and Scientific – and all of them relied upon technology – of which we had none – other than our boom box. We watched, dry mouthed, PowerPoint presentation after PowerPoint presentation, and worried.

       “I thought it was supposed to be entertaining,” Kaj whispered through clenched teeth. Our eyes darted from one to another. Had we screwed up?

       I took a deep breath and tried to shore them up, “Remember, he said scientific and entertaining. Don’t worry about it.”

       We watched the other presentations and yawned, sending each other looks that said dull, dull, dull. But still, we were uneasy. It showed in our clenched jaws, the look of panic in our eyes, and my sweaty palms. 

       When it was our turn, we approached the front of the room clearly intimidated. I read the narration leading into each interpretive dance and pressed the play button on the boom box. Music filled the classroom, and I watched as the other students looked at each other with puzzled expressions. Kaj, Joe and Jordan glissaded and pirouetted across the front of the room, interpreting mudflows, debris flows, slump, and creep. 

       The audience was no longer comatose; they were paying attention. 

       Kaj and Joe held hands and spun across the front of the room to the accompaniment of “Flight of the Bumblebees,” for their interpretation of a mudflow. For a debris flow, which is accelerated by the addition of water, Kaj (mud) and Jordan (rock) began slowly pirouetting when suddenly Joe (water) collided with them, sending them into faster spins, a chaotic, out of control dance that ended in a heap of dancers. For slump, in which the rocks settle into a crescent shaped formation with a head scarp and toe butting out, massive Jordan performed an arabesque over squatting Kaj and slumping Joe. The class broke into hysterics. To what lengths would these guys humiliate themselves to get an A? 

       We ended our presentation with an interpretive dance of creep—a slow, but pervasive sliding of earth that often resulted from clear cutting land for mass development. With root systems eliminated, and earth newly grated into unnatural mounds, over time, the land would creep. Eventually, it settles back into a more natural formation, leaving ridges and rises and often foot-length drops that tear the sod. Kaj, Joe and Jordan stood at the front of the class with arms interlocked, and began by performing an exaggerated plie´, then slowly lifted their left foot, and planted it across their partner’s in a clumsy second position, shuffling across the front of the classroom. 

       The class burst into applause. The guys were pumped. They bowed and hammed it up, laughing and slapping each other’s backs. I smiled from the sidelines. 

       We were geology rock stars.

       The next week, as I walked across campus to class, the T.A. stopped me, “That was awesome,” he said, and I smiled. “See you in class.”

       But awesome as in grade, or awesome as in entertainment, I wondered as I walked past Lind and Folwell towards Earth & Environmental Sciences. I entered the classroom feeling uncertain, wondering what I would say to the guys if we failed. They’d depended on me – they trusted me. As the guys filed in, we sat quietly waiting for our grade, trying not to make eye contact.

       We got an A. There were offers of beer and chicken wings, but I declined, explaining I had a soccer game to get to that afternoon. I felt a new camaraderie with my lab partners. I was one of the guys, just another struggling student. 

       The last week of class we had to evaluate each other. Forms were passed around by the T.A. The guys looked at their evaluation sheets and looked surprised. Apparently, they hadn’t noticed my last name until that day.

       “Do you have a daughter named Lindsay?” Kaj asked.

       “Yeah, why?” I continued to fill out my form. Group projects were not my favorite thing, but the guys deserved high fives. They’d been the real stars. 

       “You’re from Lakeville?”

       I nodded and continued circling numbers on my form.

       “We graduated with your daughter,” Kaj said pointing from himself to Jordan and back.

       I looked up. How is that even possible, I wondered. A young woman across from Kaj looked at him and snickered. I put my pen down and turned my evaluation over. I was going through a divorce and still shared the last name of my kids. It was a very unusual name. It would be hard not to make the connection.

       “Did you ever think you’d be creating an interpretive dance in college with the mother of one of your high school classmates?” I laughed.

       Life is full of weird ironies. 

       A year later, my son was in a world history class at his high school. The first day, as the teacher called role, he stopped at Alex’s name.

       “Does your mom go to the U of M?” he asked.

       “. . . yeah . . . why?” Alex asked, not certain he wanted to be publicly associated with me. Like most teenagers, he was often embarrassed by my mere existence.

       The teacher eyed Alex, no doubt enjoying watching him squirm in his seat.

       “Your mother made my son perform a modern dance in geology class!”

       After school, as he relayed the interchange, Alex said he thought of denying me for a second, but figured I only had a few more moments like these left in me.

       “Yep, that’s my mom,” Alex said. 

       I graduated from the University of Minnesota with a B.A. in Creative Writing the following Spring and to my surprise, was invited to give the commencement speech. It wasn’t brilliant, but as I stood at the podium and looked out at my kids sitting in the second row, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction and gratitude for the professor who pushed me past my fear and into my brief life as  …

A geology rock star.