I glanced at the board four feet from my desk in Intro to College Math. I chose this seat five days ago on my first day of college so I’d have to pay attention. The left side of my brain liked to loll around and do nothing. I couldn’t afford to indulge its sloth if I wanted to pass this class.

Photo by cgiraldez

Miss Eason’s Analytical Geometry and Trigonometry, the most harrowing class of my life, taunted me. What if my brain wasn’t lethargic, but math-stupid? If I could barely hack high school arithmetic, how was I going to survive the university level?

My anxiety ratcheted up in Media Writing the next hour when Mike Pachik, editor of The Southern student newspaper, assigned me the story on the inauguration of the new president of Florida Southern College.

Hello, I’m a freshman.

I should have been writing poems about the color green like I did for the Barracuda at New Smyrna Beach High School. I’d barely learned the inverted pyramid of media writing—placing the most important facts up front in a story in case the end had to be cut in layout. Writing leads—beginnings—wouldn’t be broached until next week, and now I had to interview Dr. Robert Most-Important-Person-On-Campus Davis? Maybe the editor thought the inauguration was too lame for his veteran investigative reporters.

Acid funneled into my stomach. It didn’t sound lame to me.

Me, Fall ’76 at FSC

I stood outside the door to the Watson Fine Administration Building, sweat forming on the back of my neck.

A palm frond scraped against the low slung wall. What if Dr. Davis was there? What if I had to introduce myself in this hideous red FSC T-shirt? But if I didn’t go in, I’d worry myself into a full-blown stomach ache.

Fortunately, I only had to talk to his secretary.

I pushed through the glass doors into sunshine with a sigh of relief, then rounded up Laura Cotton and Puni Fraser from the dorm for lunch.

As we hit the lobby of Allan Spivey Hall, the sound of a girl belching the alphabet broadcasted from the intercom throughout the first floor.

“Gross.” I cut across the room.

“Wait,” A smile of wonder stretched across Puni’s face. “That takes a lot of talent.”

“What? Girls don’t belch in Brazil?” Laura said.

Puni tipped her nose up and her corkscrew curls fell behind her shoulders. “We’re too cultured for that.”

“Whatever.” Laura walked toward me. “I’m hungry, let’s go.”

“Fine. She’s done now anyway,” Puni pushed her lip out in a pout.

Thirty minutes later we jogged down the steps from the cafeteria.

Wolf whistles and male laughter collided into our conversation. We all looked up at the same time at the row of frat boys sitting on the wall, holding up huge flash cards the size of the lane counters I’d used to swim the 500 Free in high school. Seven, Six, Nine, Eight, Eight, Eight, Seven.

My gut clenched. I wanted to know and I didn’t want to know what they thought of me. But, it was anybody’s guess whether one of us or the girls behind us scored the six and the nine.

The whole thing was plain mean. Next time I wouldn’t forget to sneak out the back door.

Still, my eyes cut to the collection broad shouldered cretins, Florida sun bleached curls, come-on grins. I raked my gaze back to the curb, calling myself all kind of hypocritical.

Laura narrowed her eyes at the boys, her pale brows knitting. “When are you guys going to grow up?”

A brown-haired guy with muscle bulging from a Pi Kappa Alpha shirt laughed. “Out of the mouth of a freshman.”

Laura double-timed past the wall. “Immature much?” she muttered under her breath.

“Idiots.” I shot one last hypocritical look over my shoulder at the pot luck of pecs and biceps and the beginnings of beards.

Photo by danist soh

Twenty minutes later, I slid into a chair at the Ordway conference room table—as far away from Professor Judge Watson as I could get. The other five students in History of Civilization took their seats around the table.

I was all for sitting up front, but listening to an hour’s lecture on Feudalism from four feet was enough to put the fear of God into a person. And Watson wasn’t the type to suffer fools. There’d be no fudging on the 10-page essay due next Friday. Not only was Judge Watson’s jury out on whether I had the brains to pass his class—I didn’t know myself. One thing was for sure, he’d get my best work.

History of Civilization wasn’t the only class that teetered me toward failure. The words on the pages of my physical science text always seemed to blur into a blob. Who knew my hyper-sensitive gross-out meter that made me nix dissection—and therefore, freshman biology—would land me in physical science, a euphemism for physics. I shuddered. Calculating the velocity of matchbox cars in lab last week had short circuited my brain, the good-for-nothing side and the rest of it. Thank God my lab partners were freshman geeks and not Greeks—at least not the variety sitting on the wall outside the cafeteria. How would a girl think with all that fraternity testosterone floating in the formaldehyde haze of the Polk Science Building?

Photo by petradr

I wasn’t worried about what my parents would say if I flunked out. Dad had long ago labeled me less-than and Mom would love me no matter what. College was what I wanted.

Hardly a newbie at anxiety, I’d worried myself into daily headaches in high school, irritable bowel syndrome, lip chewing, leg bouncing—not to mention what all that fear running around in my mind did to my mental health.

A week later in Intro to College Math, giddiness percolated under the powers of ten the professor painstakingly explained as though we’d never heard of them before. Until today we’d covered fractions. That’s it. Just fractions. Even with Florida’s low-scoring public school system and my lazy brain, I’d mastered fractions and powers of ten in junior high.

I scribbled the correct number of zeros on the worksheet with a flourish, flipped open my notebook, and ran my finger down the syllabus.

Just as I hoped—all mathematics skills I’d already assimilated. I wanted to do a touchdown dance on my way out the door. If I’d known math for journalism majors would be this easy, I’d never have tortured myself with college prep math.

Three days later—dressed in a skirt and my most professional looking button-down blouse—I clenched my nerves between my teeth and quizzed President Davis for fascinating tidbits about his speech, Inauguration Day, and how higher education served mankind. My wannabe future wafted through my head while I scratched down every golden word that fell from his lips.

my article on front page

He confessed he’d been working on his speech for three months.

My shoulders relaxed against the upholstered chair. And I thought I was the queen of stress.

But anxiety paid off. The inauguration article landed on The Southern’s front page and later my name showed up on the Dean’s List and in Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists. The one time I forgot to slink out the back door of the cafeteria, the frat guys gave me nines, an eight, and a 10.

At the close of first semester, I felt like the happiest coed in higher education. I was poised to conquer college.

Maybe I got cocky, I don’t know. But though I camped nearby, I spent more time off the Dean’s List than on it. Maybe the rest of my schooling would have benefited from a few more doses of old fashioned fear. A few less frat boys.