Doing the Most

It wasn’t until Emma Shibley’s senior year of high school that her mother seriously questioned her extracurricular involvement.

One afternoon that fall, Emma arrived home from school with an announcement.

“Hey, Mom, guess what?”

Susan Shibley knew how that conversation would end.

Mother and daughter had been there before, when Emma had joined the school band, the marching band, choir and ensemble, and again when she had gotten the leading role in the school musical.

Before that, there had been Girl Scouts, volleyball, cross-country and track, spelling bees, a competitive writing team and summer swimming and diving teams.

Emma didn’t even like swimming, but she knew she needed exercise and, equally as important, something to do in the summer.

There was always a reason, always a purpose for each of Emma’s many engagements. She was passionate about the music and the theatre and the writing, and she hoped to convert one or more of those pursuits into a meaningful career.

First, though, Emma had to graduate from high school. And now, as she told her mother that day, there was one more role she’d have to play along the way.

She was the newly-elected president of the Centerville High School National Honor Society.

It was in the seventh grade when Emma’s classmates and teachers first began to notice that she wasn’t like most students.

Emma was everywhere, all the time. It became her reputation – not just the band geek or the choir girl or the volleyball player, but the kid who did everything.

She thrived on the rush of it all, on her good grades and creative talent and on her teachers’ praises.

“I was just talking about you with this other teacher that you have about how great you are,” they would tell her in the hallways.

They all know me. They all think well of me, Emma often thought.

She wouldn’t, couldn’t put that approval on the line by dropping a class or skipping a club meeting. And besides, this was how her classmates knew her, how younger students looked up to her. But being busy was also how Emma withdrew from herself, from the thoughts that might otherwise paralyze her.

After all, aside from the usual horrors of adolescence, Emma had her grief to contend with.

Lee Shibley Sr., Emma’s father, had died suddenly in 2006, leaving his wife and two children behind.

Emma was eight, not old enough to fully comprehend the notion of death but not young enough to be oblivious to its impact.

Middle school, then, became her proving ground, for grieving and for growing.

Indeed, extracurricular activities for Emma were an escape hatch, granting her reprieve from her own mind.

“Not that it was a conscious thing, but I think that I was way more comfortable going to another practice or another rehearsal or another club or another something, something, something,” Emma says. “I just would rather do that than sit and feel these really bad feelings.”

Not only that, but success for Emma was an imperative. It was what she knew, what her school and social community expected of her. Success was an addiction, and it meant being as involved as possible, at all costs.

“Something I’m wrestling with is, ‘Am I striving for this stuff because I really will be happy [doing it], or do I think that these are my responsibilities or my duties?’” Emma said.

It all arose from what Emma calls “an externalized internal pressure to do as much as I can.”

Denise Clark Pope has never met Emma Shibley, but understands her all too well.

Pope, a former high school English teacher and college composition instructor, is a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.

She’s also the author of an award-winning book on the subject – “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students – and a cofounder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit that helps schools calibrate an academic balance for their students.

Pope has met hundreds of Emma Shibleys – high-achieving and highly motivated students who, simply put, do it all. And like a growing wave of educators across the nation, she’s increasingly concerned about what it all means.

“Right now, it’s cool to be busy,” Pope said. “People say, ‘How are you?’ That’s a common phrase – ‘I’m good. I’m just really busy.’ Is that a good thing? You don’t hear someone say, ‘I’m good, I have a lot of free time on my hands.’ That’s not an American value.”

For Pope, high school is ground zero for the achievement culture often perpetuated in college. As she writes in Doing School, the grades-first mentality employed by many high schoolers sets a dangerous precedent.

“The bottom line is you’ve got to get the A, you’ve got to get the scores, you’ve got to get the grades to get into college, which brings you the high-paying job and happiness,” Pope writes.

Hence the proliferation of jam-packed after-school schedules, of AP classes and honor societies, and of staggering amounts of community service.

Pope likens the abundance of activities students now can choose to a smorgasbord.

“We’ve never had such a prolific, huge, wonderful, scrumptious buffet table in front of us, and you always overeat at buffets. The nutritionist will tell you, ‘Take one plate, go through the line once and walk away from the buffet table and don’t stay and graze.’ And everybody is staying and grazing these days,” Pope said.

Add on the pressures of social media, where one-upmanship reigns, and memes and media portrayals that draw straight lines between failing a calculus test and permanent unemployment and homelessness, and it’s easy to see why students feel overwhelmed.

At the root of it all, Pope says, is the question of what it means to be a successful student.

“[This is] a very, very narrow notion of success…about performance and what you’ve done and how you do, as opposed to who you are,” Pope said. “When you measure success as grades and test scores and how many things are on your resume and how many clubs you’re in and what’s the best grad school you can get into and what’s the best job you can get and money, it’s this very narrow, extrinsic view of success as opposed to saying, ‘Success is about happiness and health and resilience, and giving back to society.’”

Pope’s rat race only compounds itself when students reach college. Faced with a preponderance of free time – college students may spend as little as 20 percent of their time each week in class – students look for ways to pass the time by getting involved.

“They are filling their schedules without realizing, ‘Wait a minute, it’s not like high school anymore. I have to build in time to read and time to study and also time to have a life and maybe hold down a job,’” Pope said.

Such involvement can easily lead to immense stress, as noted in the spring 2017 National College Health Assessment, conducted by the American College Health Association. Eighty-eight percent of undergraduate respondents had in the past year felt overwhelmed by all they had to do. Nearly 85 percent said they felt exhausted, 62 percent reported anxiety, and over half said they’d experienced more than average levels of stress.

Emma Shibley was certainly among those ranks. During her freshman year at Miami, she lived Denise Pope’s cautionary tale. She registered for 20 credit hours and, at one point, found herself a member of 12 extracurricular organizations. Many of those clubs met on the same day, so that Emma had meetings scheduled one day every week at 4 p.m., 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Afterward, of course, there would be dinner to eat, readings to do and tests to study for – and, if Emma was lucky, a modicum of sleep to be gotten.

But for Emma, a crowded calendar was a source of comfort. Every minute she was occupied, whether in class or a meeting or rehearsal or study session, was a minute spent being purposeful and productive.

“There’s a sense of control that I feel when my calendar is filled to the minute of a whole day, and I know exactly where I’m going and what I’m doing,” Emma explained. “When my calendar is full of stuff to do, I know I’m achieving something at the end of the day.”

That achievement wasn’t an insignificant one, in a lifestyle Emma compared to surfing.

“I feel like I’m constantly paddling really hard, like on a surfboard, and I sometimes ride the wave and it’s awesome. But that’s only because this huge wave came and the timing is right and I had the perfect surfing technique.”

Except when she didn’t have the perfect technique.

“I kind of delude myself, thinking that I have like a system that works, because of those moments where it all lines up,” Emma said. “I do get everything done, or I show up to everything I’m supposed to, or things just work out and I don’t drop any balls, I don’t let anybody down.

“But I feel like that is like the glorious exception and not the rule. That really makes me like dislike who I am, because I let people down a lot.”

Those people, too often, have wound up being Emma’s closest friends, whom she found herself too burnt out to support.

“I was really caught up in my own life, very self-absorbed,” Emma said. “I was looking for support from [my] friends, as opposed to being aware that one of my best friends needs support.”

Was it all worth it?

Halfway through her collegiate career, Emma still wasn’t sure.

“You can’t really get the full 100% experience of anything, because you’re doing a solid 80% of everything. And that top 20%, I think, matters. I feel like that is the difference between being a part of something and belonging, you know?”

In the summer before her sophomore year, Emma took six credit hours. That fall, she added 21 more, plus six more over J-term, 15 during her sophomore spring and another seven the following summer.

All the while, she served as assistant editor of Inklings literary magazine and was on the executive boards of two other student organizations, sang in two campus choirs, was part of the Sketched Out improv comedy troupe and the Scholar Leader Living-Learning Community, obtained a leadership certification through the Wilks Leadership Institute, wrote for The Miami Student and directed vocal music performance for a Stage Left musical.

She also studied abroad twice.

By the time Emma returned from six weeks in the Literary London program this past summer, she was exhausted.

She’d done it all, proving to herself that it was possible.

But she was waking up with nightmares about the fall schedule she’d planned for herself. When her mom pleaded with her to stop kidding herself about how busy she was, her usual denials began to sound less convincing.

Thus, Emma dropped a few classes before returning to campus for her junior year. She switched from a Bachelor of Music degree to a Bachelor of Arts in Music program, cutting the credit hours required for the curriculum in half. She took a semester’s leave from Sketched Out and resigned from another student organization’s executive board.

The constant motion that propelled Emma in semesters past, the extreme anxiety that forced her out of bed in the morning, was gone. In its place came complacency, a lack of motivation to go to class and what Emma described as a sense of being “emptied out.”

“You’ve been running on adrenaline for so long, years of your life, and all of a sudden you’re rewiring some of those things in your body and your brain, the physical and biological stuff,” Emma said.

It was an addiction, and this was withdrawal.

“The crazy lifestyle of, ‘Emma’s always busy,’ that was how I felt defined by people who knew me,” Emma said. “It was really hard to [say], ‘I don’t want to be that anymore.’”

Emma says that now, she’s approaching an equilibrium.

“I’ve always been effusive and kind of a flitty person, but now I feel like I’m a more grounded presence. I have a different energy, I think, and a different internal metronome,” Emma says. “Anxiety was so much a part of my moment-to-moment life, literally all day, every day.

“Learning to exist without that is just … quieter.”

Emma’s schedule is still not a breezy one – she has double-majors in creative writing and music with a theatre minor. She’s editor-in-chief of Inklings and vice president of Collegiate Chorale, and she picked up a part-time job at Kofenya Coffee House this fall. But her extracurricular obligations end there, and she finds herself with an open calendar most nights of the week.

And ultimately, that makes many things, including conversations with her mother, a whole lot easier.

“Hey, Mom, guess what?” Emma might say now.

“I’m figuring it out.”

Decision

Emily’s phone began to buzz.

She was in her friend Sarah’s room in McKee Hall. It was a Friday — one weekend before Halloween — and they, along with another friend, Jackie, were getting ready to go out for the night.

Emily looked down at her lit-up phone screen, and her stomach fluttered. She knew that number.

She held her phone in her hand and looked back up at Sarah and Jackie.

“Guys,” she said, “I’ll be right back. I’m about to get an offer.”

Emily left Sarah’s room and went into the hallway. She tapped the green circle on her iPhone screen.

“Hello?” she said.

“Hi, Emily,” said a woman’s voice on the other end. It was Lindsay Jackson, the head coach for the College of the Holy Cross’ field hockey team.

She and Emily made small talk for a minute. Coach Jackson asked Emily how school was going.

Then she said, “So, the team all really enjoyed getting to know you, and we’d all really love it if you’d come play for us.”

Emily walked into McKee’s lobby and over to the window opposite the front door. Her reflection stared back at her from the glass.

“I’m really honored,” she said. She paced in circles in front of the window. “But I have to talk to my parents, since it’s a big financial commitment.”

Coach Jackson’s disembodied voice sounded a little surprised. Emily knew what she was thinking: “Haven’t we already had this conversation?”

They had. It was not hard to see that Coach Jackson and the rest of the Holy Cross field hockey staff were interested in adding Emily to their roster, especially after everything that Emily had done the summer before. Emily knew they wanted her, and she knew her parents expected her to go.

“I know it’s a big decision,” Coach Jackson said. She asked Emily to call her once she’d made her choice.

Emily hung up. She had worked for five years to get here — to get an offer to play Division I field hockey. This was why she had spent so many hours at all of the practices and tournaments and overnight camps. She had had her hopes raised and dashed and then raised again. She’d finally gotten what she’d told herself, for so many years, that she wanted.

So why did she feel so unsure?

*     *     *

The recruiting frenzy began when Emily was in eighth grade. That spring, on a recommendation from her club coach, she tried out to be a goalie for her regional Futures team, and made the cut. Being part of the development program for the U.S. women’s national and Olympic teams meant that for seven Saturdays that spring, Emily trained for eight hours each day with girls from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, and the surrounding areas. That summer, her team played in the National Futures Championship against teams from other regions around the country, each girl hoping to attract the attention of Futures scouts and win a spot at the Junior Olympics.

Emily didn’t move on to the Junior Olympics, but the wheels had been set in motion. She wanted to play college field hockey, to become one of the best players at one of the best schools. Her parents told her that field hockey could help her get into a better school than she would otherwise have been able to attend or afford.

So that summer, Emily began going to college recruiting camps. She played in tournaments with her club team on the weekends. Her summer break was filled with sweaty practices and road trips and strange hotels. When she wasn’t away with the club, she had her upcoming season on Coffman High School’s team to prepare for.

During Emily’s freshman year, she made friends with Sarah Noreen, a fellow goalie on Coffman’s field hockey team. Sarah would vent to Emily about how she was burnt out and disillusioned with recruiting, with all the hours and heart poured into a system that gave no guarantees it would pay off. Emily listened to her and couldn’t help but feel the same way. She decided she wanted to stop all of it.

But something happened Emily’s sophomore year. She was sitting on the bus after a game, her gear piled around her on the sticky leather seat. It was early in the season, and the trees’ still-green leaves blurred past the open window.

Emily was sitting near Katie, Carly and Kate, juniors who who were considered three of the best players on the team. They always stuck together, and at every end-of-season banquet they won all-league accolades.

As the bus bumped along the road back to Coffman, Emily overheard the three of them talking about emails they had gotten from college coaches, who expressed their interest in recruiting the girls and invited them to visit campus.  

Of course. It was September 1.

According to NCAA regulations, Division I coaches could initiate communication with players only after the first day of September. Before that, the players were the ones who had to be the first to make the phone calls and send the emails.

As Emily listened to Katie, Carly, and Kate on the bus that day, she thought, I want that. She wanted to be considered one of the players on the team that was being recruited, that a big-time school was coming after. She no longer wanted to be just a player. She wanted to be a recruit.

So Emily started it all over again. She joined a new club team, coached by Keli Puzo, a former Olympian. From sophomore year until senior year, she dove back into the recruiting clamor, once again doing the tryouts and practices and tournaments with her club team. She went to colleges’ recruiting camps — OU and Indiana and Northwestern and Louisville. Some, she attended multiple summers in a row. In the spring of her junior year, she went to the a recruitment-focused junior day at Dartmouth.

That year, Emily was eating lunch in the school cafeteria with her friends when she looked up to see Katie’s face on the two small lunchroom TVs. The broadcast team was interviewing Katie about her recent commitment to play field hockey for Ohio State.

The majority of Coffman’s student body wasn’t very familiar with field hockey, but everyone knew about college athletic recruits. Coffman athletes signed letters of intent every year at signing days hosted by the school in November and April. Every athlete who was considered to be good at their sport heard the question, “Are you going to play in college?”

As junior year merged into senior year, more and more of Emily’s friends from her club team committed to play in college. Maddie, Avery, and Kendall committed to Miami. Rachel committed to Ohio State.  

Meanwhile, Emily’s parents continued to stress that field hockey could be her path to a prestigious school. Suddenly, it seemed like she was seeing new posts pop up in her Instagram feed all the time showing people she knew, smiling and wearing in college gear, above captions that proclaimed they had accepted an offer to play at the next level.

The summer before Emily’s senior year, both Northwestern and Dartmouth were pursuing her as a possible goalie for their roster. But she was second on both of their depth charts; if the schools’ top recruits accepted the offers, it was all over for Emily.  

Emily would have gone to either school if they had made her an offer. But that fall, her decision was made for her: both schools called to tell her they were signing their top recruits. The Dartmouth coach promised to pass Emily’s name on to other programs that she knew were still looking for goalies.

Both programs called Emily before college applications were due, so she spent the rest of her year the same way every other senior did — applying to schools and waiting to hear back. In April, she decided to attend Miami University, and looked forward to a relaxing summer of hanging out with her friends before they all went their separate ways in the fall.

In June, Emily was sitting in the backseat of her car, with her parents sitting in the front. She unlocked her phone and checked her email.

She had all but given up on playing varsity field hockey in college, yet beaming up at her in bold face from her inbox was an email from the head coach at the College of the Holy Cross.

*     *     *

In early July, Emily and her parents flew to Boston. From there, they drove 45 minutes to Worcester, Massachusetts, home of the College of the Holy Cross, where Emily would attend the last two days of the Holy Cross field hockey camp.

Holy Cross’ campus is small and sloped, with one side higher than the other. The 3,000 students who live there during the school year can walk from one end of campus to the other, heading uphill, in 15 minutes. Perched on the hills are tall buildings with pointed roofs and many, many sets of stairs. The field hockey fields — where the Crusaders, clad in purple and white, play their home games — are at the top of the hill.

In her email, Coach Jackson had told Emily that she was interested in recruiting her and invited her to their annual summer camp. Since the invitation had come so last-minute, Emily only went to two days of the camp, instead of the full four. The first person she met when she and her parents got there was Rachel Lapar, a current sophomore Holy Cross player who was running the camp store.

After getting settled in at Mulledy Hall, one of two freshman-and-sophomore dorms, Emily hiked up to the field hockey fields. For the next two days, she did drills and played in scrimmages with the rest of the players in two-hour sessions under the hot sun.

The Holy Cross team had already committed one goalie, so Emily was competing for the second spot with another player, a high school senior from New York named Danielle. Even though they were both vying for the same position, things were friendly between them. Emily called her Danni for short.

Her parents stayed, and they all met Coach Jackson in person. She had curly brown hair and a friendly smile, and this season would be her first at Holy Cross. She didn’t even have an assistant yet.

At the end of the two days, after Coach Jackson had gotten to see Emily play, she talked to Emily and her parents about what would come next.

“You’re obviously a little rusty, but we saw some good things,” she told Emily. She said she wanted Emily to come to Holy Cross for an official visit in the fall.

*     *     *

A few weeks after the Holy Cross camp, Emily was sitting on the couch in her living room. Through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that led into her wide backyard, she watched her Italian Spinone, Zio, run around in the early August air.

At the same time, Emily scrolled through her Twitter newsfeed, pausing for barely a second to read each 140-character blurb before swiping upwards with her thumb. The tweets were about food and sports and friends and the weather. Then something different caught her eye.

It was from Danni.

“Verbally committed to play Division 1 Field Hockey at The College of The Holy Cross!! Go Crusaders!”

The words were followed by two purple hearts.

After that, Emily lost hope in playing for Holy Cross. She was disappointed, but not surprised. Playing field hockey in college hadn’t worked out before, so why should it now? A good showing at the Holy Cross camp was no guarantee of a varsity spot.

She figured it would end in the same way as Dartmouth and Northwestern ended. She didn’t expect Holy Cross to still be interested. After all, they had two new goalies on their roster already.

But when Coach Jackson called Emily, she didn’t say, “I’m sorry, but we’ve decided to make the offer to someone else.” In fact, the words that came through the phone were the exact opposite of what Emily was expecting to hear.  

Coach Jackson told her that the staff still wanted her to come on her official visit in the fall. She didn’t mention Danni.

Emily had known Holy Cross was going to call her at some point, but she was surprised to hear they were still looking. She’d fully anticipated to hear that Holy Cross was done recruiting, that they had enough goalies on their roster. But they were still interested. She was happy to know she still had a chance.

Emily’s parents were happy, too. Coach Jackson told Emily before the official visit that she didn’t have any scholarship money to offer her, so Emily would have to pay the full price of attendance — almost $60,000. But Emily’s parents were fine with that. For them, it was worth it for the caliber of the education they thought Emily would be getting.

Emily went on her official visit in September of her freshman year at Miami. She flew into Boston, where Holy Cross had sent a car to drive her to the school. The assistant coach met her when she arrived in Worcester and introduced her to the player she would be staying with that night: Rachel, the girl who ran the camp store in the summer.

Rachel gave Emily a campus tour, and they got food at the student union. In the middle of their meal, Rachel had to leave to get changed for her game later that day, so Emily finished eating by herself and braved a chilly hike up the hill to the field hockey fields.  

She watched from the stands as Holy Cross beat Colgate. After the game, Rachel took Emily back to her room in Mulledy Hall. They got dinner at the campus’s only dining hall, then went to one of the junior dorms to hang out with the rest of the team.

The next morning, Emily met with the coaches. She brought up Danni’s tweet.

“We did commit another goalie,” said Coach Jackson. “But we would really like to have another goalie on the roster. Not all three of you would be able to travel, but in case someone gets injured, I would like to have you.”

She explained that having Emily on the team would create more competition for Holy Cross’ goalies; the players would get better by working harder every week to try and secure their position.

Emily acted like she agreed with where Coach Jackson was coming from. “Yeah,” she said, “there was a goalie on my high school team that I had to fight for the spot.” But this wasn’t really true; there had never been much of a question about Emily’s status on the Coffman team.

She couldn’t help feeling a little slighted.

Emily thought she’d be receiving an offer that day, but the coaches ended her official visit by telling her, “We’ll be in touch.”

She returned to Miami. Weeks passed, but she heard nothing from the Holy Cross coaches.  

Emily kept her skills fresh by playing on Miami’s club field hockey team. She made plans to spend the next semester studying in London — if Holy Cross offered her the position, she would transfer there the following fall, which meant spring semester of freshman year would be her only chance to go abroad.

She tried not to stress about the phone call — until that October evening in McKee Hall.

*     *     *

After Emily got the call from Coach Jackson, she went out and had a fun night with her friends.  The next day, she put off thinking about the offer for as long as possible.

She was stalling. She knew she was. She was so unsure about what she should do and so terrified of making the wrong decision. So finally, at 7:16 p.m., nearly 24 hours after taking Coach Jackson’s call, she texted her club coach, Keli Puzo:

“Hey kel, I got word from holy cross that they want me to come if it’s what I want. I was hoping we could talk sometime soon to just talk it out.”

Emily always told Keli everything. Keli had been her coach for three years in high school, then moved to Oxford when her husband got a job as Miami’s head field hockey coach. Now that they were both in the same city again, Emily babysat Keli’s kids.

Keli couldn’t talk that night, so Emily had to wait until the next day. She was in bed, taking a nap, when Keli called. A little groggy, Emily answered and told Keli about the offer.

“Is this what you really want?” Keli asked her.

“I’m not sure,” Emily said. “But I think I’m going to take it.”

She thought that would be her final decision. She felt like she should accept the offer, after everything that had led up to this point. She had had a hard time adjusting to freshman year at Miami, in a new place with new people, but she could get over it. She could be happy at Holy Cross. Probably.

Emily had always wanted to coach field hockey, too, and during the summer after senior year, she went to the high school practices to help the incoming freshmen. She was introduced as a “former player,” which embarrassed her. She felt like she had to validate her ability to coach them, to earn their respect. They hadn’t played on the field with her. They didn’t know how good she actually was.

Emily thought that if she played in college, she would command more respect. Her players would want to learn from her and would see her as someone who really knew what was going on.

“Wow, she played Division I field hockey,” Emily imagined her players would say. “She was, like, really good.”

Emily remembered how disappointed she had been when it didn’t pan out for Dartmouth or Northwestern. Here was a chance at redemption.  

But at what cost? What was she giving up here at Miami? What would she be leaving behind if she packed her bags for Holy Cross?

“I’m really happy and proud of you,” said Keli, on the other end of the line in Emily’s bedroom. Emily thanked her and hung up.

But, still, she didn’t call Coach Jackson back.

*     *     *

Emily spent the next week thinking about the offer. One night, before club practice, she parked her gray Subaru Impreza in the lot outside the field hockey fields to talk to her teammate, senior Cam Colby, who was sitting in Emily’s backseat.

Cam was a former Miami varsity field hockey player, but had quit after sophomore year. Now she played for the club team.

Emily told Cam about the offer and about how she wasn’t sure if she was making the right decision. She asked Cam why she had stopped playing varsity.

“I’m a firm believer that everyone deserves to be happy,” Cam said. There was no longer any joy for her in competing at a level with such high pressure and high stakes.

“If this doesn’t make you happy, you shouldn’t do it,” she said.

Emily didn’t exactly feel happy about the offer. In fact, she felt like she should have been more excited about it. It should have been news she was happy to share with everyone, but it wasn’t. She was dreading telling the friends she would have to leave at Miami.  

*     *     *

Emily stood in line for the bathroom next to Maddie and Avery, who, along with the rest of the varsity field hockey team, were dressed as members of a motorcycle gang. It was Halloween, a crowded Saturday night at Brick Street, and the air was filled with the sound of thumping music and the smell of Red Bull.

Emily had started playing field hockey with Maddie and Avery in her sophomore year of high school. They had gone to endless practices and summer tournaments together. Every February for three years, they had played together on the glittering green turf of the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida. Every November, they had played together at the National Hockey Festival in Palm Beach.  

Maddie lived near Emily in Ohio, but went to a different high school. Avery lived four hundred miles away from them, in Virginia. But despite the distance, Emily grew close to them. She blocked shot after shot under glaring stadium lights and knew that her teammates were there to help her protect the goal. Off the field, the trio became friends through countless hours of chatting in hotel lobbies and over pregame meals.

Emily was especially excited when she found out that she, Maddie and Avery were all going to be attending Miami together. But when she got to school in August, she realized that she wasn’t going to be able to spend as much time with them as she’d hoped. Varsity practices and games ate up almost all of her friends’ time, and this Halloween night at Brick Street was the first time she’d been able to see them all year.

In the line for the bathroom, they chatted as if no time had passed at all. Then, during a lull in the conversation, Emily spoke up.

“Oh, by the way,” she said, “I got the offer from Holy Cross and I’m going to take it.”

She watched her friends’ faces fall as they stood in front of her. Then Maddie jumped into Emily’s arms.

“I’m going to miss you so much!” she cried. Avery agreed. The girls congratulated Emily, saying they were so happy for her but so sad that she was leaving.

Something tugged at Emily then. 

Transferring to Holy Cross would mean leaving Maddie and Avery, and all of her other friends at Miami, behind. She had had a hard enough time adjusting to her freshman year of college, even when she knew people who were on campus with her; would she be able to do that all over again, and this time at a place where she didn’t know anyone at all?

Avery and Maddie were trying to be supportive, but Emily could see in their faces that they were depressed by her news. At that moment, she realized that she would never be as happy at Holy Cross as she was at Miami.

As the girls washed their hands and headed out of the bathroom, Emily knew what her final decision was going to be. She wasn’t telling anyone yet, but she felt sure that this decision would finally be the right one.   

*     *     *

A week later, Emily texted Keli again.

“Hey kel! Just wanted to let you know I changed my mind…I had definitely made up my mind to go but when I told people about it, I realized that i was unhappy and that I was almost forcing myself to want to go. I’m talking with the coach tomorrow to explain all of that.  I’m excited about my future here though!!”

A few minutes later, Keli replied:

“Im happy for you! Way to follow your heart. Happiness will always lead to success… In hockey, life, love and everything you do! Looking forward to having another babysitter in town. ;)”

The next evening, Emily found herself pacing outside Havighurst Hall, her phone in her hand.  She was nervous about calling Coach Jackson. Though she knew she was making the right decision by staying at Miami, some of her old doubt was creeping into her brain.  

This was it. Once she said it, she could never take it back.

She finally screwed up her courage and called, telling Coach Jackson, “I can’t ask my parents to spend that much money.” But the real reason was so much more than that.

To Emily’s relief, Coach Jackson was understanding. “You have to do what’s best for you, she said.  I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you.  I’ll be rooting for you in the future.”

The call lasted barely three minutes.

After it was over, Emily felt a little bittersweet. She had worked for this for so long, and now she had said no. Her on-again, off-again dream was done. The prospect of being a Division I varsity athlete was gone, but so was all the stress of having something to prove — to coaches, to other players, and to herself.

Really, the strongest emotion she felt was relief.

*     *     *

A year later, after a full day of classes, Emily walks back to Wells Hall, where she lives. It is October once again, and Miami’s trees are resplendent in glorious golds, oranges, and reds. The evening sun is beginning to dip below the tree line.

“Wow,” Emily thinks. “This school is so beautiful.”

She is in her junior year at Miami, and completely confident that she made the right decision to stay. She loves it here. She is studying political science and interning with the Ohio Democratic Party. She has a job at the package center. For the first time in her life, she is playing field hockey — for Miami’s club team — just to have fun.

Sometimes, still, for no apparent reason, there are moments when she simply thinks, “Wow, I’m really happy that I decided to stay.” Maybe it’s the opportunities she finds here, or the friends she’s made. Maybe it’s because the pressure is gone.

Maybe it’s a combination of all of these.   

Maddie and Avery were thrilled when Emily told them about her decision to stay at Miami. Her parents, however, were a different story.

Her dad had been furious. Emily usually tunes him out when he yells, but she remembers him yelling on the phone. Her mom was calmer, upset but wanting to understand what was going through Emily’s head, why she had turned the offer down. She and Emily’s dad weren’t happy for a while, but eventually, they came to terms with the decision.

“You needed to talk to us about this,” her parents said. But Emily had made this decision for herself — for her own reasons, not anyone else’s.

As Emily crosses Oak Street on her way home, she passes other students on their way to class or dinner or their own dorms. Cars rumble by on the street next to her, and, just beyond the next building, she can see Wells.

She lives here — in this place that is colorful and vibrant and full of life. This is where she’s supposed to be, and now, finally, she’s sure of it.

Finding Grace

Ronald H. Tammen, Jr., was a ridiculously handsome guy from the Cleveland area who, in the spring of 1953, was majoring in business at Miami University. He seemed to have everything going for him: brains (he carried a respectable GPA); leadership potential (he was a sophomore counselor in a freshman men’s dorm); a certain degree of hipness (he played the string bass in a campus jazz band); and friends, both Greek (he was a Delt) and non-Greek. He was also one of the few students with a permit to have a car on campus, so he had that going for him too. On an otherwise forgettable Sunday evening, April 19, 1953, the guy whom many would have considered to be a shoo-in as a bank president someday made a name for himself in another way — he vanished. It happened in the vicinity of Fisher Hall, a hulking old residence hall that has since been replaced by the Marcum Center. The story of Tammen’s disappearance has become legendary, mostly because of the remnants he’d left behind — an open textbook, a burning lamp, and most of the possessions he normally wouldn’t have been caught dead without, including his wallet, keys, 1939 Chevy, and string bass. Tammen’s disappearance was investigated by Miami officials, Oxford police, and even the FBI with no success. The author, who graduated from Miami in 1980, has been conducting her own search, talking to the people who’d known Tammen and uncovering as many new clues as she can in hopes of perhaps finally solving the case. This article describes a detour she took along the way.

___________________

The instant I saw the photos, I knew that I was in for a long slog with a new addiction. I’d already been searching for the boy — Ronald Tammen — for several years by that time, but now I would need to find the girl, too. The two scenes, freeze-framed in black and white, had managed to survive one thrilling day that had come and gone ages ago — a day when stomachs fluttered and a pair of teens had adorned tux and gown with the weighty expectation of looking better than they’d ever looked in their young lives. A day when a mystery girl had accompanied Ronald Tammen to the 1951 Maple Heights High School prom.

In the first shot, Ron and his date are faced forward, their eyes squinting into the sun. Her dress is white chiffon with a tiered bodice and simple jewel neckline. A similarly colored wrap hugs her neck and shoulders, bolero-style. Her corsage, an orchid, is enormous, bound to bother as the evening progresses. Her short hair is newly permed, the tight Lilt curls framing her face. (In cruel contrast, Ron’s hair glistens with product, an effort to tame his natural waves.) She is a dazzling girl next door, and anyone can see by her unprovoked smile that she’s been anticipating this moment for weeks. That smile might have been what had led Ron to ask her to the prom in the first place. She seems to be genuinely nice.

Ron is standing to the right of his date. Their shoulders are touching, possibly for the first time. He’s wearing a white jacket and shirt with a perfectly knotted black bow tie. A carnation pinned to his left lapel is the same deep shade of gray as the handkerchief peering out of his pocket — probably crimson in real life. He’s dashing without really trying. A half smile on his lips and a slight tilt of his head give him swagger. If someone had told me I was looking at a youthful Paul Newman before he made it big, I would have believed it.

It’s the second photo, the one snapped when neither of the pair is quite ready, that draws me in most. Ron’s sister Marcia, who would have been eight, is standing in front of Ron and smiling at the camera, an ornery, lopsided grin. Ron’s date is turned toward Ron, while Ron faces forward and is looking downward. His date’s smile has dimmed a little and she appears to be looking past Ron, perhaps in response to his expression, which is…what? It could be simple shyness or modesty, self-conscious embarrassment at the prospect of exchanging a glance with someone he doesn’t know very well. But there’s something else. Sadness? A pang of worry? His head is bowed as if he’s done something wrong.

“Do you happen to remember her name?” I’d asked Marcia when she’d raised the topic of Ron’s senior prom with me one spring day in 2011. We were sitting in a Denny’s in Cleveland, our inaugural meeting. It would be two more years until I had the actual photos in my hand, but the subject had always intrigued me.

“Grace,” said Marcia. “But I couldn’t tell you her last name. She was one of the girls who lived down the street.”

“Was she in Ron’s class?” I asked.

“I don’t know. She could have gone to a parochial school, for all I remember.”

It was a start. I’d already bought several Maple Heights High School yearbooks on eBay, covering Ron’s sophomore, junior, and senior years. Ron had even signed a couple of them — a big, loopy signature in perfect cursive. It would be easy enough for me to leaf through the pages of the 1951 issue, Ron’s senior year, stopping only at the Graces, and then ask Marcia to help me narrow the field to the one and only Grace to grace Ron’s arm at the prom.

Grace was an uncommon name back then, unlike the Carols, Jeans, and Peggys that populated the pages. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single Grace in Ron’s senior class. There was one Grace in the junior class, a Grace P., and there appeared to be no Graces in the sophomore class either, though I barely looked at that section. The students seemed so young. You’d think that I would have tried to track down the lone Grace immediately, but I didn’t. In my mind, if Ron could have taken anyone to the prom, as so many of his friends had claimed, there really wasn’t any reason for him to look beyond his own age group. Or possibly, I had already locked onto what Marcia had said: that Grace may have attended a parochial school. Her comment had reminded me of a similar remark made by a former classmate of Ron’s when I’d asked her if she’d remembered Ron ever dating anyone.

“Not anyone from our school,” she’d told me. If there was a dance, Ron was the type of guy who would bring a girl from another school, she’d said.

A nearby Catholic school would certainly qualify as another school. But the possibilities were too wide open. I put Grace on the back burner and continued my main pursuit — trying to figure out what had happened to Ron.

In the spring of 2013, Marcia and I were catching up over coffee at a Wendy’s near her new hometown, a farm community in northeast Ohio. It was one of our usual rendezvous spots whenever I came to visit. As my list of discussion topics was winding down, she said that she’d been doing some digging in preparation for our meeting. She turned to a carryall bag and began pulling out some of her most cherished possessions. There were 8” X 10”s of Marcia and her four brothers — stunning high school senior portraits that, for as long as Marcia could remember, had been lined up on a bookcase in her parents’ home, the same place where Mr. Tammen used to put his hat at the end of the day. There was a photo of her mother Marjorie when she was probably in her 20s, her eyes as big as a doe’s and her hair in a flapper-esque ‘do.

There was a yellow-bound report that Marcia had written when she was a junior in high school. Titled “The Tammen Ancestors,” it described the origins of the two sides of her family and included a chart filled with relatives’ names, many of which had already become familiar to me. Marcia’s narrative described how the Tammens (on her father’s side) and McCanns (on her mother’s) had conducted their lives — where they had lived, how they had been employed, and whom they had married and conceived. There was one exception: Ron Jr. His life had been summed up in one forlorn sentence: “Ronald Henry Tammen Jr. was born July 23, 1933.”

I could understand why Marcia had so little to say about Ron. What else could she have written about him? That he had disappeared from his second floor room in Miami’s Fisher Hall when he was a sophomore and no one had seen him since? That would have sounded too tragic. Besides, everyone in Maple Heights had already heard the story by then. There was no reason to bring it up here. Also, at that time, the family still believed that Ron was alive, and there was no telling what had happened to him. For all Marcia knew, he was a grown man with a new name and identity living in a sunny climate and raising a family of his own — one that would never make it onto her chart. By then, memories of her brother were receding so fast that one of the few things that Marcia could state unequivocally was that he had indeed been born.

The next item that Marcia pulled from her bag was a picture in a frame. I immediately recognized it as a painting of Jesus standing outside a cottage door, knocking. The artist was Warner Sallman, an American painter who had created many of the iconic religious images that I’d seen since I was a kid in Sunday school. He’d also painted the close-up, profile view of Jesus with shoulder-length hair and beard. I’d seen that image so often in hospitals and nursing homes that I figured it was Jesus. The brown and gold tones made it appear ancient, as if it had been pulled from 2000-year-old Jerusalem rubble. But no, it was painted in 1940 by a guy from Chicago. Marcia’s picture, the one titled “Christ at Heart’s Door,” was painted a couple years later.

It wasn’t until Marcia had turned the frame around that I understood its significance. Marcia had won the picture as a child in a competition at church after memorizing 18 verses of the Bible. At the top, Marcia’s instructors had inked in the date of the competition: April 19, 1953, the same day that Ron had disappeared. What they’d written beneath the date gave me a chill: “Only one life—‘Twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.” Did the universe already know what was about to happen? Was Ron’s life about to come to an abrupt end that day?

That’s not why Marcia had held onto the print, however. The painting itself had spoken to her and, for that reason, accompanied her throughout her life, tacked to the assorted walls of the houses and apartments she’d resided in since she was ten. Only after a friend pointed out the date to her did she realize that she’d been living with that picture for as long as she’d been carrying the grief of losing her brother.

As we prepared to leave, Marcia mentioned that she also had a couple videotapes that I was welcome to borrow. She suggested I drop by her home the next day to pick them up, along with all of the other materials that she said I could take with me to duplicate. As I drove away the following day, my priceless cargo in a manila envelope on the passenger seat, it occurred to me that Marcia and I had turned a corner. I had finally earned her trust. Out of all the people who had written about Ronald Tammen’s disappearance — and after 60 years, there were quite a few — I had managed to convince Marcia that I was in it for the long haul. We both wanted the same thing: to find out what happened to her brother, and we would be allies in that search.

The first video, titled “The Phantom of Oxford,” was a half-hour documentary produced in 1976 by a TV station in Dayton. I’d already seen that tape, a re-dredging of all of the details surrounding the mystery, and featuring interviews with some of the main players. The second video was shorter and more recent. It had been produced by a Cincinnati news team when investigators were trying to determine if a dead body found in Georgia in 1953 could have been Ron. (It wasn’t.)

Within the first few seconds of the news segment, there it was: a photo of Ron and his date to the high school prom. Moments later came the second photo, the one of Ron gazing downward. Grace was on the front burner once again.

I screen-grabbed stills of the prom photos, along with several other shots of the family, and had a few copies made of each. I then mailed a set to one of Ron’s classmates and former neighbors who agreed to let me know if she or anyone else she kept in touch with recognized Ron’s date. After several weeks of hearing nothing, I revisited the possibility that his date might have attended a parochial school. I recalled that one of Ron’s friends, whom I’d interviewed a couple years earlier, had attended a Catholic high school in the area.

“Do you happen to recognize this person?” I asked him in a Facebook message. “I think her first name is Grace.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t,” he replied.

Of course, in the back of my mind I’d always wondered if Grace might not have been her name after all. I knew how my memory worked when it came to the names of people I used to go to school with. Some names I could call up, but others stayed on the tip of my tongue, stuck at the first letter. Perhaps her name was actually Gladys or Gloria. I ran my theory past Marcia, who said no, she was quite sure it was Grace.

Her certainty increased my momentum. I found an online database of yearbooks, which made it possible to search electronically for all of the Graces who attended schools in the area, both public and private.

The first person to turn up was Grace P., the same girl I’d spotted in the 1951 Maple Heights yearbook as a junior. Her senior picture looked somewhat like the Grace in my photo, though not identical. I found her married name from a brother’s obituary and gave her a call.

No one picked up, so I began to leave my message: “Hi, I’m looking for a person named Grace, who graduated from Maple Heights High School in 1952. I’m writing a book about the disappearance of Ronald Tammen…”

“Hello?” Grace P. interrupted.

That was par for the course. Early in my project, I was pleased to discover that the people I was attempting to track down for interviews — people in their late 70s and early 80s — picked up their phones no matter what, and usually on the first or second ring. But within the last year or so, many were letting their calls roll over to voicemail. The robots and scam artists had finally jaded them too. When I mentioned the name of Ronald Tammen, however, the screening ended, and we were talking one-to-one. Ron Tammen was my instant in.

“You’re writing a book about Ronald Tammen?” she asked.

“I am,” I said, and then explained a little about my project. “I don’t suppose you went to the prom with him, did you?”

“No,” she laughed. She said she hadn’t dated very much in high school. She had an Italian father who was pretty strict in that regard.

I’d already known her answer would be no. If she’d attended the prom with Ronald Tammen, she would have volunteered that information immediately, without my asking. I followed up with a question that I asked anyone who had known Ron in high school or college. Unfortunately, it was a question that usually yielded disappointing results.

“What kinds of memories do you have of Ron back then?”

“Not much, I’m afraid,” she said. “I was just a junior when he was a senior, so I didn’t know him very well.”

That was common. Ronald Tammen wasn’t exactly a well-known guy. Sure, everyone knew him — they’d seen him playing in the orchestra or singing in the choir. They admired him. But very few had stories to share.

I was back to square one. I returned to the database, and searched for more Graces in the Cleveland area during the 1950s. This time, another Grace from Maple Heights popped up, one I hadn’t noticed before. Her name was Grace H., and her last name, with its shortage of vowels, sounded Eastern European. She was standing in the back row of the home economics club in the 1951 yearbook. She’d managed to fly below the radar because, for whatever reason, she hadn’t appeared in any of the class photos that year — not with the seniors and not in the homeroom shots of juniors, sophomores, or freshmen. Her smile was unmistakable, though, as were her curls. She was the one.

I checked an online phone directory on the off chance that she was still going by her maiden name, but came up empty. After conducting a few additional Google searches, I landed on a contact page for several alumni of Maple Heights High School. Miraculously, among the names included under the class of 1952, there was Grace’s. In addition to the discovery that her new last name is gentler to the ear and by far more common, there was an email address to a customer service account at a small business in Georgia. Even if she were no longer working there, I figured, someone might be able to point me to her home address and phone number, which they promptly did. Roughly an hour after finding Grace’s name online, I was dialing her phone number. A couple seconds after that, I was talking to her machine.

“Hi, I’m writing a book about Ronald Tammen…,” I began.

There was a beep and some jostling and then a woman’s voice. The voice was deep and full, nothing like what I’d imagined from the girl in the photos. It was the voice of a woman who’d been around the block several times over. It was a voice like those of some of my rowdier aunts on my father’s side — not fancy, not terribly feminine, but warm and jovial and strong.

“You’re writing a book about Ronnie Tammen?” she asked, the word Ronnie revealing the utmost in familiarity, the word Tammen accented with disbelief. “He took me to the prom!”

Deep down, I felt myself do a double cartwheel.

“I was just thinking about him yesterday!” she exclaimed. And as I filled her in on my book project and the hoops I’d jumped through to find her, Grace began to cry.

Grace and I continued our conversation the following Friday, once I’d had the chance to pull together the million or so questions I wanted to ask her, and once she had time to recover from being blindsided by a certain ghost in her past. Marcia was right — Grace had lived in the same neighborhood as the Tammens, though her time there wasn’t exactly carefree. Grace’s mother had been a single parent in an era when divorce was considered a suitable reason for shunning in the eyes of neighbors.

“My mom was the anomaly,” she told me. “My mom was the one they talked about. They didn’t have any reason to talk about her. All she did was work all the time. But that’s what single moms do — they work all the time.” I was beginning to see where Grace had gotten her moxie.

“So the year that Ron took you to the prom — he was a senior and you were a junior?” I asked. I was basing this on the date provided on the alumni page I’d found online.

“I was a sophomore,” she corrected me.

Impressive. A junior going to the prom with a senior is one thing, but a sophomore and a senior? That was a much bigger deal.

Grace described herself as an average student, adding that, other than her involvement in the home economics club, she wasn’t a joiner. (This is in contrast to Ron, who signed on to just about everything that was offered.) Still, she managed to break into a circle of popular girls whose ranks included several cheerleaders and one majorette. So many years later, it was hard for her to explain her reason for being in that particular clique.

“Maybe I was the nice one,” she offered. She admitted that she was pretty and well-liked. In 1952, the year after Ron graduated from high school, she attended the prom with the star of the football team, the highest rung there is on the high school social ladder.

Grace and her friends called themselves the “slick chicks,” a name she regretted many years later after she became a member of the National Organization for Women. When she spilled that detail, I thought about how surprised Ron would have been to see his friend — pretty, well-liked, average Grace — marching in front of the White House in support of a woman’s right to equal pay. Another surprise for him would have been the news that she’d gotten married right before her senior year of high school.

“I was precocious,” she said. “The first one who got married, the first one who had babies, the first one who got a divorce.”

“Cool,” I said with a laugh.

No, I didn’t think it was cool that she’d gotten married and divorced at such a young age. I’m not a total jerk. It was that my perception of Grace had been changing by the minute. Here was a woman who had made a few bad gambles in her life and still managed to come out for the better. A survivor.

But that was all post-Ron. When Ronald Tammen asked Grace to the prom, she was still young and naïve and, like him, didn’t have any dating chops to speak of. She doesn’t exactly remember when she first became aware of Ron, but if her Maple Heights yearbooks are any indication, it was in 1950 during her freshman — his junior — year. In 1948 (when she was in the seventh grade and he was in the ninth), he signed his name — that big, loopy signature — but nothing more. His signature doesn’t appear anywhere in her 1949 yearbook. But in 1950, he penned the following: “To the girl with the smile in her voice.”

Grace and Ron had dated a few times before and after the prom, sweet little meet-ups featuring movies and ice cream, but going to the prom, that was the high point of their relationship. She was over the moon with excitement.

“I thought I was a big deal because a senior took me to the prom,” she said. “He looked really good, and he was smart, and he was musical. I really liked that. It was a good package.”

“What do you remember most about that night?” I asked.

“It seems to me that it was in a big, very nice hotel, and the weather was very nice and there was a big patio, like an outdoor space,” she said. “I just remember walking outside and it was so…the weather was perfect and it was a beautiful night and, oh my gosh, you know? It was just…”

At that critical point, our phone connection broke up, and I didn’t catch her last few words, which she followed up with a girlish giggle. I knew where she was headed, though. It was sublime. It was dreamlike. It was a moment so special that, above all of the other moments that had come and gone that evening, it seared itself into her consciousness, forever occupying brain space for as long as she’d live.

Several months after our conversation, while preparing her house to go on the market, Grace would discover the program from that evening. The dance had been held in the ballroom of the Park Lane Villa, an iconic building in Cleveland that had started out in the 1920s as a luxury hotel. The date was May 19, 1951, and they’d dined on fruit cup, garden salad, Swiss steak, mashed potatoes, and peas. There were dinner rolls and pie and ice cream, and, to drink, they had their choice of coffee or milk. Grace had saved the program from all those years ago. Grace had saved the program! So, yeah, it was a special evening.

“Did you ever neck with him in the back seat of a car?” I asked.

“Probably, but not so far that I even remember it because it was not…he was not…” She paused a beat. “In the next couple of years, I came to find out what aggressive was. He was not aggressive. He was nice. He was comfortable. He was my friend. And you know, there’s not any adjective that I could find to describe him that wasn’t a good thing.”

Weeks later, Ron would sign Grace’s yearbook for the last time. In it, he wrote, “To Grace: The sweetest and prettiest sophomore girl. I guess you know how I feel about you and I can only hope that you can go through life having a good time as I had going with you. Best of luck always, Ron.”

There was no formal break-up, although his yearbook sentiment almost conveys a tone of goodbye. “Best of luck.” She doesn’t recall ever seeing him during his visits home after he started at Miami.

Grace thought about the person she was during those years and what Ron might have seen in her — beyond her smile and her voice.

“He was good-looking and he was on the wrestling team. He was somebody around school,” she said. (And by somebody, she means someone of substance.) “He could have taken anybody to the prom. And the fact that he took a sophomore says that he was shy and he was reaching to somebody who was not threatening to him.”

She was devastated when she heard the news about Ron. By then, she was a newlywed with a new last name. In the weeks that followed, she would worry about what might have happened to him, until she eventually concluded that someone he trusted must have lured him to a terrible end. As her life continued moving forward — after she married for the second, and then the third time — she’d think of him every so often, particularly when she read in the news that someone had gone missing. Decade after decade, she continued to carry Ronnie Tammen inside her, protected from view.

Protected, that is, until 60-some years after the fact, when a late-morning phone caller seeking information about her friend caused the tears to flow as if it had happened that very week. As if she were the girl from the photo who had just been told that the handsome, perfect boy who had taken her to the prom was nowhere to be found.

A Hitch in Jim’s Step

Jim Rhodes was taking a shower.

It was a Saturday in June 2014. The 49-year-old was at home, unwinding from a long week at work maintaining the physical facilities of Miami University’s Bell Tower Place.

He was just washing up. It was just a normal shower.

Until he looked down.

Jim’s calves were so large that his older sister, Sue, called them “steaks.” He woke up early each day to exercise, wanting to maintain that athletic physique and pump his body with endorphins so he’d begin his work day on a positive note.

Looking down on that Saturday morning, Jim saw that his right calf was there, in all of its beefy glory.

But his left was not.

It seemed like it happened overnight. His left calf muscle was half its normal size. Jim rushed through his shower, climbed out and tried to flex his left calf. But it didn’t move.

The doctor’s offices wouldn’t open until Monday.

“I couldn’t wait to call my doctor,” he says now, “but I had to wait.”

After consulting the doctors, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) was ruled out. The doctors found that Jim’s spine was pinched and performed a posterior anterior spinal fusion. The surgery inserted cadaver bone, Jim’s own bone and surgical steel into his spine, freeing the pinched nerves.

The insert boosted Jim’s height from 6’1” to 6’1½”.

“If I knew they were going to put a lift kick in me, I would’ve asked for the four-incher,” he laughs.

But six months later, his height was the only thing that had improved.

So Jim’s doctors decided to run another test, this time to search his blood for a small enzyme, creatine kinase. Referred to as CK, this enzyme is produced by the liver to repair tissue damage in the heart, muscle or brain. The normal CK count for the average person sits around 80-100 total units.

Jim’s was almost 10,000.

His liver was working overtime to repair something that was seriously wrong.

After meeting with several neurologists and finding no answers, Jim was told to seek a specialist at The Cleveland Clinic. He began doing his research, sizing up doctors and recommendations before making an appointment.

After extensive blood testing, brain imaging and full-body electromyographies to assess his muscles, Jim was diagnosed.

He wasn’t worried about being sick when he went in — he thought that had been ruled out in Cincinnati before his back surgery; all of those tests had been run. His biggest worry was seeing all of the esteemed, fancy credentials on his doctors’ name tags.

“I kept thinking they were going to speak to me in languages way, way over my head,” he said.

Jim’s doctor sat him down and diagnosed him with ALS.

ALS is commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named for the Yankees player who delivered a famous farewell speech about his own struggle with the disease. The progressive neurodegenerative disease attacks motor neurons in the brain and spine that spread to every muscle in the body. When these motor neurons die, the body can no longer initiate or control its muscle movements.

There are generally two timelines given to people diagnosed with ALS: a three-to-five year progression or a five-to-eight year progression.

In the early stages, sometimes even before diagnosis, patients have stiffness in their muscles or spasms. They can also experience fatigue or lose muscle mass, as Jim did in his calf.

As more motor neurons are attacked, moving becomes difficult. Voluntary movements — such as holding things, walking and swallowing — are the first to become affected.

Paralysis is guaranteed with ALS. It happens gradually, starting with the small muscles and eventually progressing to full-body paralysis. In the final stages of the disease, patients require around-the-clock attention, and are often fed through a tube due to throat paralysis.

Towards the end, ALS victims can no longer communicate.

The prognosis is death, with 90 percent of victims dying within five years of being diagnosed. There is no cure to pause, end or reverse symptoms. There are only a few drugs and therapies that may slow the disease’s progression.

After breaking the news to Jim, the doctor launched into explaining all of these progressions, and explaining what Jim’s tests and images looked like. Jim was there, he was listening, but it was all a blur, really. Now, he specifically remembers one piece of information the doctor told him that day: that his disease was not hereditary, meaning that it wouldn’t physically affect his family.

That was a relief to Jim, a single dad whose daughters Courtney, 21, and Taylor, 23, were his first thought.

How would he explain this to them? How do you tell your daughters you’re dying?

Until that appointment, all of Jim’s thoughts were about the possibility of being sick, the maybes and the maybe-nots. Now the conversation was concrete. Jim was really sick.

“There’s just no way to dodge a subject like that,” he says.

After the appointment, he had a four-hour ride home to think about it. Now, he recalls it as the fastest car ride of his life. Jim just kept running through it all in his head, what would happen, what he could say. Soon enough, he was pulling into his driveway; his daughters were already home. They asked him how everything went, how his visit was.

And Jim broke down.

“I’m going to do everything within my power [to fight this],” he told Courtney and Taylor.

They cried. They hugged. They were clingy for a while.

That November 2014 day was the beginning of a string of emotional ones for the Rhodes family. After his daughters, Jim had to tell his parents. As one of four kids, he kept thinking about how heart-wrenching it would be to lose one of his own daughters during his lifetime.

While his family came to terms with what was about to happen, Jim did too.

“All the tears got cried out,” he explains. “I couldn’t cry anymore.”

Jim was faced with a lot of questions that were hard to ask and harder to answer. A football player at Hillsdale College, he had remained devoted to staying in shape and maintaining his ox-like strength. This made it hard for doctors to predict how long he had left, or how his disease would progress.

Immediately following his diagnosis, Jim started taking Rilutek, a drug that can help slow symptom progression of ALS by protecting nerves in the brain and spinal cord from glutamate, a substance that contributes to the nerve damage. He also began taking anti-depressants, but no narcotic pain medicine.

That was three years ago.

Today, Jim is the Armstrong Building Service Coordinator. He comes in every morning by 7:30 and checks all of Armstrong’s systems through his computer program. Then he looks for alarms to know what isn’t operating properly or what’s low. He keeps up to date on the freezer temperatures. He walks through all of the mechanical rooms to search for leaks and breaks.

He talks to all of the Building Service Associates, who maintain the dish machines and make sure each level of Armstrong is stocked full of everything it might need. He does almost everything he used to, except climbing up on the roof. It’s not really his job to do all of the little things, but he says the first shift is hard, so he makes sure he gets done with his checks with enough time to jump in and help out.

Jim used to log about 25,000 steps in a day’s work, but with the opening of the Armstrong East Wing, that number has increased to about 40,000.

He is in pain, every day, almost all of the time. In the morning, particularly, he has joint pain due to his abnormal gait. A “giddy-up in my hitch,” he calls it.

The telltale limp is improved by special shoes and a carbon fiber plate that runs under his foot and around his ankles.

“Without them, I’d walk like a duck,” he says.

Jim was so determined to not allow his diagnosis to impact his life that he kept it a secret when he returned to work. But when his abnormal gait “reared its ugly head,” he was outed. People started asking about his knee or hip problems, and he decided it was time to fill everyone in.

At the start of the 2015-16 school year, a year and a half after his official diagnosis, Jim sat all of his coworkers down together and told them about the illness he had been hiding. He made a point of asking for no special treatment.

Sue posted her brother’s diagnosis on Facebook. It was the first time Jim had gone public with his diagnosis. His Facebook notifications multiplied; his extended family and friends were finding out for the first time.

Some of these people, and some strangers, took their response a step further, sending Jim letters, cards and notes.

“It’s uplifting; they always come with a positive message,” he says. “I still told people, ‘I don’t want sympathy. I just want to live as normal a life as possible, while I can.’”

Of the dozen or so ALS patients who were diagnosed at the Cleveland Clinic in 2014, Jim is the only one that still holds a job.

In fact, he’s the only one that can walk into his appointments under his own power.

When Jim tells people this, he pauses, he takes a deep breath, and sighs, “Yeah.”

He sits back in his chair and exhales. “Well, I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t hard.”

In an effort to help find a cure, or at least to find treatments that slow or halt progression, Jim has opened himself up to help doctors with their research. By looking at his genes, researchers think they have found the biomarker for ALS, and hope to be able to reconfigure and re-insert the gene to help slow its growth.

Experimental treatments like that are too expensive for most people fighting the illness.

Jim signed up for a national ALS registry so that other researchers can contact him, because, he says, “There’s nothing left to lose.”

From the time of his diagnosis, Jim was never content to sit back and let death be the end of the conversation. That’s his explanation for the almost unheard-of slow progression of his ALS, for his refusal to give up or seclude himself.

“I chose my faith, my family and my work over myself,” he says.

Today, at 53, Jim still has not filed for disability benefits. He thinks that if he keeps working, keeps improving other aspects of his health, then the ALS will stop.

Jim doesn’t look sick. His muscles bulge under his cardinal-red polo shirt. His nails always have a hard day of work’s worth of dirt under them. His hands have grown calloused and capable. His thick build and confident attitude do nothing to clue anyone in on his secret.

If you saw him at the gym, you wouldn’t know, either. Jim listens to music on his iPod during his morning workouts at the YMCA. He used to run, but as his legs stiffen, he has started working out on a stationary bike.  Stretching his muscles and lifting weights with his arms, Jim makes sure that his body is healthy as possible.

Other than that hitch in his step and a breathing machine he’s recently started using at night to improve his pulmonary function, Jim hasn’t experienced any physical decline.

“Hopefully [I’ll] prove them wrong, hopefully show them that I don’t have [ALS],” he explains. “So I haven’t stopped since then.”

He also hasn’t stopped turning to his faith in light of his diagnosis. Before, Jim didn’t ever think he needed other people’s prayers; he had it handled all on his own.

But after being diagnosed, Jim found that people of his faith just had a better idea of what to say. And what to not say.

One of these people is Cindy Amerine, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2014. Jim met Cindy through his sister, Sue. Though Cindy lives in Naples, Florida, the two used to talk about their journeys, before Cindy’s disease prohibited her from speaking.

Cindy gave Jim a small silver coin — the kind that you see in baskets by the register in stores, with a raised angel on one side of it.

“Protect me” curls across the other side in cursive handwriting.  

When Cindy could still talk, she wrote a song for ALS patients everywhere. It’s sung by her friends, Mary Jo and Moose. The “ALS Odyssey Anthem” sums everything up for Jim perfectly.

He opens his browser, quickly navigating to the song, and presses play. The lyrics began to fall softly across the screen.

“I thank God she had the talent to write that,” he says, tears quietly gathering at the bottom of his eyes.

Jim’s blurry eyes follow the words as he threads the coin through his fingers, rubbing his thumb over its engraving, flipping it over and over.

Chinese New Year’s Gala

Hosted by the Confucius Institute and the Chinese American Cultural Association, the Chinese New Year’s Gala helped students to ring in the Year of the Rooster in Hall Auditorium. The event included singers, dancers, traditional music, and even a visit from two performers from the Peking Opera Company.

Photos by Renee Farrell

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Acting the Artist

“I really need to stop wearing my sorority clothes to this class,” she said, narrowly dodging another murky splash. Although the sink’s basin was deep, the smooth curves of her speckled palette provided the perfect bounce board up to her sleeves.

It was true. Abby Murray’s gray Kappa Alpha Theta sweater had no business as a smock. Although she considered herself an artist, painting wasn’t Abby’s strong suit. She preferred the stage.

The rest of the class roster was comprised of 13 other theatre majors and minors. All are actors, not painters. So for most of the class, Abby and me included, the visual arts are a new frontier.

We all knew this class would hone our directing skills and we appreciated the instructor’s occasional connections to lighting arrangements or set design, but it was not uncommon for the visual arts class to feel like a waste of energy.

Regardless of theatrical interests, the course was required. It didn’t matter if we could barely color within the lines. There were no exemptions.

Painting was especially terrifying, as the permanence of acrylics caused most of us to cringe with every brush stroke. Mistakes when drawing could be corrected with an eraser, but paint was less forgiving.

To our credit, we had come a long way in four weeks. At first the weekly projects seemed increasingly daunting, the students hesitant to make a single mark in our sketchpads. But with each completed challenge came a boost in collective confidence.

A scrappy gallery of previous projects hung around the upstairs studio as a testament to our progress, reminding us of our newfound mastery of construction paper. Despite open windows, the stubborn smell of rubber cement lingered in the air.

At the helm of the class stood Gion DeFranseco, ready to soothe the impending panic from his next lesson. His gray tinted beard clashed with his bald sheen, the two evenly divided by a thick pair of glasses that framed the artist’s eyes.

Gion had taught the course for over a decade and was used to dealing with disengagement from young actors. This semester’s crop however was proving especially troublesome.

As usual, Gion began his class with a joke.

“I have a gift for you all,” he said, flinging monochrome cards across each student’s desk. “I wanted to show I value you.”

This received a lively groan from the class, as did Gion’s follow up.

“Or maybe I just wanted to throw shade,” he continued, smiling wide.

On each card were ten hues of gray, arranged from white to black. Each hue contained a heart-shaped hole used to compare the value of our mixtures. By placing the card over our paint and squinting, we could compare hues and make realistic shadows.

“For this project you’ll need to paint some spheres,” Gion said.

Abby’s eyes bulged.

Painting a 2D shape was one thing. We’d reached that level of artistry before kindergarten.  Spheres however required a gradient of light to look realistic, which inevitably meant a range of light to dark colored paint.

The first step was simple: draw a circle. Granted, the shape I drew looked more like an egg, but after rounding the edges I pressed forward.

Josh Romero, the lone freshman in the class, came ready to paint. He wore a blue cotton t-shirt that was more expendable than Abby’s sweater.

 

He squirted tubes of black and white paint into his plastic palette, leaving the rest of the rainbow for later. Using his mixing brush, Josh added a dab of black to his white glob and swirled them until he had a middle gray color that looked decent on his practice piece of Bristol board.

He had a fan of paint brushes to choose from, but settled on one that was round and thin: ideal for tracing curves. With a breath, Josh dipped it in his palette before making touchdown on his canvas.

So far so good. He cleaned off his brush and added the dark black shadow. Then he covered the center of his circle. Next, he tried blending the two shades, pulling the gray into the black and vice versa, just as he’d been instructed.

No luck. His acrylic was already dry.

“Try using a bigger brush next time,” suggested Gion, his chin hovering just above Josh’s shoulder. “It will cover more area so you won’t have that problem.”

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Josh nodded. Knowing how long the final composition would take to complete, he wouldn’t make the same mistake with his brush choice again.

While I’d opted for a wider brush and had finished blending before my paints dried, my gradient was far from flawless.

Gion’s advice for me? “Your sphere is moody.”

Sure, the gradient in my sphere was a little foggy, but I doubted a sequel would show improvement. Moody was passable.

Across the room, Abby’s sphere started to look coherent, but it was still nowhere close to the quality of Gion’s quickfire example.

“It doesn’t look so bad from a distance,” Gion said.

“If you say so.”

Although she was still wrestling with her art’s imperfections, Abby decided she’d fix the flaws another day. After filing away her illustration board in her locker, she returned once more to the splashing sink to clean her brushes and clear her mind.

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Fridays were reserved for drawing, meaning all paint brushes would be cast aside for pencils. Thank God.

After two days of painting, a shift in gears was greatly appreciated. As Gion stretched an extension cord across the floor however, it was obvious that light gradients were here to stay.

“Oh, great, we’re gonna have a lamp for shading,” Josh said.

“Oh, I love shading. It’s my favorite,” Olivia said.  “It either wrecks something I draw or makes it better.”

Olivia, unlike many of her fellow actors, loved to draw. A sophomore transfer student, she regularly doodled in her notebooks and had made fast friends with Gion over their shared love of squeaky cheese curds.

“I see all your newsprints out. We’re excited and ready to draw, aren’t we?” Gion said.

“Heck, yeah!” Olivia chimed.

Gion plugged in two lamps, then rolled a 32-gallon trash can into the center of the studio and placed a wooden baseboard across its mouth. On top of this platform he stacked boxes, a familiar drawing challenge for his pupils.

What we were not ready for was the blanket.

“Oh I love drawing fabric. It’s the best,” Olivia groaned. “And by the best I mean the worst.”

“I can almost detect sincerity in your voice,” Gion chuckled.

Draped over the stack of boxes, the silky blanket had no definitive shape of its own. Its creases and ruffles were formidable foes, as were the various balls, cylinders and pyramids that Gion placed between them.

In order to get a feel for drawing the abomination, Gion led us through some warm ups. Dividing our canvas into four quadrants, we had 60 seconds to draw the shape. When the minute was up, we’d draw it again in 45 and so on until we ran out of quadrants.

This exercise required fast thinking and broad gestures with our pencils. There was no time to question the perfection of each line, let alone each shadow.

By the end of warmups, I had the general proportion of each shape drilled into my brain. Even the blanket was a pinch less scary.

“Those are some great shapes,” Gion said. “Now on to charcoal.”

After unboxing my three pack of charcoal sticks from Hobby Lobby, I was struck by how gritty they felt. They were about as thick as my pencil and left a black powder on my thumb.

I snapped a stick in two, offering Olivia my other half.

Abby grimaced as she grinded her charcoal against her paper. “I hate the way it sounds.”

“That’s fair,” Gion said. “Charcoal is very chalky.”

On Gion’s mark we flipped to a new page and began our first of two larger sketches, each with a 20-minute timeframe.

Right away I drew the two spheres, doing my best to capture the light sources acting on them from both sides. The charcoal would still take some getting used to, but I was at least glad I wasn’t using paint.

Next I moved on to the pyramids and boxes, leaving the blanket for last.

Gion encouraged us to break down the blanket into simple triangles and squares. “It’s just shapes,” he repeated.

Beside me Olivia was already done with her sketch and began shading a woman’s face in the corner of her page. Once happy with the woman’s eyebrows, Olivia slurped up the rest of her Starbucks, using her green straw as a spoon.

The rest of the class was in a fervor, scratching in extra details until the last second.

“Alright, charcoal down,” Gion said.

Finally stopping to look at my paper, I was disappointed. The spheres turned out alright, but the boxes and cylinders had wonky proportions and the blanket was unrecognizable. In my effort to highlight value difference, I had neglected to pay attention to vanishing points: the diagonal lines needed to add dimension.

Although I had a chance to try again, progress seemed unlikely.

When rehearsing for a play, every rehearsal builds on what came before, ultimately leading up to a polished final performance. I’d definitely learned from my first attempt at charcoal drawing, but as I flipped over my sketchpad to start round two, I felt like I was starting over from scratch.

“Can we rotate this thing a little more?” Abby asked. She was vying for an easier angle to sketch.

“No, don’t!” Josh said, praying that his own angle wouldn’t get any more difficult.

Fortune favored the freshman. Gion made some minor rearrangements to the model, but Josh and I were grateful to be facing a significantly smoother blanket.

Midway through the second sketch, Gion made his rounds again, advising me to press harder on my canvas to make a darker contrast for my shadows and eliminate some of my shapes’ blurriness.

Despite my pessimism, my second drawing had crisper edges and even hinted at a 3D effect.  My charcoal stick had worn down to a nub, but it was worth the sacrifice.

“I like this,” Abby said. “I’ve never used charcoal before but I like it a lot.”

The rich array of smoky shadows on her paper was impressive, far exceeding her own expectations. Gion accredited this triumph to our unusually aggressive attitude that day, a step up from our typical timidity when drawing.

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“Before you go, wipe down your area with a wet paper towel to get up any charcoal dust,” Gion said. “Find someone you trust and ask them if you have any charcoal on your face.”

The students laughed but just to be safe I splashed my cheeks off in the sink before heading to lunch.

Fourteen hours of painting had left Josh with a kaleidoscoped canvas, not unlike the dozen others already hanging to dry on cork boards around the studio.

Each canvas was identical in nature: four quadrants equal in size and subject but varying in color palette, Andy Warhol style. Instead of Marilyn Monroe or Campbell’s soup, the quadrants depicted a simple pyramid and vertical prism, with a dreaded sphere nestled between.

The assignment, Gion explained, was meant to test the mastery of skills rather than creativity. For the shapes to look realistic, proper lighting was once again the key. Gion had thankfully provided a paint-by-number style cheat sheet that removed guesswork from the equation.

Josh had no difficulty with his first quadrant, which mandated the use of only black and white paint. With his trusty value card in hand, mixing and matching shades of gray was a snap. The polychromic quadrants however proved more problematic.

The second quadrant required the rest of his acrylics, save for black or white. Comparing the value of yellow to orange or green to blue required Josh to squint hard at his guide. He prayed Gion would agree with his judgment.

By the time Josh was finally satisfied with his rainbowed range of values, his palette was overflowing. Paranoid that his brush would run dry mid-shape, Josh mixed far more paint than he needed. There was no recipe for his mixtures, so mixing more of the exact hue he had made earlier would be impossible.

Six hours in, Josh wasn’t taking any chances.

The third quadrant focused on saturation, limiting Josh to two colors that stood opposite the color wheel. He picked blue and orange. My own choice of red and green apparently looked too Christmasy.

As soon as he started mixing his middle value, Josh noticed that his card couldn’t help him this time. Both the extreme light and dark values were vibrant and pure, with each step progressively diluted in intensity before finally meeting at a muddy brown color.

As Josh continued to paint, he had to remind himself that he was on the right track; the pyramid’s shadow was supposed to be lighter. Nevertheless, the mental acrobatics of this task was nothing compared to the frustration Josh endured while painting his final quadrant.

Josh’s fourth obstacle was the wash technique: creating ten different values out of just one color paint. He stuck with blue, his favorite color, varying its brightness based on the amount of water in his brush.

Turning up the volume on his cherry red headphones, Josh set to work.

Surprisingly, the sphere was the easy part. All Josh had to do to make a gradient was paint the bottom of the circle and use water to smear the paint across the canvas. It was simple and almost fun.

He did not find the same enjoyment while painting the pyramid. Whereas Josh had previously concocted a palette full of each value, the wash technique demanded a more improvisational approach.

Perfecting each value took up a bulk of his Saturday afternoon. Josh maniacally rehearsed each value against his practice sheet of Bristol board, comparing back and forth between previous trials until he would even consider committing a dab of acrylic to his final quadrant.

There was good reason Josh delayed this quadrant for last. It was brutal.

He arrived early to class on Monday to see how his canvas had dried. The colors appeared a little lighter than they had on Saturday, which was to be expected. Still, Josh was queasy.

His art now hanging alongside the work of his peers, Josh’s scrutiny intensified. Although the assignment wasn’t a competition, comparison was inevitable.

“At least I’m not the worst wash here,” Josh said. “Not that I’m saying everyone else’s is bad.”

Josh’s final work was soon joined on the corkboard by a few more doppelgängers, their artists scavenging for spare thumbtacks off nearby posters before retreating to their desks.

“Everyone looks wide awake today,” Gion said, met by his students’ raised eyebrows. “Everyone looks kinda sick today actually.”

IMG_8741.JPGAs Gion looked at the projects around him, he reminded the students that there was a variety of artistic background levels in the class and that individual effort was most important.

Just then a shout erupted from the other side of the studio wall: a reminder that just next door was the principles of acting class. Early in the semester Josh had thought about switching his schedule to learn acting with the other first-years, but Gion convinced him otherwise.

“Good theatre has always relied on the visual as much as the verbal,” Gion said. “It also requires stepping out of your comfort zones. That’s what this class is all about.”

Since then Josh grew to enjoy the visual arts. Sometimes the workload was taxing, but it made him feel accomplished. In addition to the acting class, he decided to take Gion’s scene painting class in the spring.
Abby and I enrolled in stage makeup for similar reasons. We may never be the next Picasso, but our faces would at least make a more comfortable canvas.

Small Cities

Yantai is a small city of 7 million people. If you ask Danny about it, that’s what he’ll tell you: it’s small. He’ll tell you more about it, speaking in statistics and slogans you get the feeling he’s heard somewhere else. He’ll tell you that it’s about an hour from Beijing if you fly, that 60% or so of the population has family in Japan and Korea, that children are sent there for international schools. People vacation there; it’s on the ocean. Keep asking, and he’ll tell you that it reminds him of San Francisco.

Tall, glasses, dressed in casually professional clothes, he fits right in with other second-year business majors at Miami. Danny, however, has travelled the world—and it’s apparent in any conversation or detail. Even his name—born Hongyuan Lin, Danny had an American host family in Tulsa who always called him “Danny Boy,” and the name stuck. Tulsa, Yantai, San Francisco, Beijing: most of Danny’s stories start with a city.

And if he sees the world in cities, it might be because of how many he’s lived in. He spent his middle school years in Singapore. He’ll tell you that Singapore was very small, that you could see the whole country in two days. He’ll tell you it’s much hotter than Yantai—probably the hottest place he’s lived. He was surrounded by other Chinese students there, and he’ll tell you that it still reminded him of Yantai, and that both places have beaches to visit.

For high school, he began in Boston. Boston’s like New York, he’ll tell you, because it was freezing (even more than Yantai, which has bitterly cold winters). But outside of the winter, he thought, the weather was mostly the same as Yantai, and he didn’t mind living there.

At the suggestion of a professor in China, he went to a new school for his last two years of high school, this time in Tulsa. Tulsa wasn’t hot like Singapore or cold like Boston; there were no beaches like in Yantai; it even had tornadoes, which he’d never seen in Boston. Once, he and some other students were in a study group for an AP exam, and they heard the tornado sirens go off. They chose to keep studying calculus, even though he swears they even saw the tornado through the windows. He laughs that they all loved studying more than they wanted to find safety.

His love for school gives some credit, then, when he talks about this high school, which he proudly describes as a high school for future business leaders. He describes it almost as if he’s selling it to you, but then, that’s how he describes almost everywhere he’s lived; as if it’s his earnest and enthusiastic duty to convince you to move there. Yantai is a cultural hub, Boston has interesting weather, New York is filled with places to go and things to do, Singapore is a beautiful and intimate island, Oklahoma has a fascinating culture and fantastic basketball teams.

When you ask him about Miami, he starts by smiling. He explains that an aunt in Cleveland had visited once and suggested it. He didn’t know much about it; he knew about the Farmer School of Business, and he’d seen autumnal pictures of campus on the website—Farmer, Cook Field, and Bell Tower in the changing colors of fall. In the winter of his senior year he made a point to visit.

His reasons for coming to Miami sound almost like a promotional brochure, or an enthusiastic campus tour guide. He liked Farmer, he liked the teachers, he liked the program, he liked the rec center and the dining halls and the students he met. “It really feels like a family,” he’ll say, straight from the posters and plaques hanging in Armstrong.

If it sounds disingenuous, if you think maybe you’ve found the end of his enthusiasm, that you can get him to find some fault in the place he’s come to love, you can be corrected quickly. He’ll talk next about Oxford, and how small it is, and you’ll think, surely he misses thinking 7 million people made a small city. But instead he’ll explain that he likes walking to class, and that in a city he’d have to drive places. And sure, he’ll say, there’s not as much to do, but Oxford isn’t like Yantai, or San Francisco, or New York, or Boston, or Tulsa. There is more to Oxford for him than all of the restaurants and recreation found in a city, from his frequent jogs around the campus he first saw online, to the work he gets to do with Farmer School of Business, to the people of Oxford that he will only describe as friendly and helpful no matter how many times you ask.

If Danny misses Yantai, it’s only in brief speculation that he might go home when he graduates. If he dislikes Ohio weather, he doesn’t let on, just saying that Yantai had similarly hot summers and cold winters. If there’s anything at Miami he doesn’t like, he won’t mention it, instead telling you with a smile that he’s joined the CIA—a Chinese student organization on campus. He doesn’t know where he’ll go once he leaves Oxford, just that one day he will; but now, he’ll have Oxford for comparison as well.

David Dabney: Every Day is a Music Video

The 18,500 students tucked away on a college campus in Oxford, Ohio walk past one another, pausing to smile at a student I nickname Dancing Speaker Guy. He wears a grey cable-knit sweater with a shawl collar, three wooden buttons to the left side. His indigo-dyed jeans are slightly worn and a little loose; his life tends to do that to most things.

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Photo by Victoria Ferguson

He grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, riding horses. His just-under-six feet frame may be better suited for basketball, but his equestrian childhood shows in his mannerisms – how he contemplates before speaking, pausing mid-sentence to craft his message; how he leans forward to characterize the story, hands sweeping through the air; how he holds your gaze with the intensity of a horse, those chestnut eyes painted over with a world-changing softness.

None of the students know why the young man dances across campus, blasting music from a speaker no bigger than his hand and smiling as though life is beautiful. Well, here’s why:

Because, in his second semester of “real life,” he wanted to eliminate the awkwardness of dancing to music no one else could hear.

Because walking from entrepreneurship to music composition is a lot like driving. It’s pausing at red lights and obeying green ones. It’s the boredom cured with the push of a button, the melodic click of FM radio. A journey doesn’t have to be silent just because you’re on foot.

Because the five hundred weird looks and lingering stares are worth making one person’s day a little bit better. “Doing this makes people stop and think, ‘Maybe life isn’t so serious,’” he tells me. His choice of music depends on the moment – the liberation of a two-hour lab ending echoed by Kanye West, the calming blanket of clouds highlighted by Frank Ocean’s new album.

Because it simply feels so good to watch the trees blur into color.

Because the student center is a stage, a tavern – a gathering place for biology majors and animation minors alike. If it weren’t for the cool, late-September air, he might be wearing a T-shirt with the New York City skyline.

Because it takes less than a song to cover a ten-minute walk. He glides across the pavement like a young, self-described Shakespeare, dramatic and self-aware.

Because in three minutes and forty-five seconds, a ten-page research paper and thirty equations can morph into freedom. All that remains is the moment: a setting, a soul, and a song.

Because there’s beauty in the struggle.

Because the hours spent waiting for the musician to help the lyricist are a blank canvas.

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Photo by Victoria Ferguson

The past three years have been a symphony of rap, culminating in his first unfinished single. Dancing Speaker Guy is simply a byproduct.

Because improvisation changes the brain, turning anxiety into creativity. The POWER button unhinges the dam, letting the pain flood out vocally – the pain of young loss, the pain of living in a world with stereotypes, the pain of emotionally segregated lunch tables.

Because Dancing Speaker Guy believes in a world where poor and rich kids can eat their sandwiches across from each other, where compassion is brewed through a changed education system.

Because when you’re an underground artist, most people aren’t eager to help.

Because there’s an Indian tribe that puts their children in a dark room for 24 hours, believing in the importance of having one’s first relation with the world be with one’s heart, not other people. When the heart and soul are disconnected, chaos ensues.

Because it’s the natural trust in this connection that makes magic happen.

Because his heart is telling him “White Smoke” – two words lighting up the pixels of a computer screen, musical stress-relief you can buy for a couple bucks.

Because he is living his album: the smiles from strangers, the late nights with loud music, the long afternoons spent in lecture halls. He looks at the life surrounding the brick buildings and amber leaves and thinks, “This is the art piece that’s going to tell its story.”

Because “every day is a music video.” There’s a tiny GoPro camera on the left strap of his backpack, pitch black and unassuming. Occasionally it records the story of a striving artist, a college student, or an overjoyed dreamer. It’s documenting how a dream comes to life, the seven months before someone makes it big. Just like how chapters make a novel, clips make a television show.

Because that’s what makes the dream so beautiful – it is uncertain.

Because one afternoon, on the ledge of the architecture building, a student smacked a five-dollar bill next to his feet and shouted over Frank Ocean, “You made my day.”

Oxford Community Dinner Gives Chance to Give Back

I went to high school with an immense amount of students (4,000 to be exact). And trust me, I was never the student who got a 36 on their ACT or participated in multiple varsity sports. However, I did find my way by volunteering every week at a different organization through my school.

One week I would play bingo with residents of Sunrise Nursing Home, the next week I would serve food at A Just Harvest for their community dinner. I did it all four years of high school, but stopped once I came to Oxford.

Even before I stepped on campus, words and abstract ideas like “major,” “job” and “career” jumbled through my mind although I still had four years to ponder over my future. I saw it as survival of the fittest and to get what you want — you have to beat people out. So I met weekly for clubs, attended lectures to boost my grades and applied to everything that I thought would improve my resume.

As I slowly became consumed in achieving the “perfect” adult life, my real priorities were left behind. I missed opportunities to connect with people and invest my time where it was needed most.

Sophomore year, I quit everything I wasn’t passionate about and dug into my community service roots. I still don’t have the same free time as I once did in high school, but I volunteer the third Wednesday of every month at St. Mary’s community dinner in Oxford.

The first time I went there, my arms were exhausted from all the food I brought it. Cars kept rolling up behind the church delivering food; one brought a dish with mac & cheese, another with grapes. One student even brought boxes of Insomnia Cookies. By the time it was 5:30, the dinner and desert tables were overflowing with food. I though absentmindedly that some of it might slip off.

Oxford residents flooded the room and greeted each other as they passed by like old friends. People were alone, with their significant other, or with their families. The ages ranged from toddlers to seniors, all of them waiting in line patiently for dinner to be served.

Dinner started off with a prayer. I’m Jewish, so I’m not familiar with Catholic prayer, but many of the people there were. At the end of the prayer, someone said “Let’s eat!” and the feast began.

The community dinner comes together because residents of Oxford and Miami students take the time to either buy or cook food to provide meals for those in the area that are less fortunate. But it also provides volunteers more than the opportunity to bring and serve food. They also have the opportunity to grab a meal and eat with members of the community and get to know them. In a town like Oxford where students and community members rarely mingle despite being so close to one another, it was a refreshing experience.

The holidays remind people that if you’re lucky enough to live a good life, then it’s important to give back to the people who don’t have the same luxury.

“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.” – John Holmes

The People Behind the Institute for Food

His dark brown dress shoes crunch fallen leaves and gravel. He just got off work in the Office of Institutional Relations, where he is the legislative aide.

This is junior Kyle Chance. His khakis, grey sweater and purple tie stand out against the rows and rows of crops. The sprawling eight acres are surrounded by the changing colors of fall.

There are tomatoes, peppers, garlic and many other produce items planted behind a tall chain-link fence.

This is the Miami Institute for Food. The farm, which was started last year, is currently planted on one acre and trying to expand on another one.

Chance is an unlikely candidate for the Institute for Food. But, somehow, he is at home walking around the farm in his dress clothes. His light blue undershirt peeks out from under his sweater, mimicking the freshly-planted onions that are starting to poke through the dark earth beneath his feet.

“Even though it’s a multidisciplinary organization, we all have the same underlying passions,” Chance said. “We all want the institute to succeed. We all want the farm to grow.”

He is a political science major with plans to work in DC after graduation — he might even run for office one day. But the contrast to his normal routine is precisely what Chance likes about the Institute for Food.

“I’m all about the liberal education,” he said. “You get your hands dirty in this class. Literally.”

Chance hopes to bring what he’s learned through working on the farm back into his political science classes and further into the future. The Institute for Food has taught him to look at the big picture.

“Let’s say I get a job in DC,” he said.  “If I know what modern agriculture is and the problems that farmers are facing, I can do my job better.”

While on the farm, the students do “anything and everything that goes into successfully growing an organic farm,” senior Claire Burch said.

They have helped set up drip irrigation tape, seeded the property, learned to germinate produce in the greenhouse, tilled beds and harvested produce.

Burch will be graduating in December; she happened across a flier encouraging students to apply for the Miami Institute for Food in the architecture building and it piqued her interest.

“I wish I had discovered this opportunity sooner,” she said.

Senior and self-described foodie Maggie Winstel also wishes she would have stumbled across this opportunity sooner.

She is a psychology major with a sustainability co-major and marketing minor. She originally wanted to go into food studies, but decided to pursue other interests instead. The farm helped her reconnect to that passion.

“Contributing to the Institute for Food is the best opportunity for me to make an impact,” Winstel said.

Chance standing on the farm. | Photo by Bonnie Meibers
Chance standing on the farm. | Photo by Bonnie Meibers

During her summer abroad in Denmark, she studied the food revolution that has put Copenhagen at the forefront of the sustainable agriculture revolution. Her studies took her into the kitchens and food laboratories of Noma, ranked the best restaurant in the world from 2010 to 2014.

Winstel is very passionate about food and its impact on people; this is one reason that she chose to study psychology. For her senior capstone class, she did a study on how food affects people’s positivity and moods. She called this “The Sandwich Project.”

“It’s exciting to see the produce we plant begin to grow and flourish on the land,” Burch said. “It’s just so exciting to be a part of the beginning steps of what could be such an awesome part of Miami’s curriculum and its community.”

Burch is a zoology major with an environmental science co-major. She isn’t exactly sure what she wants to do after graduation, but she isn’t closed off from having a role at a farm in the future. Burch is waiting to hear back about an opportunity at the Cincinnati Zoo and looking into volunteering opportunities abroad.

“I would definitely love to get my hands dirty on a farm in the future if the work I do takes me back to one,” Burch said.

A love of food and a longing to understand it and where it comes from are the common threads that connect all of the students in the class together.

“Naturally, [spending time together] builds a sense of community,” Winstel said.

Working on the farm together has created a “family” atmosphere for the students, who have grown close to each other by working on something they’re all equally passionate about. For many, it hardly feels like school.

“I can’t believe that this is a class that I actually get credit for,” Chance said.