The Bad Project

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Chapter 8. Thinking It Over /Crystal

Crystal sat at her desk thinking over how her life at Carson was going. She worried because the back of her mind busy chewing over the Bad Project all the time as she went about her classes, studying, and gospel choir rehearsals. Now that Marianne had been tattooed and her parents had caught her, the stakes were higher. In fact, the only time she completely felt separated from that inner quiver of anxiety was during gospel choir. The director, Willys Briggs, was magnetic and forceful. He treated the students like friends and people he loved (in the Christian sense).

The session started with a few minutes of talk and ended with a group prayer, holding hands in a circle. But during the main part of the rehearsal, they sang the rafters off. They met in the box-like band room, one of the least attractive places on campus, but to Crystal it was a box of music. She could almost hear the echoes when she got there early or left late; gospel choir had left its imprint on the room.

She smiled to herself because knew that Marianne half-disapproved of this activity, saying she should try out new things, not stick with the old. She told Crystal to try out for college choir and sing classic European works. Her voice had great tone quality, she said. But Crystal thought Carson College was more comfortable for Asian Americans than for African Americans. A touch of “home” was what she never seemed to find, outside of gospel choir. So she kept going.

Willys loved to have them explore the full range of sound, very soft to very loud. He had started them on a group of three songs, and taught each one of them to the group by rote. He handed out sheets of words, but the words were pale and cold, sitting there on the white sheet neatly typed. He taught each section its part, singing along with them and playing bits from the piano accompaniment. While one section learned the sounds, the others were supposed to work on memorizing the words. You could hardly help it, Crystal thought.

She loved everything about the actual gospel music singing experience, but the best, much the best, was the high point of one of the songs called “He’s Got the Power.” The choir built up to a huge volume at that moment and Crystal thought of them as atoms of an organ, singing their hearts and lungs out as they were designed to do. You couldn’t hold any thoughts, any pains, any worries aside and sing that way. Crystal was glad to have that release for two hours on Wednesday and Friday evenings.

She also enjoyed her biology class in that she was learning things that she could immediately relate to her distant dreams of being a doctor, but it was a constant struggle just because of the sheer volume of work assigned. She often wondered how much of the fire-hose-delivered information she could possibly retain when the semester was over.

“Please turn in the weekly homework problems tomorrow and go to the mentor session if you had trouble with any of the problems, it will help you prepare for our second midterm exams,” Dr. Pirkley said to them. “But don’t forget to meet with your TA to go over what we expect for your lab reports. Those are very important, and we are scaling up our expectations with each report. So make sure you learn what’s being emphasized each time.” With all of this work, plus assigned reading of over 100 pages per week in a verbose and heavy book, Crystal was concerned that she might fall behind. She didn’t have much time to worry about Marianne’s Bad Project in that class.

She got up from her desk to get a bottle of water out of the tiny refrigerator. Passing the mirror, she read Marianne’s newest quotation, from Emerson, “Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts: in full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied and it satisfies nature in all moments alike. There is no time to it. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”

She had liked Marianne’s Anais Nin quote on being a bud better. This quote challenged Crystal. She was not living in the present at all, worrying over both past and future. She would like to follow Emerson’s advice, but it was extremely difficult. Also, she couldn’t help reacting to the “man” in the quotation; of course, in Emerson’s time “man” probably was literally true. The women may not have been able to bloom mentally at all. That didn’t make it less objectionable, she thought, but it did make it more understandable why he didn’t say “human” instead of “man.”

Her mind moved on to mathematics. Her Calculus class was time consuming too, meeting three hours for lectures from Professor Dantzler, plus two hours a week with the TA for more work on problems and proofs. Then they had daily homework problems. She was glad she’d been exempted from Calculus 1. This was the last term that she’d have to take such an intensive math class. This class was easy for Crystal since she’d had a good preparation for it in high school. Nevertheless, it kept her mind fully occupied when she was there, with its rapid-fire format.

Chemistry was fine; it was a lot of mathematics. Most of the course so far had been about “how much of this” combines with “how much of that,” she thought. Dr. Flegman had given her a big smile and a “well done” when returning her first test; she had received an A.

She really enjoyed mathematics, both in calculus and in chemistry, and also enjoyed the look teachers gave her, when they realized this prize student in their math or chemistry class was black. She used a shiny black private notebook to record moments like that. It was good to keep on hand so she could bring back moments of triumph when things were tough.

Here, she reminded herself that “whitey,” what she privately called the white establishment (as opposed to individual friends), didn’t expect much from her, it was up to her to expect great things from herself. That was a lesson she’d have to keep in mind for sure, with African Americans the most under-represented minority here, only 1.5% of the student body. Carson College had 2000 undergraduate students and several hundred masters students; only 30 black students. It would help if more of the faculty and staff were black but they weren’t. Forget that, she told herself. You can succeed here or they wouldn’t have admitted you.

She thought about the Music History class, that both the roommates were both taking. It met on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:30 to 10:50, in Borecki-Hraty, a shabby old ivy-covered building alongside the main quad of the college. They had Professor Zuniga for this class, reportedly one of the best professors in the college. He had won the state teaching award the previous year, and students flocked to his classes. He liked to keep this one class only for first year students, so he could meet them. He was a delight, funny and very smart, quick to learn every name and where each student was from, quick to connect ideas that might go astray from the main themes of the course. Both she and Marianne enjoyed the course, along with every other student in it. But Crystal’s thoughts in class kept drifting off to the Bad Project and what Marianne was likely to do next in her quest to learn about the Bad. Zuniga made lots of eye contact while he lectured and told funny stories, but he didn’t call on people much at all. That was another reason why her mind drifted off subject to circle around Marianne.

Crystal admitted to herself that she wasn’t really comfortable in her role advising Marianne. She wasn’t all that bad herself, although she had a rose tattooed on her ankle, had drunk bad wine until she puked and passed out, had smoked both cigarettes and marijuana, cheated once on schoolwork, stole money from her brother, and lied numerous times. She had been through a traumatic encounter with others’ desire to be bad, but that was best left buried deep down, not up top where it could haunt her again. She’d also seen people shot near her home in Altadena during a “small” riot and had never wanted to be near gunfire again. During one period of unrest in the LA area over treatment of Altadena resident Rodney King, who was beaten up by the police in 1991, they had heard gunfire almost every night for about six weeks. She had been six years old, and she couldn’t understand the answer to the question King asked on TV, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Once, she had seen the body of a man who was shot lying in the street near her house. She had a lot more experience than Marianne, that was true. But she felt like a good girl, inside, and worried that by encouraging her roommate in the Bad Project, she wasn’t being true to herself. She couldn’t quite live with herself, but she couldn’t resist the project either. She wanted to follow how Marianne changed and find out what would happen. But the real drive was to help Marianne become who she wanted to be. If only neither of them got into serious trouble. In particular, she hoped to get that big Forscher Award to help her dad pay for Carson, so she wanted to keep her record as a student of “good character.” She had a low level of worry most of the time.

The main effect the worry had on her was to reduce her appetite. Food didn’t interest her nearly as much as in the past. She often skipped late snack and ate little for breakfast and dinner. Most of her nutrition came at lunch time, when they had good soups and salads in the dining halls. Instead of gaining ten pounds in her first semester, Crystal was in danger of losing ten pounds.

She thought it might be easier to be in this position if she could talk about it with someone, but she couldn’t. Only with Marianne, who had such a different set of expectations that it didn’t help to discuss it with her. She wanted to call her best friend from high school, but there might be some jealousy there, and Sondra could be spiteful when her feelings were hurt. Her grandma wasn’t possible, her generation couldn’t deal with issues like sex. Her brother would think it was just silly. Willys would probably have the whole gospel choir praying for her soul before you could say “Jack Robinson.” No, there was no one to confide in. Crystal decided that she’d start a special journal of her thoughts about the Bad Project. Journal writing had relieved her before; maybe it would help now too.

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