The Challenge

by Claire Gebben

April 2015 

At the age of eighteen, I entered Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan as a declared psychology major. In truth, I wanted to study creative writing, but my parents had a different idea. They’d pay my college tuition, they said, as long as I majored in something practical, something that would land me a job when I graduated.

So I chose psychology. I thought of myself as a good listener who might one day make a good counselor. Besides, learning about human behavior, I reasoned, would deepen my understanding of the characters in my stories and novels (regardless of the fact that, during that first semester away from home, I barely understood myself).

From the first day at Calvin, I felt out of place. To my dismay, my assigned roommate loved listening to country music and enjoyed shopping at the mall. Worse yet, I hadn’t attended a Christian school. The other students in my dormitory all seemed to know one another, or at least have Christian school in common. I read the bulletin board announcements seeking a place to fit in, but nothing presented itself. I began to feel odd, like a stranger to myself.

That first semester my most memorable class was Psych 101, an entry level curriculum on the various theorists then in the field, Skinner and Freud, Rogers and Jung. The professor, Dr. Mary Vandergroot, wore woolen skirts and sensible shoes, her curly, brown hair showing some gray at the temples. She had a patrician nose, near-set dark eyes and ample hips: physical features that did not exactly inspire. Yet as she presented the material, her passion for psychology lit up her eyes and made her pointed, angular face glow.

Dr. Vandergroot’s teaching methods were heavily based on discussion. She would introduce a topic, then query the class to ascertain whether or not we had absorbed the homework material. If students gave articulate, insightful responses, something that proved our deeper insights, her mouth would lift at the corners and her eyes would sparkle with collegial approval. At such moments, my ego would soar. On the other hand, I lived in dread of saying something glib or trite. Dr. Vandergroot’s obvious disappointment, her sober eyes and long face, would haunt me for days, so I’d sweat with extra vigor on the next assignment.

With her sparkling eyes and nods of approval, Dr. Vandergroot influenced my sense of self-esteem such that, just a month into my freshman year, I sought her out during office hours to confide my anxieties about parochial college life, how limiting it felt, how lonely.

“What dorm are you in?” she asked, and I told her Noordewier Hall. “Well then, that's perfect. You should meet Penny Rozema, another student I’ve met this semester. She lives on the third floor of your dorm.”

That same evening, I knocked on Penny’s door. When I explained why I’d come, the name Vandergroot worked like a password. Penny let me into her room and her life. She introduced me to the arts community at the college. Soon, I’d joined the arts guilds and began doing page layout for the college newspaper. Still not writing, but no longer a freakish outsider.

By my junior year in college, I’d decided child psychology would not be my emphasis, but I signed up for Dr. Vandergroot’s class, Developmental Psychology 304, just because she was teaching it. In this class, her black eyes would glitter at the mention of psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget. Her passion for Piaget’s theories was evident even in the way she spoke his name: Pia-zshay – as if the two of them had once shared drinks at a Paris café along the St. Germain des Prés. Longing to emulate my professor, I imagined leading a scholarly life, attaining an intimate, expert knowledge of an important theorist, championing his or her advanced theories of human thought and behavior, and articulating those ideas with keen understanding.

At this course level, Dr. Vandergroot had even higher standards for independent discipline and study; our entire grade depended on one paper, to be turned in at the end of the semester. I chose to write about the existential psychologist Rollo May, and looked forward to wowing Dr. Vandergroot with my brilliance.

But as the weeks passed, I made little progress. I had a full course load, with other finals demanding immediate attention. No doubt I spent too many nights drinking beer and playing pool with friends at the White Rabbit, our college bar of choice. Perhaps subconsciously, I couldn’t bring myself to turn in a half-baked paper, to suffer Dr. Vandergroot’s censure. Whatever the reason, I visited my professor’s office only once that spring, to discuss my lack of progress on Rollo May. During that office visit, I squirmed under the disappointed blackness of Dr. Vandergroot’s eyes. I knew I was letting her down. The humiliation of it nagged at me. Still, at semester’s end in Psych 304, I received the first incomplete of my life.

That summer between my junior and senior years at Calvin, I lived alone in a studio apartment, in transition to a new apartment-sharing arrangement with friends that coming fall. During the day, I bicycled to a job at Napa Auto Parts, where I spent eight hours shelving belts, spark plugs, and windshield wipers. During the evenings and on weekends, as time allowed, I lived and breathed Rollo May, at last buckling down to write that paper.

I wrote it the way we wrote papers in the 1970s, reading Man’s Search for Himself, then heading over to the library to research articles, critiques and analyses of this seminal work. On 3x5 index cards, I recorded quotes and bibliographies. Gradually, via copious notes, what I wanted to say emerged. It was years ago, but I remember clearly how entranced I became with May, with his assessment that emptiness and loneliness come from the stresses of our external world, that if we could find our inner strength, we’d lead more fulfilled, meaningful lives.

I’d been anxious, too, about living alone, but as the weeks passed I discovered I liked having focused time to organize and outline my thoughts. I sat by my open upstairs window, the breeze riffling through the oak leaves, and composed a first and a final draft in longhand. Come mid-August, as my summer and time alone were drawing to a close, I plugged in my electric typewriter and typed out my treatise, footnotes, and bibliography on onionskin paper. Just before classes resumed for the fall semester, I bicycled up to campus and turned it in.

That same week, I got a call from Dr. Vandergroot asking me to come see her at her office. Why didn’t she just log my grade without a conference? I wondered. Even so, I felt relieved I could visit her now with a clear conscience. But as we sat together and exchanged pleasantries, there was a stilted tone in her voice that began to worry me. At a pause in the conversation, my professor picked up my paper and held it out between us.

“I have something to ask you,” she said, her mouth pursed in an expression I didn’t recognize. “Did you write this?”

I gaped at her, horrified. “What do you mean, did I write it?”

“I mean, is this your original work, not someone else’s?”

Was she calling me a cheater? Outrage choked me so I could barely speak. “Of course it is,” I spluttered. “I worked my butt off on that paper.”

The corners of her mouth lifted and her eyes sparkled. “All right then.” Dr. Vandergroot handed over my paper. The grade in red in the upper right-hand corner was an A. “I would have given this an A+, except for the incomplete. You exceeded every expectation. This is very, very good work.”

I took the paper and did not linger, my heart racing from her challenge. Stuck on the injustice of being wrongly accused, I stormed down the hall replaying the conversation in my mind. Then it dawned on me. My pace slowed and I drew to a halt. Dr. Vandergroot had just paid me an enormous compliment, I realized. Something I’d worked all summer to hear. Rewarding as that was, though, I’d found something even more valuable: the strength within myself.

Claire GebbenComment