It’s Academic

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“Beloved, do not believe every spirit,
but test the spirits to see whether they are from God,
for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
(1 John 4:1)

It’s Academic

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

I got angry.

During the fall of my senior year at Parkdale Senior High School, Parkdale decided to begin competing in the It’s Academic show which aired on NBC Channel 4 television in the Washington metro area.[1] To establish the team, the faculty sponsor walked down to the guidance office and asked for the names of the top 15 students in the school. I was not on the list and I got angry. My English teacher was the faculty sponsor and must have heard me complaining about it in class because an open interview was scheduled down at the television studio—anyone who wanted to compete was welcome to attend.

The interview attracted little attention. There were the top 15 students and there was me. The interview consisted of a mock It’s Academic quiz show where the interviewer would pose a question and the first student to raise a hand got to answer the question. No penalty was assigned for an incorrect answer. Because the questions were pretty basic questions about science and other academic subjects, the basic contest was to see who could raise their hand first. As it turned out, I personally answered about 90 percent of the questions posed correctly through fast hand-raising and was invited to join the team.

The other students, all classmates and friends, were livid. My performance made them look pretty stupid and they resented it. The faculty sponsor set up after school meetings to prepare for the show and we started meeting on a regular basis.

About that time, I decided that I wanted to attend Indiana University and my father agreed on one condition—I needed to get a job working nights and weekends to help pay the expense of going to school out of state. Consequently, I began selling children’s shoes at a shop in Capital Plaza Mall.[2]

Selling children’s shoes was more of an education than I bargained for. The shoes were expensive, upscale brands which attracted customers primarily from the District of Columbia. African American women, who could not afford a lot of things in 1971, felt they needed to buy good shoes for their kids. By contrast, local white women in Prince George’s County, like my mom, shopped at discount stores, like K-Mart, for their kids’ shoes, not feeling it necessary to show-off by buying top-of-the-line foot-ware.  Honestly, I do not think the shoes were any better. The management seemed aware of this dilemma, but were happy to charge premium prices and to slip ill-fitting shoes on many a foot to keep such status-conscious mothers happy.

Actually, a lot of the things these managers did really bothered me.

It bothered me, for example, that managers refused to let me study while we were sitting around on quiet days. While other employees sat around shooting the breeze, if I took out a book, I was assigned to sort shoes in the back or to watch the store, while the rest of them partied, blowing dope out back. It also bothered me that when President Nixon announced a price freeze on August 15, 1971 to combat inflation,[3] we were immediately assigned to raise the prices on all the shoes in the store. I guess that working in that store bothered me about as much as my studying bothered those managers, who knew they were stuck selling shoes because they neglected their own studies.

I did not earn a lot of money selling children’ shoes, but I missed afternoon practice sessions with the It’s Academic team and was placed on the back up team. Being on the back up team meant that we got to cheer for the regular team when we finally were invited on the show to compete. I loved the competition, in part, because I got to sit next to a friend who I later invited to the prom, but the team lost and lost badly. Just as in the interview, they simply did not understand the rules and complained that the other team cheated, being especially fast button-pushers. Too bad the team’s fastest button-pusher was sidelined!




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The Audition

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Count it all joy, my brothers,
when you meet trials of various kinds,
for you know that the testing of your faith
produces steadfastness. (Jas 1:2–3)

The Audition

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At the end of my second summer working as an aquatics instructor at Goshen Scout Camps, I pooled my summer’s earnings with savings and bought a new Conn 88h trombone, which classified as a base trombone. The Conn 88h differed visibly from the tenor trombone, a Silver Bach Stradivarius dating from the 1930s, that I had played since the fifth grade because it had a Remington mouthpiece, a trigger for outer register notes, and a distinctive, mellow sound. Shortly after getting my new trombone, I auditioned and won a coveted first chair in the Prince George’s County Youth Orchestra and I began practicing an hour a day.

During my last two years of high school, I also played first chair in both the Parkdale Symphonic Band and the school orchestra. During my senior year, few other instrumentalists enrolled in the music composition class or competed in county and state solo competitions. Meanwhile, at Riverdale Presbyterian Church, I sang in the Youth Choir and took voice lessons from choir director. I also took private lessons from the tubist with the National Symphony Orchestra. My favorite photograph from senior year shows me performing in a jazz ensemble with “shades,” which suggests how much music meant to me.

Music obviously played an important role in my social life and I enjoyed modest success as a player. But what was less obvious was that music taught me personal discipline and served as a metaphor for God’s presence in my life. At one point, I began aware of my lack of Sabbath rest and prayed to God that, because I could not set aside my commitments, he allow me to honor the Sabbath as I slept. God honored that prayer by waking me each morning to the sound of joyous music.

I started to consider music as a career possibility. As I prepared to apply to colleges in the fall of 1971, I announced to my parents, friends, and teachers my plans to audition for the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana.

At that point I did not understand the seriousness of my decision to audition for music school, either in terms of the talent or the commitment required. College seemed a long way off so I assumed naively that picking a course of study in high school allowed plenty of time to prepare. While this assumption might have been true for academic majors, music required a higher level of preparation and I had only a couple months to prepare for the audition.

My music teacher and adviser expressed concern about my preparation for this audition, probably motivated by the fact that I saw music as more of a social activity than a professional aspiration. Professional musicians practice many hours a day to reach a level of perfection seldom attained by amateurs. I had only recently moved from half an hour to an hour a day of practice daily, not a professional level of commitment.

By year end 1971, I started practicing closer to two hours a day and my teacher arranged for me to study with a colleague of his, a trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra. The new instructor adjusted my embouchure to account for my over-bite, which would help me play with a wider range in the upper register. This reconfigured embouchure required the use of new muscles in my mouth and the old muscles to be used differently, which initially reduced my performance range. Of course, the new, more vigorous practice schedule, embouchure change, and new teacher excited and overwhelmed me as I prepared to audition.

Also overwhelmed was my father, who saw music as a great hobby, but doubted that my modest talent could blossom into a viable career. In fact, he had confidence that the music department at Indiana University would reach the same conclusion, but he encouraged me to prove that I too could live with the result. We agreed that, if I passed the audition, I could study music, but if I failed, I would focus my studies elsewhere. My father’s advice about the audition seemed sound enough and I promised to accept it.

When the time came to audition, I traveled alone to Bloomington on a Friday and stayed the night in one of the dormitories. A friend, who studied viola and whom I had met the previous summer at a church retreat, invited me to dinner in the cafeteria and she introduced me to some other students. Tired from the trip, after dinner I took a shower and went to bed early.

On Saturday morning, I walked over to the music building early to warm up. After warming up, I waited with students coming and going—horns blowing, strings playing, flutes piping—as auditions ran late. Jazzed up, overstimulated, and anxious beyond words, when my turn to play arrived, I could not play a Bb scale. Having given the judges no reason to pass me, I failed the audition hands down.

When I returned home, I remained active in the music program in high school and spent the spring and early summer preparing for a concert tour in Europe with the Parkdale Symphonic Band in July. Meanwhile, I accepted admission at Indiana University and prepared to enter as a freshman without a major.

After the band returned home in early August, I needed some time to myself and planned a last-minute bicycle trip out to begin school in Indiana. I needed time because my shame and humiliation over the failed audition ran too deep for conscious reflection in a kind of emotional hijacking. In the months that followed, I lost my longstanding interest in trombone, classical music, and the church, where I so often sang and played.

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Listening and Talking

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor,
but the lips of a fool consume him.” (Eccl 10:12)

Listening and Talking

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first year of college at Indiana University I lived and worked in the Graduate Residence Center (GRC) where everyone had a roommate, telephones were in the hall, and two of the three buildings housed men. Because GRC had both men’s and women’s buildings, it was considered co-educational.

My education in dealing with the opposite sex was less exciting than one might believe from recent movies. The movie that everyone talked about in 1972 was Dustin Hoffman’s The Graduate (1967) where a high school graduate is seduced by an older woman and falls in love with her daughter.[1] The only older women that I met were professors and, although I became acquainted with many young women, they were more interested in dating older guys who were experienced in social settings and could afford to date.

Money was always a problem in college. Although my dad paid my college tuition and room and board, every other expense—books, travel, and entertainment—came out of my account. By Christmas of my freshman year my bank account was pretty much empty of savings from my summer work in high school and I started the New Year working in the cafeteria where I normally was assigned to the dish machine, but occasionally worked the food line. I enjoyed working the line because I soon became acquainted with just about everyone in GRC, including the co-eds. Still, dating co-eds required money and most of my money went to books and traveling home over vacations—even pizza money for Sunday evening dinner was hard to come by and required strict budgeting. My budget simply did not include money for dating.

Dating was not really on my mind in my freshman year, not only because I could not afford it, but because I missed a close friend back at home in Maryland. For me, she was like the freshwater pike that got away and grew longer and more ornery with each telling of the tale, vaccinating me from the advances from other women. Vaccinated or not, it was easier telling myself that my standards were too high than to admit that it was painful seeing older guys date my female friends.

Dating friends in high school, conversation might be about common things, like a class or activity that we shared, but it often quickly wandered into more serious matters, like plans for the future and how many children that you wanted to have. Future plans were a perfect date topic because in the 1970s dating was treated like a job interview for marriage and guys naturally paid for dinner and activities to demonstrate their willingness (and hopefully future ability) to provide for a family, should they marry. Marriage was on everyone’s mind which made dating, like an important job interview, an activity that made almost everyone nervous, because everyone obsessed about being the perfect date.

Unable to date, hanging out with female friends in college was unscripted, awkward, and without an obvious social context—what do you even talk about? I knew almost everyone in GRC from working in the cafeteria, but “I see that you really like green beans” is a pickup line not suggesting a lengthy conversation. Real conversation required common ground that was frequently lacking and verbal skills that I simply did not possess and that were not in the curriculum. In searching for common ground, I soon discovered a friend from high school lived in GRC and made friends with another girl who grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland. In developing verbal skills, I soon discovered “the question”.

Questions were cool because you could ask a question and listen potentially for hours to the answer, speaking only occasionally to say something like “yeah” or “tell me more”, because most people love to talk. I loved questions and became a good listener, but there is one problem with questions—they only really worked well in one-on-one conversation. Once two becomes three, conversation takes on a competitive element and it is not cool to dominate the conversation for too long. When conversation morphed into a group dialogue, as I discovered in my freshman year, I was lost both because of my limited social skills and because I did not perceive a social context suggesting that being the “life of the party” was important. More important was that I learn to earn a living and reach a point where I might support a family.


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The Dish Machine

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“But when he came to himself, he said, How many of
my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread,
but I perish here with hunger!” (Luke 15:17)

The Dish Machine

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the fall of my senior year in high school, I used the money that I earned as a camp counselor during the summer at Goshen Scout Camps to buy a new Conn 88h trombone. My interest in music quickly escalated and I announced my interest in studying music in college. My decision to study music came to the chagrin of my music teacher, who being the tuba player in the National Symphony Orchestra, arranged for me to begin lessons with a trombonist, also with the National Symphony Orchestra. Between my trombone, my new teacher, and my new practice schedule, it became clear that I was under-prepared for spring auditions even as I applied to the music department at Indiana University (IU). When I clutched in the audition, unable to play even a Bb scale, I was so ashamed of myself that I gave up the trombone and could not enjoy classical music for more than a decade. Unable to study music, I traveled to Bloomington, Indiana in the fall of 1972 as a freshman without a major.

In the fall, IU registration was a chaotic event in which students entered a large auditorium with tables set up for the different departments and walked between the tables to sign up for classes. Once enrolled in a sufficient number of classes, students stood in line to pay for your tuition before exiting. As I waited in line, I met a volunteer with the Indiana Public Interest Research Group (INPIRG), a student group funded by a tuition checkoff, and he invited me to an organizational meeting to learn more about the group. Intrigued, I checked off INPIRG on my tuition form and attended the meeting where I was elected as a student representative to the INPIRG board of directors.

INPIRG quickly became a home away from home. As an INPIRG director, my friends were mostly law students who identified with Ralph Nader who was famous for his work on automobile safety [1]. Nader’s new book in 1971, Action for a Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing, which led to the organization of the student PIRGs [2], such as INPIRG, all over the country. In INPIRG, I chaired the personnel committee which hired an executive director that fall and I directed a new bookstore pricing survey which quickly became popular among students.

My volunteer work as a “Nader Raider” was less popular with my roommate who was a business major. He spent most of his time practicing his putting and ganged up with a student across the hall to torment me when I studied for exams. In view of such torments, I quickly moved into a private room in the German Language House, because of my interest in German literature and language studies, and out of the Graduate Residence Center (GRC).

Still, before I left, GRC helped me expand on my work with INPIRG. More than just the first co-educational dormitory on campus, GRC faculty advisers worked closely with residents to initiate independent study programs. In my case, I developed a program in the spring of my freshman year that allowed me to assist almost full-time in an INPIRG study of Indiana state government offices. My contribution to the study involved studies of two offices: a new state regulator of private schools and the state department of weights and measures. Both studies required travel to Indianapolis to interview state officials, background reading assignments, and lengthy written reports.

Between my independent study project and the bookstore survey, in INPIRG I was heavily involved in political and economic research. This research did not, however, mix well with my other studies, particularly my studies in German literature where I struggled to keep up and where I clearly could not identify with the nihilism so prevalent in postmodern literature. The despair in contemporary literature seriously disturbed me, even though I did not attend church during these years, and I had trouble envisioning a future majoring in literature.

In my distress, I visited a professor in the comparative literature department to seek counsel where I asked: “where should I aspire to attend graduate school if I continue studying comparative literature?” Harvard University, he answered. Then, I asked: “how many IU students have been admitted to graduate studies in comparative literature at Harvard University?” None, he answered, stoking my distress.

Being one of the few men living at this point in the German Language House, I sought refuge from my distress in attending the many campus parties that I was invited to. The parties were good, but they kept me up late and Sunday morning I was scheduled to work the dish machine at 6:00 a.m. The early shift on Sunday mornings was lite work because hardly anyone got up for breakfast and I could just sleep—nobody knew; nobody cared.

One Sunday morning I will never forget—I woke up hanging over the dish machine with a terrible hangover from the party the night before. Smarting from the hangover, I resolved that I could not continue doing what I had been doing—bogged down in depressive literature and being manipulated into self-destructive political activism—where I would never finish school or find a career. Knowing from experience that politicians mostly argue about economics and economic studies were doable, that morning I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and become an economist.

[1] Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1965).

[2] New York: Grossman Publishers.

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