Fredrick Mohs was the German mineralogist who developed the Mohs Hardness Scale, a test for identifying mineral specimens. For instance, on that scale a diamond is a ten and talc is a one. When my first husband and I got married, I thought we were a diamond, hard and impenetrable. When my children’s friends’ parents were getting divorced, I assured them that our family was immune to divorce. But, as any good geologist knows, hardness can be affected by impurities. And indeed, that was the case. After twenty-five years of marriage, I was divorced; I worked part-time at a bookstore and hadn’t finished my degree. As a newly single mother of three, I felt vulnerable and hopeless. There was only one thing to do: steel myself and go back to college to finish my degree.
Though I didn’t feel any older than the day I’d graduated from high school, within minutes of entering the University of Minnesota classroom for my required geology class, I felt older than the rocks we’d be examining in our labs.
“So, like, are you the T.A.?” A young man plopped down at my lab table and blinked naively in my direction, probably hoping to make a good impression.
“No, like, I’m old enough to be the T.A.’s mother,” I said, suddenly conscious of the puckering skin around my lips. I felt hideous. Hideous and exposed, wearing my jeans and black boots, a wannabe, another Cher, a pitiable old woman trying to pass herself off as a University student.
It’s not like I hung out in the student union, or the dorms, or even the Kitty Kat Klub for a late-night beer after studying at the library. I drove home to the suburbs each day after class, made dinner for my son, or popped a Lean Cuisine in the microwave for myself if he was at practice, and settled in for the rest of the evening to do homework. And I was okay with that. But somehow, that blatant acknowledgement of my oldness by someone who I must consider my peer for the next twelve weeks was unnerving.
We came each Wednesday to geology lab to scratch rocks with nails, play in a manufactured river to determine the course of eddies and flows and learn about plate tectonics. We charted earthquakes around the world. We learned about mass wasting and much to the surprise of my young male tablemates it had nothing to do with Friday nights at a nearby frat house. And somehow, they came to accept me . . . a forty-six-year-old mother of three from the suburbs who reminded them to do their pre-lab exercises and turn in their post labs before the end of the day.
At the beginning, it was my least favorite class. I would never use this stuff outside of the classroom (hadn’t I heard my own kids say this often enough?) Yet, in order to earn my B.A., I had to have a physical science lab. I am shy and it was difficult to work up the energy for group labs. I’d rather work independently, muddle my way through, but not have to make idle conversation with a bunch of nineteen year olds.
By the second week, I actually enjoyed their company. When I arrived early for class, several students engaged me in conversation. They didn’t talk to me like Eddie on Leave it to Beaver talked to Wally’s parents. They didn’t make fun of my reading glasses. They were less intimidated by my age than I was by theirs. I relaxed. I decided to be myself.
As a lab group, we were required to make a group presentation the last week of class. Our T.A. announced that we must come with ideas the following week and each contribute something to the project. He wanted it to be educational – based on something we’ve studied—yet not dull. Entertain him, he said. I took him literally.
The following week I sat at the table with my lab partners and looked from one to the other in anticipation.
“So, what did you come up with?” I asked each of them in turn.
There were two shrugs and, “Nothing.”
“Okay, since no one else has an idea, I guess we’re stuck with mine . . .”
“Great!” Joe said, relieved that someone, anyone, had something for us to run with. The other two, Kaj and Jordan, eyed me suspiciously.
“What?” Kaj asked.
“An interpretive dance of mass wasting styles,” I paused and waited for them to catch up. “And since it was my idea—I get to be the narrator.”
“You guys are the ballerinas.”
They were stunned. I could see them slide from relief that someone had come up with a plan to horror at the thought of what they would have to do. I smiled and nodded at each of them, describing my vision. Joe started laughing first. Kaj snickered. Jordan was not convinced until the T.A. came around and asked us what we would be doing. When I briefly outlined it for him, the T.A. became animated, “That’s a great idea!”
Jordan was on board, too. As long as the T.A thought it was great, Jordan thought it was great. He was not going to make a fool of himself for a C, but the T.A.’s enthusiasm convinced him it was worth the risk.
“Okay, let’s sketch it out,” I said, when the T.A. moved on to the next group.
The next week, the guys came prepared. They each decorated a white garbage bag that they would wear with their identity: Kaj was mud, Joe was water, and Jordan (at six foot four and 250 pounds) was rock. I’d written the narration and Joe had burned a CD with four different classical music selections that perfectly represented the different speeds of mass wasting styles. The dances, we’d decided, would be freestyle. We knew which dancers would need to perform for each style of mass wasting and basically indicated whether the dance would be fast or slow.
We sweated as the other groups began their presentations. They were dull, intensely grounded in fact, insipidly scientific, and 100% of them relied upon technology—of which we had none, other than our boom box. We watched, dry mouthed, PowerPoint presentation after PowerPoint presentation, wondering if we missed anything in the criteria.
“I thought it was supposed to be entertaining,” Kaj hissed. Our eyes darted from lab partner to lab partner. Had we screwed up?
I took a deep breath and tried to shore them up, “Remember, he said scientific and entertaining. Don’t worry about it. We’ve got this thing.”
We watched the other presentations and yawned, sending each other looks that said dull, dull, dull. But still, we were uneasy. It showed in our clenched jaws, the look of panic in Jordan’s eyes, and the sweat that beaded on my forehead.
When it was our turn, we approached the front of the room clearly intimidated. I read the narration leading into each interpretive dance and pressed the play button on the boom box. The music filled the classroom. I looked around the room at the puzzled expressions on the other students’ faces. Kaj, Joe, and Jordan glissaded and pirouetted across the front of the room, interpreting mudflows, debris flows, slump, and creep. The audience was no longer glassy eyed from boredom; they sat on the edges of their seats.
Kaj and Joe held hands and spun across the front of the room to the accompaniment of “Flight of the Bumblebees,” for the interpretation of mudflow. For a debris flow, which is accelerated by the addition of water, Kaj (mud) and Jordan (rock) began slowly pirouetting when suddenly Joe (water) collided with them, sending them into faster spins, a chaotic, spastic dance that landed them all in a heap. For slump, in which the rocks settle into a crescent-shaped formation with a head scarp and toe butting out, massive Jordan performed an arabesque over squatting Kaj and slumping Joe. The class broke into hysterics. To what lengths would these guys humiliate themselves to get an A?
We ended our presentation with an interpretive dance of creep—a slow, but pervasive sliding of earth that often resulted from clear cutting land for mass development. With root systems eliminated, and earth newly grated into unnatural mounds, the land creeps over time. It settles back into a more natural formation leaving ridges and rises and often foot-length drops that tear the sod. Kaj, Joe and Jordan stood at the front of the class, arms interlocked, plied and slowly lifted their feet, planting them across their partner’s in an exaggerated and slightly clumsy second position, lifting their other foot and moving parallel across the front of the classroom. The class burst into applause. The guys were pumped. They bowed and hammed it up, laughing and slapping each other on the back. I smiled from the sidelines. They were geology rock stars.
The next week, as I walked to class, the T.A. stopped me, “Your presentation was the best of all my sections,” he said, and I smiled.
As I entered the classroom and sat down at the lab table, I felt new camaraderie with my lab partners. I was one of the guys, just another struggling student. They looked down at our evaluation sheets and noticed my last name the first time that semester.
“Do you have a daughter named Lindsay?” Kaj asked.
“You’re from Lakeville?”
“We graduated with your daughter,” Kaj said, pointing from himself to Jordan and back.
I laughed. “Did you ever think you’d be choreographing an interpretive dance in college with the mother of one of your high school classmates?”
Life is full of weird ironies. The next fall, my son was in a world history class at his high school. The first day as the teacher called role, he stopped at Alex’s name.
“Does your mom go to the U of M?” he asked.
“. . . yeah . . . why?” Alex asked cautiously, not certain he wanted to be publicly associated with me. Like most teenagers, he was often embarrassed by my mere existence.
The teacher eyed him with mock accusation, watching him squirm in his seat.
“Your mom made my son perform a modern dance in their geology class!”
Alex smiled, “Yep, that’s my mom.”