Here I am at Brigham Young University. Though my worries are many, Lord, still I live in peace.
That was part of my journal entry for Thursday, January 4, 2001, the day I arrived at BYU and moved my things into my dorm at Deseret Towers. Annelise1 had been kind enough to pick me up from the Salt Lake City airport and drop me off, ranting about Utah drivers the whole way there. My new home was 405 U Hall, which was funny to say out loud or over the phone.
Roommate & Ward
My new roommate’s name was Liz, and I decided to break the news of my non-member status to her early on. Her eyes got really wide when I told her, and she laughed. “You’re kidding me,” she said. That wasn’t the reaction I was expecting, and I wasn’t sure what to say. “No no, you see, my last roommate was a non-member!” Suddenly I understood and I had to laugh too. In a college that was 98.6% Mormon, Liz’s Fall 2000 roommate had been a Christian Scientist and her Winter 2001 roommate was now an evangelical Protestant. I’ve always wondered if that was pure coincidence or if the administration placed me with Liz on purpose because they figured she would be used to living with a non-member. Liz stated several times that she believed God was definitely trying to tell her something by giving her two non-LDS roommates in the same school year. I had to agree.
The ward I belonged to consisted of other students from DT and had a ratio of 3 girls to 1 guy. I was initially quite reclusive about the ward and the Mormons around me; I received invitations to ward functions and meetings, but for the first half of the semester I avoided them. I reluctantly let the home teachers and visiting teachers see me, but didn’t really enjoy it. Their simple attempts to share their faith with me all felt like salt that had long lost its flavor with me, and I initially had no idea how to approach and interact with the LDS community in a way that made me feel like an equal and not a conversion interest. I was learning though.
Hebrew 101 (modern Hebrew) was an 8 AM daily class, and it was taught by a very pretty young woman named Erin Stamper who went by רִבְקָה (Rivka / Rebekah) as her Hebrew name. All of the students in the class were supposed to choose Hebrew names to use if their real names weren’t Hebraic in origin. Neither Bridget nor Jack transliterates well into Hebrew (since the language lacks a “j” sound), so I selected יָעֵל (Ya’el / Jael) as my Hebrew name. The name simply means “she-goat,” but the woman from Judges 4 was full of win, so I thought it suited me. People from the Hebrew department who knew me during my time at BYU still call me יָעֵל sometimes.
I came to love רִבְקָה a lot, and had many long conversations with her about what I was doing at BYU and our faith and our testimonies. She let me bring my guitar to Hebrew class socials and teach everyone Protestant worship songs, which the whole class was very receptive of. There was also a guy in the class, מָרְדֳּכַי (Mordecai; his real name was James Olsen) who took a lot of interest in me and talked with me about what I believed. מָרְדֳּכַי seemed to do an unhealthy amount of flirting with all the girls in the class, myself included, but he was a good friend.
We all learned at the end of the semester the real reason for his flirting: it was a cover for the fact that he was dating the teacher (!). They got married that summer and have three children now. רִבְקָה still teaches modern Hebrew at BYU today.
I decided to take a freshman writing class even though my scores on my high school AP English tests meant I didn’t have to. My teacher’s name was Kylie Turley2 and the class met in the Maeser Building, way the hell on the opposite side of the campus from Deseret Towers. I think Kylie and I saw eye to eye on a lot of things and got along well, even with our faiths being so different. I recorded in my journal that she asked me about my views on Mormon feminism, something I mostly knew about from having read Women and Authority by Maxine Hanks in high school.3 That surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to have a dialogue with anyone about LDS feminism my first semester there.
Kylie could see potential in my writing and was very good at helping me amplify it. She loved my personal essay, “Away From Pygmalion“, and my argumentative essay on the gift of the Holy Ghost. She gave that one a 100, a score she said she’d never given out before, and read it to the class so they could hear a good argument against one of their own positions. Now I really wasn’t expecting to hear my Holy Ghost polemic read to an entire classroom of Latter-day Saints. My personal essay would go on to take first place in the freshman writing contest for that year.
The other thing about Kylie which absolutely delighted me was that she liked Rebecca St. James. Mormons, do you really want to reach out to evangelicals? Check out our pop music. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of it sucks, but some of it is really good, and nothing builds a bridge like shared music tastes.
My religion class for that semester was RelA 327H, Honors Pearl of Great Price. Why did I do Pearl of Great Price first? Because (1) I was a cocky 19-year-old bastard who thought I knew Mormonism as well as the life-time members, and (2) all of the Book of Mormon and New Testament classes that fit my schedule well were full. I had no idea that most teachers would add you if you came to class on the first day and asked nicely. I soon learned I was in way over my head. No book in the LDS canon contains more divergence from Protestant theology than the Pearl of Great Price, and I had a difficult time liking the class when all I could think were things like, “Adam and Eve sinned because they wanted to fall?! You people are nuts.” I’d probably say it nicer these days, but it’s still one of those places where Mormons and traditional Christians part ways.
My other classes were Latin 111H (a year’s worth of beginning Latin crammed into a semester) and ClCv 241H (Greek & Roman Mythology). I was doing a lot of honors classes at the time because I initially intended to do an Honors thesis, but I dropped this plan as time went on. I finished the semester with As and Bs.
I was originally going to cover my entire freshman experience in one post, but I think I’m gonna need two, so to be continued.
1 Not her real name.
3 Journal, February 21, 2001.
The Road to BYU
Faith in the face of failure
Freshman, Part 1
Freshman, Part 2
Called to serve
Religion classes at BYU
The jokes that weren’t funny
When my Catholic friend converted
Non-member in the classroom
My evangelical Mormon professor
Strength Made Perfect in Weakness I
A promise from God
This one is just for the hell of it . . .