Feb. 25, 2015
It’s not news to anyone that it’s cold. I mean really cold. The kind of cold that takes your breath away and makes you wonder if it will ever be warm again. The kind of cold that makes you want to punch snowmen and curse at the wind. Since I park in a ramp that isn’t exactly next to my building, every morning I bundle up for the polar trek into work. I layer up, put on boots, a hat, mittens and lastly, a scarf. And just about every morning when I tie that scarf around my neck, I’m taken back to a time when my 10-year-old self was wishing she had forgone a scarf that day.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a pretty great childhood. I was lucky – I wasn’t picked on a lot and I had great friends. But I was always the shortest kid in the class – like a lot shorter than most everyone else, which meant being called "shrimp" or "munchkin" were commonplace. I also was pretty successful academically which earned me additional names like "poindexter" or "nerd." I took to heart the sticks and stones attitude and tried not to let it bother me.
But one winter afternoon, for reasons I still don’t understand, a couple of older kids took it upon themselves to pick on the small girl. While I was walking the short distance home, they grabbed me and used the ends of my scarf to tie me by my neck to a telephone pole. They tied and tied an elaborate set of knots I couldn’t untie while my face was pressed into the pole.
The pole was close enough to the school that every kid walking home that day had to pass by, which meant I was on display for all. The boys threatened everyone that helping me would not be taken kindly. Needless to say, that makes for a pretty humiliating afternoon for a kid.
Classmates and friends, afraid of the bullies, kept walking by and gawking. Everyone was afraid to stand up and help – except one girl. Just when I had about given up and figured I’d be tied there until my parents came looking for me, the quietest and shyest girl in my class stopped. She demanded they untie me or she would run back to school and get the principal. While they stood there shocked, she pushed past and started working at the knots in my scarf, eventually freeing me.
Matthew Hedden, an assistant professor of mathematics, spends a good part of his time tied up in knots. Not literally tied to a pole by them like I was, but studying knot theory. Knot theory is part of a branch of mathematics called topology—loosely defined as the study of shapes. I don’t pretend to understand it completely, but he makes it sound pretty fascinating. Read his FACULTY VOICE: Solving Knotty Problems, to learn more about his work, including how he spent days while snowed in to solve a major theorem. (I usually spend snow days making soup and binge watching Breaking Bad…not solving math mysteries).
I don’t know what senior Anna Perrin did on the half a snow day students got this semester, but she also might have been solving math problems (and probably not watching Breaking Bad). Perrin is an Honors College student majoring in both mathematics and Spanish. Watch her video in the STUDENT VIEW: Puzzles of Math and Language, to learn more about her, including how she’s related to the person Brody Neighborhood is named after.
Back to me and my scarf for a minute. When I think back about that incident, it’s not actually the fear or embarrassment that I think about. I think about the young girl who didn’t walk by or look away. I think about the girl who wasn’t afraid to stand up for someone else, did what was right and was determined when it mattered.
MSU College of Music alumnus Jonathan Palant is someone else who doesn’t look away or walk by. He recently volunteered his skills as a music director to work with a Dallas shelter and led a chorus of 20 homeless singers in a standing-room only, one-night performance at the Dallas City Performance Hall. It’s an incredible story about an incredible Spartan. Read the MSUToday story, “Alumnus leads homeless choir,” and watch the video he filmed about the project.
I hate to admit I’m not sure what happened to that brave girl. She and her family moved away and I lost touch. I don’t know where she went to college, but she certainly had what it takes to be a Spartan. Whether it’s solving complicated math problems or bringing dignity and joy to people less fortunate, Spartans never give up or look away. Spartans spend their lives finding solutions, changing lives and making a difference in a world that’s often tied up in knots.
Photo by Derrick L. Turner