Life has a way of taking unexpected twists and turns.
I started out at Auburn as a chemical engineering major. That first quarter of classes, I attended a required course that went like this: every week, we would watch a presentation about a job that a chemical engineer could get. I kept waiting to find one that didn’t strike me as less fun than a root canal. That never happened. As it turns out, I hate going to chemistry lab, and I love working the chemistry equations, so I changed my major to math at the end of my freshman year (thus ensuring I would never earn a six-figure salary). Auburn had (has?) a 5th year Master’s in Education program, and I planned to complete that after graduation and become a high school math teacher like my beloved Mr. Booth at Hartselle High School.
During my senior year, I had to get a professor or two from the math department to sign off on my application to the School of Education. One of those professors was one of my all-time favorites, Dr. Richard Zalik. He had a strong accent from parts unknown (most likely Eastern Europe), and he taught my Differential Equations courses. While he had no problem signing the paper if that’s what I really wanted, he encouraged me to pursue a master’s in math instead to become a college professor. His 3 recommended schools were Dartmouth, the University of Maryland, and Georgia Tech. After being very briefly tempted by the first two, I decided that, if they were all equally good programs in his eyes, I’d prefer the one closer to home. So I applied to Georgia Tech’s PhD program in Applied Mathematics and was accepted.
(I joke that I went there on a minority scholarship. It’s somewhat true. When I was interviewed, the professor mentioned that they really needed more American females in the class.)
In March 1996, I graduated from Auburn (as I mentioned earlier, Auburn was still on the quarter system and had not yet switched to semesters), and I moved back home to my parents’ house until it was time to move to Atlanta for grad school. For the first month or so, I substitute taught, including one particularly brutal week in a junior high social studies class. Then I began working for a travel agency as a sort of Girl Friday. That was a super-fun job with a wonderful group of ladies. It also helped to pay for my new much-loved blue Mustang.
Back in my old room at my parents’ house, I came across a bunch of old love notes and such from a high school boyfriend. In an uncharacteristically bold move, I called his parents’ house (the beauty of a small town is that no one moves or changes phone numbers), and they gave me his new number. He was in the Army at Fort Campbell. After talking on the phone several times, we decided I should come up there for a visit, so I did. I was anticipating this Most Awesome Grand Reunion. While we did have some fun laughs reminiscing, no flame was rekindled. I had built it up pretty big in my mind, so I crashed pretty hard. But it was clearly not meant to be.
High School Guy had made some not-so-great choices along the way, and I was disappointed and disillusioned. While I was much the same person as before, he was not. But in a way that only God can arrange, it actually prepared me to appreciate what was coming next.
Because of the 1996 Olympics taking place in Atlanta (with the athletes housed in the new dorms at Georgia Tech), the Fall term did not start until the beginning of October. A couple of weeks before then, I got a call from someone I hadn’t talked to in almost a year: David Baggett. He had been training at Fort Knox for the National Guard during my final months at Auburn. I had sent him a card, but he doesn’t remember getting it. He was back at Auburn by this time, still working at UPS and taking classes for his degree (that 5th-year master’s in education for which he had come to Auburn in the first place).
After talking for a bit, he suggested that we plan a trip to Six Flags for the first Saturday I was in Atlanta. I excitedly accepted. It surprised my family how happy I was that he had called me. It surprised ME how happy I was about his phone call! Why on earth was I happy to be going out with “boring” David Baggett?? Regardless, we had it all planned. He would come to Atlanta from Auburn, and we would spend the day at Six Flags.