CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections On Faith And Life For The Years Of Winter —
It was the start of the second semester of my senior year at IU, the era of pencils instead of computers. The registrar’s office told me I could not register for classes until I had paid my fines from last semester. “What fines? I don’t owe any fines.” “Yes, you do. There’s a check mark beside your name.” “Okay, how much do I owe?” “We don’t know that here. You have to go to the place where you owe it to find out how much.” “Well, where do I owe?” “We don’t know that here. You’ll have to go to each of the departments where you might owe a fine and get them to give you a waiver that shows you don’t owe them anything.”
It was winter. Cold. Snow everywhere. IU is a pedestrian campus. No buses in those days. No scooters. Beautiful in the snow, but slow going. Nonetheless, I went. To the library. To the athletic department. To the book store. To the parking department. To The Indiana Daily Student newspaper. To the housing office. To the trolls under the Jordan River bridge. Every one of them gave me a document to take back to the registrar to prove I didn’t owe anything.
“Oh, some clerk must have put a check by your name when it was somebody else who actually owes a fine.” “You mean somebody else is getting away with being guilty while I’m the one who had to do all the work to prove I’m innocent?” “Yes,” the registrar said.
That’s the way that story ends and remains, to this day, more than 60 years later. That’s the way it will always be. Somebody got away with not paying a debt, and somebody else had to pay the price, not with money but with time and shoe leather, because a distracted clerk put a check mark on the wrong line. There are a lot of stories like that, in which the mistake and the payment are much more significant than my lost afternoon. And they end the same way—not like a Saturday matinee Western, where wrongs are always righted—but without resolution.
As old people, it’s okay to remember the times we feel we were on the receiving end of injustice. It’s not wise, however, to hang onto the story in order to feel again the anger and frustration. So I think instead about how great it was to be able to walk briskly that afternoon, without a single worry about losing my balance. About how beautiful the campus was in the snow, even on a gray day. About the satisfaction of proving I was not a debtor.
Those sorts of mistakes were understandable in my college days. Record keeping was cumbersome, especially in an institution that was used to a few hundred records and suddenly had thousands. Everything was done with paper and pen, often pencil.
Records were kept the same way for hundreds of years. Suddenly, there were typewriters. Almost immediately after typewriters came computers. The only constant is mistakes.
Vera Largent Watts, the Registrar at Garrett Theological Seminary, said that when I started there, they were still using paper and ink. While I was there, they went to manual typewriters. A decade later they went to electric typewriters. A decade later they went to computers. That’s when she retired.
Computers make things faster, but they don’t eliminate the mistakes, and they can multiply a mistake at warp speed. So in my memory, I keep walking the snowy pathways of my old campus, glad to have good legs and good memories.
John Robert McFarland
“The older we get, the fewer things seem waiting in line for.”