I will never forget how I met Dr. Zola Brown. My thesis advisor, Dr. Daniel Greeman, wanted us to meet in a setting she would find comfortable because, apparently, she didn’t like meeting new people outside of the classroom. From his description of her personality, I expected the soon-to-be outside member on my Ph.D. thesis committee to resemble my fourth-grade teacher, who happened to have the same surname; that’s a thing about being African-American with a lineage that extends into the slavery period of American history. We all have similar surnames, like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Brown (you can guess where that one came from), and Wilson, which happens to be the appellation associated with my family’s distinguished lineage. The resemblance between Mrs. Brown and Dr. Brown didn’t end with their last names.
Dr. Greeman had declined to tell me why he wanted me to meet Dr. Brown incognito, in disguise as an undergraduate enrolled in Physical Geology at San Francisco State University, on a field trip to Marshall’s Beach. I had done some research because I didn’t know if he was playing a prank on a colleague or making a fool of a new graduate student—some kind of initiation rite to the halls of academia. I was determined to play along because, to be honest, I was overwhelmed by the halls of academia and wanted nothing more than to have fun while joining the two-percent of Americans with a Ph.D., and if that meant pretending to be someone I wasn’t in order to meet an antisocial future collaborator, I was all in.
“What are you doing here?”
Oh yes, Dr. Brown and Mrs. Brown had a lot in common. She examined me from head to toe. She frowned at my makeup, shook her head at my large earrings and nose pins, scoffed at my form-fitting top and jeans; and her jaw dropped in shock at the high-heel pumps that adorned my feet.
I smiled nervously (easy to do under the circumstances) and replied, “I’m a new student. I missed the van and drove so that I wouldn’t miss the field trip. This is really important to me.” That part turned out to be true, but I’ll get to that later.
Her response caught me off guard.
“You look like a Klingon at a Death Ritual. What were you thinking, coming on a geology field trip dressed like that?” Her downturned nose hid what must have been nostrils flared with righteous indignation, her eyes indicating that I would probably fail her class.
I grinned at her comment, pleased that she appreciated my carefully applied makeup. I had always been enthralled by the Klingons and their culture, in which women were the equals of men, willing to kill and die for their honor. Furthermore, the Klingons are dark-skinned, not pasty like their Vulcan cousins, although my complexion isn’t as dark as Dr. Brown’s, which is probably why my surname is Wilson.
“Take me to your leader.”
I was certain I would become accustomed to her abrupt demeanor, but I was surprised when a rock hammer was suddenly thrust at me, along with a pair of safety glasses. “Join the others and let’s see if you can tell dip from strike.”
I accepted the heavy tool and tiptoed through the tall, wet grass fronting the low bluff, inwardly grimacing that I would probably ruin my new shoes in the muddy soil. The students were confused by the twisted mass of shale and what was probably sandstone; some of them were pouring dilute hydrochloric acid on the unresponsive silicate rocks (HCL fizzes on limestone); others, mostly guys, were beating the rock to death with their cheap hammers. I joined a mixed group of men and women who were peering through tiny magnifying glasses at what I had learned from Wikipedia was a melange of sand and mud, buried deeply enough to harden into rock, and then scraped off as the Pacific Ocean’s seafloor plunged beneath North America. Feeling empowered by this knowledge, which the undergraduate students enrolled in Dr. Brown’s class apparently lacked, I nevertheless refrained from sharing my wisdom and instead acted as confused as they.
“It’s all messed up,” a man with dark skin and close-cropped curly hair exclaimed in frustration.
A white girl with dark, straight hair, who could have lost a few pounds, added, “I don’t know if it’s sandstone or shale.”
I pointed to a chunk of shale, embedded in a matrix of mudrock, and tossed out, “How can sediments like this, deposited on the seafloor, become so tangled?”
A black girl who had been studying one of the lightly colored sandstone blocks exposed along the bluff put her hands on her hips and declared, “I can’t tell what this is. I don’t see any bedding like in the shales, even the pieces we’ve been looking at.” She poured some more dilute HCL on the shiny, unspeaking rock and added, “It isn’t limestone.”
“I think it’s a schist,” announced a white guy who looked like he hadn’t gotten enough sleep the previous night.
I shook my head in frustration and corrected him. “Schist would have foliation that would be continuous. These rocks look like pieces that were mixed up together.” I looked towards the Pacific Ocean, hoping they would get my drift.
Another student joined our group, a black guy who had been diligently pounding on the helpless rock. “This is fucked up!”
It was time to collect their observations and come to a conclusion. “Let’s put it all together.”
They looked at me blankly. It was hard to believe I had been just like them only a few years earlier. Before I could elaborate on my statement, Dr. Brown’s commanding voice broke everyone’s train of thought. “Okay, you’ve had enough time to make your observations. Does anyone know what we’re looking at?”
A few hardy souls spoke up about it being igneous or metamorphic, but the guy who had called the rocks “fucked up” held his hand up, before quickly lowering it and, with a grimace that said a lot about his classroom experience with Dr. Brown, offered, “It’s all mixed up, some shale, a little of maybe granite or sandstone, something like that, but now it’s all confused…a mishmash, like my mom’s surprise dinner on Saturday night.”
There were a lot of laughs at his analysis.
Dr. Brown corrected him. “You are correct, Damon, but we call it melange. However, that isn’t granite, but only recrystallized sandstone that was mixed in with the shale matrix. It lost its original bedding when it was buried, every rock has its own chemical signature and responds differently to changes in pressure and temperature. But what caused it to look like this? To become a mishmash—a melange?”
The overweight girl looked at me, then at the calm Pacific Ocean, and offered, “It was caught in the subduction zone.” She pointed towards the sea and, with the others nodding enthusiastically, added, “It got all tangled up and was dragged along…” She grimaced and waved her hands as if imagining being dragged along with the subducting Pacific plate.
I guess she was taking Geology 101 as a science requirement for a performing arts major.
Dr. Brown then strode to the outcrop and proceeded to show her students the details that revealed the complex history of what is now called San Francisco, a tumultuous interval that began more than 150 million years ago and continues to this day. I was as fascinated by her recitation of the Mesozoic past of Northern California as any of the undergrads. I was smiling in anticipation of sharing my discovery with Dr. Greeman as I handed the heavy-duty hammer back to Dr. Brown while the students filed back to the van.
She looked at me with narrowed eyes as she said, “You aren’t on my class roster. I don’t mind an interested observer joining my field trips occasionally, but I don’t like disruptions…you fit in well with the others and seem to know strike from dip. I can see that you are serious but, still, don’t make a habit of it. You should register for the class if you want to take part in future field trips. I would welcome your participation.”
I finally found the appropriate response to her earlier comment about my uninvited appearance on her field trip. I showed her my best Klingon smile and said, “We Klingons do not believe in wasted effort or time, and we have no tolerance for foolishness or idle talk…”
She was still watching me, her jaw agape, as I climbed into my antique Toyota Corolla.