Back Talk

No More Time to Procrastinate

My 7-year-old and her friend were playing fairies. Her friend said, “If I could have any wish, I would wish that magic were real.” Annabel responded, “Really? Not to stop global warming?”

I couldn’t help but smile. Annabel articulated exactly the wish that I would have chosen. It also struck me as a bit of a metaphor for where we are as a nation, as a world, on global warming. Wishing, hoping, thinking magic would come and fix it.

Before 2018, climate change wasn’t something I thought about every day. I was aware of it, but not really aware of it, not the seriousness of it, or the urgency of it. Then I saw the newest United Nations report that said we have 12 years (now 11) to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions or we’re in serious trouble. I started reading more. I wanted it not to be true. To find another article, or talk to someone who could tell me that it was going to be okay, we’ve figured it out, don’t worry, go back to your normal life, we’ve got this. We’ve discovered the magic.

But no one could tell me that.

Forty years ago, people talked about how climate change would affect future generations.

Today we’re still talking about how it will affect future generations. But we are those future generations. We already feel the effects of global warming now, and given the level of greenhouse gas emissions that we continue to emit, the impact will only worsen.

I have to admit my first response was protective — to buy a big plot of land, build a greenhouse and get chickens, load up on canned foods and water purifiers, teach my kids gardening, sewing, and self defense. But that didn’t sound like the way I wanted to live the rest of my life, nor a guarantee of anything.

I started talking to people in my life, hesitantly at first, not sure how they would react. Many of them were a little bit aware and a little bit scared and not sure what to do either. The unique thing about climate change is that every single one of us will be significantly affected by it, yet few people have taken the time to truly understand the scope of what we face. It is easy to be complacent when we look outside our own windows and see life going on as usual. It is easy to put our heads down and ignore the canaries in this big coal mine chirping very loudly around the world.

There is so much work to be done and such little time. We, Grinnell grads, have been given an amazing education. We’ve cultivated our minds to think critically and creatively. So what do we do with those skills and talents? Do we have an obligation to use them now, with all of us facing what has been called an existential crisis?

Each of us changing lightbulbs to LEDs on our own, though important, will not be enough. But we are all a part of many communities: families, churches, cities, school districts, states, companies, nations. What I have really taken to heart over the past year is that we can’t wish global warming away; but when we stop being complacent and overwhelmed by the problem, when we engage our communities and find our voices, we can make our own magic. We can have influence.

Greg Schrieber ’02, an amazing community organizer and friend, once said: “You can’t procrastinate if you’re going to change the world.” Never have Greg’s words had more meaning than they do now.

Learning French in Prison: À Quoi Bon?

Roughly translated, this phrase means, “what’s the point?” This is what Cliff said to me on the first day of French class in the Newton Correctional Facility. To be more precise, he said, “I don’t want to take this class. I’m not gonna learn anything.” His lack of enthusiasm was echoed by a couple of the 15 men enrolled in French 101 via the Liberal Arts in Prison Program. Most of them, though, were excited by this opportunity.

The Liberal Arts in Prison Program offers incarcerated students a full-fledged college program equivalent to the first year at Grinnell. Unlike students on campus, incarcerated students do not get to choose their courses, and thus Cliff was obliged to take what was on offer in fall 2018 — French 101.

Undaunted by Cliff’s rejection, I introduced myself, as I do in any first class, with an overly theatrical “Bonjour!” and a handshake with each student.

Je m’appelle Claire,” I slowly and clearly declared to each student, pointing to myself, eyebrows arched, voice rising as if engaging with a newborn. “Comment t’appelles-tu?”

Stunned silence. Dinner-plate-sized eyes stared back at me in unspoken terror — you’re not actually gonna make us speak French, the eyes said. Not on the first day at least!

“Gemma Pell Carl.”

We made it around the room. The ice was broken. Ça va? My voice went up. Ça va. My voice went down. They dutifully repeated after me, rising intonation, falling intonation. And just like that, they were having their first French conversation, introducing themselves and asking and answering “How goes it?” “It’s going.” We added on “bien, mal, and comme-ci, comme-ça” and soon they were all doing a Gallic pout and shrug. “Ça va comme-ci comme-ça.

By the end of the first lesson, Cliff was still dubious but he continued to show up along with the others for the next 13 weeks, learning to conjugate verbs — first the irregulars “to be” and “to have,” and then the regulars — to love, to travel, to study; memorizing vocabulary about the classroom, about family and friends, about sports and free time activities; engaging in ever more complex conversations — describing people, ordering food, organizing a trip to Tahiti.

À quoi bon?

It was not lost on me, nor on the French majors who accompanied me to tutor in the prison, that many of the topics we covered in French 101 are far removed from these students’ daily lives. What’s the point of learning to kiss hello the French way or order a coffee in a typical French café, or plan that trip to Tahiti? What’s the point of learning conjugations and vocabulary that slips away as fast as it is learned?

The class was hard. As hard as it is for first-year students on campus. It moved quickly, so as soon as they learned one grammatical point, they were racing to the next. And the men don’t have access to technology like our on-campus students do. They didn’t have cute little instructional videos or self-correcting workbooks to guide them on their homework. They had to learn a lot of the material on their own and with the help of tutors, so that they were prepared to speak in class. During class, we played games to make it fun — Pictionary for vocabulary, relay races for verb conjugations, fun role-plays.

But still, à quoi bon? Cliff complained.

I told the men about learning strategies to make learning stick, namely spaced repetition and retrieval (aka self-quizzing in 20-minute chunks a few times a day). “You don’t have to work harder or spend more time,” I told them, as I do my on-campus students. “You just need to exercise your brain like you do your muscles — with sets of repetitions. And this is advice you can use in any other learning situation,” I said. “It’s not just for learning French!”

And there’s my first answer to the “à quoi bon” question: learning French is an exercise in intellectual discipline, a way to create learning habits, to set and achieve goals. It is also, of course, a way to open the doors of the prison, to get a glimpse of another world and other ways of being, to learn about different education systems, about café culture, about football/soccer, and even fashion, to make cultural and linguistic comparisons and connections across Francophone cultures.

And this is fundamentally what a liberal arts education seeks to do, as the College’s mission statement tells us: “Knowledge is a good to be pursued both for its own sake and for the intellectual, moral, and physical well-being of individuals and of society at large.”

My incarcerated students, my tutors, and I were all patently aware that they may never have the chance to speak French in a real Francophone context. But they are also equally aware that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and the expansion of their horizons is in and of itself good.

When I asked Cliff if he’d learned anything, he thought for a minute and replied, “I learned that France has a really strong soccer program because of the waves of immigration after the war. I learned that I have to say cwah-sant, not crescent, in a café. I learned that knowing a language gives you a much deeper appreciation of the culture than, like, when I was in Iraq in the Army and only knew a few words. Most of all, I learned that I could learn a foreign language.”

Claire FrancesClaire Frances taught for 21 years at Grinnell, including eight in the Department of French and Arabic. She also directed the Alternate Language Study Option (ALSO) program and in 2017 created the Language Learning Center.

School Bus Daze

Unlike other boys, I never wanted to be a bus driver when I grew up; if I had, Grinnell would have given me the opportunity to fulfill my childhood ambition. But such was not to be. 

It was early spring, after I’d been driving a school bus for two semesters for the Grinnell schools. The dirt roads leading out of town had been oiled the previous summer to keep the dust down; under spring rains the hardpan was beginning to break up and the surface was slimy with yellow Iowa mud.

I was navigating a long stretch of yellow slither. The crown of the road was comparatively high and sloped down to wide drainage ditches on either side. I felt the front wheels “go;” they were no longer gripping the road and the bus was on a long, gradual skid toward the right drainage ditch. I’d thought I was an expert — I’d done well on the Iowa chauffeur’s driving test — and I turned the wheels slightly in the direction of the skid, gave it a little bit of gas and kept my foot off the brakes. To no avail. The bus continued on its inexorable course into the ditch where it came to rest, listing dangerously on its right side, the side of the passenger door.

I switched off the engine. There was utter silence. “OK,” I said. “Nobody move,” which I didn’t have to say because nobody was moving. The image of Charlie Chaplin in a cabin teetering on the edge of an abyss in The Gold Rush popped into my mind. Every hiccup made the cabin groan and inch towards its doom.

Earlier that winter we’d crossed a small bridge on the packed snow; on the other side the road sloped upward. Despite snow tires, we didn’t make it but slid back down and came to a jolting halt against one of the bridge’s stone walls. Nobody was hurt. A farmer arrived with a big John Deere tractor, hauled us back up the slope, and we drove on. As was the custom, he billed the school district for his services.    

I didn’t want another rescue, an apologetic explanation to the superintendent of schools, a black mark against my record, an additional expense for the schools. “Right,” I said, “Frank,” (a husky high school senior) “get up real slow, open the rear emergency door, and climb out. Everyone else stay put!” I then told two more older boys in the back to climb out one-by-one; the remaining junior and senior boys and girls then lifted the little ones out into the arms of the three boys outside and then climbed out themselves. I told them to stand by the side of the road and wait.

I figured the bus had lightened up enough to avoid tipping over on its side. It was then that impetuousness kicked in. I started up, released the handbrake, put her in first, gunned the engine, ripped along the ditch, and climbed up and over the right side and into a plowed field: cheers from the road. I lurched along the furrows, heading for a drive that led to the road. The kids were already running to meet me. Everyone piled in and we drove to school.

When the superintendent called me in that afternoon, he began, “What the devil did you think you were doing? How did that cockamamie idea enter your head? The farmer was mad at me over the phone because you tore up his newly sown field. Parents called up … ” He was reduced to incoherence. That was the end of my non-boyhood fantasy of driving a bus — or almost the end. The plan was to keep me on until a substitute driver could be found, then I was out. Before that happened, I got viral pneumonia and was in the hospital for two weeks. Was that a punishment by the Great Superintendent in the Sky?

The Power of Grinnell

We have all experienced meeting Grinnellians in unexpected places. Our group of four Grinnell friends took this to an international level during a trip to Tuscany to celebrate our collective bicentennial. We were visiting Lucca, Italy, in 2018 and taking a cooking class. While learning from Chef Giuseppe how to roll the perfect gnocchi, we chatted with our classmates — when lo and behold, we discovered a fifth Grinnellian in our midst. 

The roots of our friendship trace back to 1985 during our freshman year at Grinnell. The unique alchemy of place and time that happens at Grinnell provided the genesis of a deep and enduring friendship. We could regularly be found eating at Cowles or Quad, at a party, on a study break, or lounging in one of our rooms. Throughout our years at Grinnell, we listened to and supported each other through ups and downs; and during our senior year, the four of us lived together in a house off campus. The sum of these small, shared, seemingly insignificant moments served as the building blocks of a profound friendship that has lasted over 30 years. 

Post-Grinnell life took us in different directions, and the intensity of our connection waxed and waned. Periodic touch points occurred via weddings, visits, and on-campus reunions. Our 25th Reunion marked the first time all four of us were back on campus together. We pledged to see each other more regularly and decided to take a big trip together to celebrate our milestone 50th birthdays that would soon be upon us. Returning home, our routines took over all too quickly as we slipped back into our old habits. 

Luckily, Lara’s work was investing in wellness, and as a result of a coaching call she got the wheels moving on “the trip.” She set up a conference call and gave assignments to narrow down potential dates and destinations. A lengthy planning process of Wednesday night meetings using Zoom cloud videoconferencing ensued in which we considered the entire world and eventually settled on Tuscany. Though the weekly calls disrupted our routines, the process of planning proved invaluable, since it enabled us to organize and reconnect. We selected dates in May 2018 for travel and developed an itinerary. 

We were elated when we met at Boston’s Logan airport, after nearly a year of preparation that required time, dedication, and great understanding and support from our families. The trip itself was wonderful! Highlights included wine tastings, museums, the city of Florence, and the cooking class at which we met fellow Grinnellian Lisa Piediscalzi ’85. Though we have returned to our busy lives and no longer hold our weekly conference calls, this trip will always be one of our fondest memories. It reminded us that in addition to the academic foundation Grinnell gives its students, it also provides a community and a place to build lifelong relationships. Our trip was more than a birthday celebration; it was a tribute to our friendship. 

From Bubblegum to Butterflies

Last spring, I participated for the first time in the Everyday Class Notes (ECN) care package project and found it was a wonderful way to connect with current students, in more ways than one.

ECN is a Facebook group of Grinnell alumni of all ages who regularly communicate, celebrate, and sometimes commiserate our everyday lives after Grinnell. Since 2014, a subset of that group has provided care packages to current students as a way to support, encourage, and connect with them (usually in February to help alleviate midterm stress). Some alumni also team together to fund items or shipping costs or to do the shopping, packaging, gathering, delivering, distributing, etc. The packages are as diverse as our alumni community and might include snacks, sweets, games, activities, toiletries, winter gear, blankets, ethnic foods, gift cards, and more.

I included a letter with each of my packages, detailing my time at Grinnell (1989–1996), offering advice, sharing insights, telling stories, and including an invitation to look me up if they are ever in the greater Seattle area. Sometimes students write back, which is a delight in itself, but I got a special treat in October 2018 when Michi Soderberg ’21, who had received one of my Asian-themed packages, flew out during Grinnell’s fall break to visit a friend of hers who is a student at the University of Puget Sound. While her friend attended classes, I played tour guide and took Michi to Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market.

Since Michi hails from the upper Midwest, it was such a delight to introduce her to the sights, sounds, and even smells of the Pacific Northwest: salt water, seagulls, ferry boats, and the delicious smells of the market. We visited the infamous Bubblegum Alley (where tourists stick chewed bubblegum on the brick walls of a “hidden” back alley), watched fish vendors throwing fish (a very iconic market scene), and hiked down (and up) hundreds of stairs to the waterfront and back.

We also feasted our way from one end of the market to the other. We snacked on salmon jerky from the famous Pike Place Fish Market, salmon-filled pastries from Piroshky Piroshky (a Russian bakery), Greek yogurt from the corner market, cheese crackers from locally-famous Beecher Handmade Cheese, assorted chowders from the award-winning Pike Place Chowder, pumpkin cheesecake fudge from a local chocolatier, and sampled what Michi described as the best tea she’s ever had from a tea-tasting vendor called Vital-T-Leaf.  

 We also rode the Monorail to the Space Needle and the Butterfly Garden at the Pacific Science Center, and even made a side trip to Daiso (the Japanese dollar store), where I picked up a few things for the next round of care packages. Like me, Michi also is of Japanese heritage, so that was a treat for both of us.

The weather even cooperated. It was an unusually dense fog for most of the day, so Washington State’s iconic Mount Rainier wasn’t out, but the notorious Washington rain held off until we were done … and I didn’t even get lost navigating my way out of Seattle’s maze of crooked four-, five- and even six-way intersections and one-way streets.  

The best part, of course, was being able to share stories of Grinnell then and Grinnell now and realizing that even as Grinnell evolves, some things — like the ability of Grinnellians to connect with Grinnellians — remain the same

Music: A Language of Compassion

“They called themselves the Velvetones…like velvet,” said my mother, Catharine Herr Van Nostrand ’59, as she reminisced over her 1958 photo of my father, David Van Nostrand ’58, singing with Herbie Hancock ’60 and two other students at the piano. Dave was a biology major enthusiastically singing in vocal ensembles and listening to jazz LPs, and Herbie was spending every possible moment at the piano and studying jazz. Over the years, my family religiously listened to every new Herbie Hancock release with pride, but it took me half a lifetime to discover that the photo captures one of the most precious moments in our family’s lore.

A clue surfaced in 1989 when my boyfriend (now husband) Byron Ricks ’87 mentioned Dave to Herbie after a concert in Philadelphia. Herbie said, “Ah yes, Bun and Dave!” (my mother’s nickname was Bunny). 

More than 20 years later, Herbie performed at Seattle’s Paramount Theater. I contacted his agent with news of my father’s passing (November 2014) and was granted two backstage passes. When he saw my daughter Julia and me, he said again, “Ah, Bun and Dave!” Then I showed him the picture. “We were best friends,” he said. Though their paths had taken them in different directions — Dave had gone on to be a surgeon and humanitarian (and much more), and Herbie a 14-time Grammy Award winning jazz pianist, UNESCO Ambassador (and much more) — their Grinnell experience had created a lifelong bond.

Herbie was even more generous this past March (2018) when he told Byron, Julia, and me backstage in Seattle, “All you need to say is ‘Dave Van Nostrand,’ and you are in.” This turned me into a family ambassador. I expressed gratitude for the way his creativity continues to influence my family, and for his collaborations that bring people together around the world. In turn, he gave us his undivided attention on everything from my work in music to Julia’s electronic compositions. He impressed me with, “We had a group! What was the name of it again…something like the Mellotones?”

I finally asked my mother to reach deeper into her memory. “It seems there was a piano near the dining hall, and they would hang out at it and run through a few numbers, perhaps after waiting tables together,” she recalled. 

As the story goes, she transferred to the University of Iowa, and told Dave that she would accept his South Younker pin if he were serious — pinning being a symbol of true devotion. This gave Dave something to think about. Meanwhile, the romantic twist inspired Herbie to arrange a couple of songs for them. Upon a return visit, she recalls hearing the Velvetones harmonize on “How Can I Tell Her” by the Four Freshman, and an improvised number by Herbie which he introduced as, “This one is for Bun and Dave!” 

They were pinned, had a marriage that lasted 54 years, and three musical daughters, the oldest one being jazz pianist Laura Caviani.

This memory grew sweeter and more precious with time, the meaning crisper in retelling. It formed the foundation of a friendship that mattered — regardless of status, profession, or time. Herbie and Dave delighted in not only finding another fellow who could simply swing an eighth note, but in sharing the universal language of music, a strong and creative form of compassion for their unknown futures. 

Photo from left to right: Herbie Hancock ’60, Janice Pearson ’58, David Van Nostrand ’58, and (we think) Anne Moore ’59. Photo from the collection of Catharine Herr Van Nostrand ’59.



The Ice Rink Lesson

David Hagstrom ’57, who lives in Portland, Oregon, has received encouragement all his life; he now watches for each opportunity to encourage the deep desires of others.

Typical January temperatures in Fairbanks, Alaska, hover near 20 below zero. Some of my jogging friends would brave the cold and continue their pastime outdoors. I chose an alternative venue, a narrow track circling the Olympic-size hockey rink at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  

When the hockey team was practicing, my run was energized as I watched the puck careening at lightning speed back and forth across the rink. When the team was away, I still used the track for my fitness routine. And, on one occasion, such a quieter time presented me with a lesson that significantly changed my life.

One late afternoon, I noticed a university colleague of mine and his 8-year-old son in the middle of the immense rink. Peter was teaching his son, Andrew, how to ice skate. As I circumnavigated the rink time and time again, I noticed Peter’s calm and patient teaching style. 

While Andrew was in the locker room, I said to Peter, “I was so impressed with your way of being with Andrew out there on the ice. What’s your secret?”

“Andrew’s a kid who’s always struggled,” Peter said, “in school, and at home. So, early on, I just focused on what Andrew seemed to have a zeal for. Ever since he learned to walk, Andrew has been totally enthralled with hockey and skates. It’s his major delight. We attend all the university home games. And so, I’m trying my very best to help Andrew learn to ice skate. For some time now my motto has been ‘find out what he’s passionate about, then pour it on.’” 

Although born naturally positive — even optimistic — I’d not given much active thought to the practice of thoughtful encouragement. In subsequent conversations, Peter and I talked a good bit about what caring encouragement requires. It entails attentive and meticulous observation in the moment, a steady sense of inconspicuous watchfulness over time, and finally, asking honest questions and deep listening throughout. That’s what Peter and I came to believe. I believe it now, more strongly than ever. 

These days my thoughtful encouragement practice remains primarily focused on family, friends, and colleagues. And, over time I’ve come to understand that this way of being with them is not always that easy and straightforward. For instance, what’s to be my response to a person who constantly belittles other people in an effort to always be right or in control? 

During a recent social occasion, I observed John finding fault with each and every comment made by another person in the room. Toward the end of the evening, John approached me. I had watched for this opportunity all evening.  I asked him, “What are you yearning for in your life, John?” 

After a period of silence, he put his hand over his heart and offered a watery-eyed response: “I just want to find a small piece of land where I can live out my life in peace and quiet.  I’m not much good with people, but I’m okay on my own.” At that point we were interrupted, and he said, “Thanks, David, for listening and encouraging me.” 

Find out what they’re passionate about, then pour it on. It’s been 30 years since I first heard that jewel of wise instruction. I don’t know whether Andrew has gone on to be a hockey star. But I do know that I’ve learned to be a better encourager.


In Search of Tom Cole ’71

Grinnell has always impressed me by having few glitzy, headline-hogging alums. I’d like to think the College instead produces serious, hardworking leaders in all sorts of fields; the kind who do, rather than boast about doing. Among those, I include Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla, from the state’s 4th District, and a deputy majority whip. Several months ago, troubled by the state of our country, I wrote him a letter. 

June 14, 2017

Dear Tom Cole,

I have followed your career with interest, initially because you are a fellow Grinnellian and later because you sound like someone I could honestly disagree with and respect. I am so troubled by the direction our government seems to be heading in. It doesn’t take a genius to see that one day, possibly quite soon, you and members of your party will be faced with a choice between civic duty and political self-interest. You must sense this coming, too. I know the first rule of an officeholder is to get re-elected, but I urge you, should that occasion arise, to put patriotism before party loyalty. The institutions of our nation truly seem at risk. The president shows no respect or even understanding for our democratic system. If he starts acting in a way that you feel violates the precepts of government, that starts us down the road to some form of thinly-veiled dictatorship, I urge you to speak out. 

What can I offer in return? Dinner in Brooklyn, New York, should you ever be in the neighborhood. I’m a pretty fair cook. 

After Charlottesville, Va., I tried again:

August 17, 2017

Dear Representative Cole,

… What President Trump did this week, tacitly endorsing people who hate blacks and Jews, was a gut-punch to this American. I wish you and others in the Republican leadership (surely there must be some who truly care about their country, not just their position) would speak out. Forcefully. 

This is a test. You may not have asked to be put in this position but here you are. I think you know what your duty is. You don’t want to look back and feel that your silence contributed, however indirectly, to the kind of attacks and injustices your own racial heritage has made you all too familiar with. 

Then it occurred to me that he may not be seeing my letters. After all, I’m not a constituent. But I’ll bet Rep. Cole reads The Grinnell Magazine! So, ever the optimist, I fired up my laptop once more. 

Dear Tom Cole,

Have you seen the recent reports that President Trump is now calling into question the authenticity of the Access Hollywood video in which he makes those embarrassing and shameful remarks about groping women? “Maybe it’s not my voice,” he’s been telling people. 

Now, we both know it’s him on that footage. He admitted as much when it first surfaced. What we have is a president who is unable to accept the difference between truth and falsehood. Differences in ideology, in style, are one thing, but when the leader of our country loses his grip on reality, thinks he can make something true just by saying it, that’s another. Aren’t you worried for the safety of our nation? 

You’re an elected official. Don’t you think someone in government should be calling for the president’s mental health to be independently evaluated? It would be an extraordinary act, but these are extraordinary times. The man has almost unlimited power and seems dangerously out of touch with the concepts that form the foundations of civilized society. He may be ill. He literally may not understand what he is doing. And that’s dangerous.

Let’s talk. My dinner invite is still on.

Representative Cole is in a tough spot, but I have faith in him. He’s going to speak up, say out loud what his more timid colleagues all privately admit: that they are scared, that our leader seems to be deteriorating, that action must be taken. Whatever it costs in the short term, he’ll sleep better at night knowing he did the right thing. I’ll do my part. 

I'll make him a good meal.

I wonder if he’d like my vegetarian enchiladas…

On the Citrus

Richard Tillotson ’66 lives in Honolulu, where he worked for many years in advertising and now focuses on his own creative writing; his most recent novel is What You Will On Capitol Hill.

The summer of 1965 was one of those times when the powers that be decided too many immigrants were coming across the border and taking American jobs, so they closed it. They didn’t consider who was going to pick the fruit ripening in California’s citrus groves.

The growers put out a desperate call for anybody willing to live in remote barracks set in the middle of vast orchards and work 12 hours a day for pennies per basket of oranges picked. I and a few hundred other college kids on summer vacation answered the call. So did a number of recently released felons from the California prison system and a larger number of – suddenly illegal – workers from Mexico. 

The illegal immigrants were the only ones who were good enough at the job to make any money at it. The growers were very particular that their fruit had to be clipped at the very base of the stem. If any stem was left protruding from an orange, it was liable to puncture the other fruit in the basket. They issued everyone powerful metal clippers to do this right. While balancing up on a ladder, you were supposed to grab an orange with one hand and carefully clip the stem at its base with the other. It took me at least an hour to pick a basket of fruit this way, and my earnings were pitiful. But some of the Mexican workers were so skilled they could operate the clippers with one hand and simultaneously twist/pluck fruit off with the other using only a work-toughened thumbnail. Like jugglers, they could deftly toss oranges from both hands into burlap sacks that hung round their necks.

We didn’t have their example for long, however. One morning at our 5 a.m. breakfast, two members of the border patrol appeared at the entrance to the dining hall. Without a word being spoken, the Mexicans seemed to rise as one and disappeared out the back door and into the orchards.

Most of the men with no other job options seemed to have come either from prison or Los Angeles’ skid row. The one I remember best was a middle-aged black man named Eddie who had the bunk bed beneath mine. Eddie was a gentle and considerate man. He used to chuckle at my canvas duffle bag, which I’d lock at the top with a padlock through the metal clasp. Eddie would say, “If I wanted, I’d just take my razor and go in there through the bottom, but that lock’ll keep an honest man honest.” One evening as we were getting ready for lights-out, I set my wallet on my bunk in preparation for putting it under my pillow and sleeping on it. Another college kid called my name, and I took a few steps away to see what he wanted. Eddie came running after me shouting, “Don’t you ever leave your wallet on your bunk like that!” I’ll never know for sure why he was so angry at me, but after thinking it over for 50 years, I’ve reached this conclusion: In my naiveté and entitlement, I had tempted him. It would have been easy for him to scoop my wallet himself. Like the vanished Mexican workers, it would have just disappeared. He had good reason to be angry. 

I only lasted two weeks at that job, but my experiences were the source of an early short story, “On the Citrus,” which won the 1966 Steiner Short Story Award at Grinnell. That award confirmed my lifelong career choice as a creative writer. I remember next to nothing about the story, but I have vivid memories of my time on the citrus. It taught me a lot about the difficulty and dignity of manual labor and the camaraderie of men who have no options but to share it. 

A Growth Mindset

After graduating college, I spent a long time searching for the perfect job. Most important in my search was finding a job where I felt like part of a team that was pushing me to be the best I could be. Following months of interviewing, I found one I was willing to leap into. It seemed perfect. My bosses not only seemed to understand that I was looking for a mixture of personal and professional growth, but they actually seemed to encourage it.

Two months into the job, I started to notice the contrary. As I completed my more advanced duties, they were replaced with clerical work. I felt confused because I thought I was taking the challenges in stride and returning quality work. Soon thereafter, I noticed a shift in my attitude as any hope of my position delivering professional growth began to expire.

Four months in, I was finding myself incredibly irritable — not only at work but also in my personal life. When my boss asked me to make a personal dinner reservation for her, I questioned how I could have been so disillusioned initially to believe she ever valued my professional growth over her own needs. I politely told her I did not feel comfortable making such a reservation. She replied that I was expected to do anything she requested. I left that day without making the dinner reservation and immediately began looking for jobs elsewhere.

A week later, my boss called me into her office and fired me. I had never been one to fail at anything growing up, so I imagined getting fired would hurt. Instead, I felt immense relief that I wouldn’t be required to stay at a place that offered me nothing more than a paycheck. 

I left that night and sought out a temporary job while I continued my search for something more long-term. I took what I assumed to be a short-term position at a math learning center, Mathnasium, but by the end of my first day, I realized that something was fundamentally different with this job than my last. My boss genuinely cared about my well-being, and the higher-ups at the headquarters actively wanted to know how to improve their systems from those working within the centers. It became apparent to me that this was a position in which completing challenging tasks would return more complex problems to me to solve instead of any regression.

Sure enough, a little after a month in, I was asked if I’d like to continue my growth as a management trainee for the franchise headquarters. I jumped on the offer and began tackling any obstacle put in front of me, with the help of my bosses and the understanding that my failures were fine as long as I learned and continued to grow from them. This focus on a growth mindset wasn’t something I just felt in my core, but it was something stressed very often by those around me. It pushed me to work harder and gain more confidence in my skills.

Less than four months into my career at Mathnasium, I was given the opportunity to run my own center and manage a staff of wonderful people that I hope to continue challenging every day I work here. And that’s why I’m so glad my previous boss fired me. She wasn’t able to give me the one thing I wanted most: growth. I hope to use that experience to not only prioritize growth in my future opportunities but also to remember that my employees deserve the same.