Back Talk

We Came, We Swam, We Conquered.

What do the Adirondacks, a poem by Yeats, and six members of the Grinnell College men’s and women’s swim team of the late 1970s, have in common?

Plenty. On Aug. 20, 2022, the U.S. Masters Swimming Open Water Championships were held at Lake George, in Hague, New York. Grinnell alums John Chambers ’77, Chris Corton ’79, Margo Wessner Knuepfer ’79, Margo A. Calvetti ’80, Greg Gomez ’80, and Bob Lewis ’80 gathered to compete in their respective distances. In an Airbnb procured by “Captain Bob,” we prepped sumptuous meals with recipes and prepared foods brought by Myriam Fernandez de Heredia, Kim Spencer, and Cydney “Cyd” Morel, wives of John, Greg, and Chris. A playlist of the best albums and pub songs of the 1970s blasted as we ate and reacquainted ourselves.

A winding, 45-minute drive on race morning served as a soothing balm on our frayed nerves. White clapboard homes, antique boutiques, and fish and tackle shops dotted the timeless landscape. Lake George, nestled into the backdrop of the majestic Adirondack Mountains, is an unspoiled, quintessential American vacationland. Its calm, pristine shoreline belied the fury of the 400 competitors yet to unfold. There was no turning back as we approached registration for our placements and markings.

The two Margos (affectionately known as “Sr.” and “Jr.”), Chris, and Bob each competed in the out-and-back 2.5-kilometer swim. John and Greg, veteran open water swimmers, competed in the 10k U.S. Masters National Championship Swim. For the nonmetric community, that is a 1.5-mile and 6.2-mile distance, or as Greg noted, “a hell of a long way.” Clamoring for the finish, we each exited the water and shakily ran to cheering teammates and supporters. It was a grueling race, and we were all happy just to finish.

To our delight and surprise, we all placed! One by one our names were called up over the loudspeakers and we were handed mugs and medals for top three age group and overall standings. Chris exclaimed, “We killed it.” The two Margos, former Grinnell team co-captains, happily hugged each other and remembered how 40-plus years ago we swam twice that distance in two-a-day practices. It was noted that the strength of the morning’s coffee and yoga class Cyd led the day before added to the precision of our stroke turnover and chop. “Captain Bob” discussed plans for next year’s swim, and John, now a three-time USMC national champion, proudly declared “honor and glory awaits those who dare.”

That night our ever-ebullient teammate, Charlie Wibiralske ’80, arrived with son Dave. Pierced by peals of laughter, our conversations recounted decades-old swim team antics. We thoughtfully remembered those that had passed or were dealing with health issues. John, an English major, entertained us with a full-throated reading of “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. It was noted that Greg’s sculpture, “Broken English,” installed outside the Humanities and Social Studies Center on campus, was inspired by Yeats’ poem. The poem, filled with foreboding and uncertainty, captured the chaotic essence of our day’s event.

However, for the Grinnell alums and partners, the worst was not to come. Our time together brought out the best in ourselves and in each other. Past friendships were renewed, and plans are in the works for more open water events and gatherings. Four decades have passed since we gave it our all at the campus pool. Now future age-group championships await.

In the spirit of Julius Caesar’s victorious veni, vidi, vici, “We came, we swam, we conquered.” 

Too Interested in Too Much

Marshall Poe ’84When I got to Grinnell in 1980, I immediately recognized a problem: I wanted to take all the classes. Back then, there was a printed catalog and only a printed catalog. I looked through it and said, “I want to take that, and I want to take that; I want to take that …” and pretty soon I had decided I wanted to take 11 classes in my first semester. I went with my list to Darby Gym, where all the departments had tables set up. I think I talked to all the profs at every table. I needed to decide what to take; you could only take four classes. This Darby adventure didn’t help. After talking to the profs, I wanted to take 20 classes.

Eventually, with a heavy heart, I decided on four. But then I learned something wonderful: I could audit classes. When I got to Grinnell, I didn’t know what “audit” meant. But I learned that I could, as a student, just sit and listen to smart people talk about smart stuff. That’s exactly what I wanted to do! No muss, no fuss, no tests, no papers! I love auditing classes and did it a lot during my four years at Grinnell.

Of course, after a bit, I had to pick a major. That was hard, so I picked two. I probably would have picked three if I could have. I took more classes in my majors than I did in other things, but there were a lot of other things. Honestly, I really liked the other things because I felt a bit constrained by even two majors. And then there was auditing!

Then I had to decide on a career. This meant making further hard choices, as it meant more specialization. I wanted to be a history professor. What sort of history did I want to study and teach? Well, all of it, of course. My adviser, a historian, told me this was not possible; nobody gets into graduate school saying they want to study “all history.” So I picked one kind — Russian, as it happened.

And I became a Russian historian and a Russian history professor. But I always thought of myself as a “historian,” full stop. Even more than that, I thought of myself as someone who was too interested in too much. I was just a curious person, and Grinnell did much to encourage that curiosity.

After a couple decades of being a Russian historian, I felt a bit uneasy. I thought “Well, I think I know everything I want to know about Russian history.” So what to do? Thinking back on my Grinnell experience, I thought, “How can I get a job where I get to learn about everything — that is, take 20 classes in one semester?” There was no obvious answer.

But I had an idea, one I got from going from table to table in Darby Gym: What if I talked to professors about their books, recorded the conversations, and then published them as podcasts? This was in 2007, so podcasting was a new thing. So I did that. Then a remarkable thing happened: Other people like me said they wanted to interview professors about their books. I knew how to set them up, so I set them up. The New Books Network was born. Today, the NBN has 800 hosts, publishes 60 or so interviews with professors a week, and reaches about a million listeners a month. These curious listeners, I think, are just like me trying to decide what classes to take. They can’t decide, so they take them all. They are too interested in too much.

Marshall Poe ’84 is a former Russian history professor, former editor at The Atlantic, and now the editor of the New Books Network. He spends his time trying to decide which episodes to listen to and not succeeding.

When a Name Becomes a Person

After the protracted process of attaining a visa and an itinerary amid the pandemic, I arrived on campus in early 2021. At the end of the school year, I was concerned about leaving the United States for the summer and asked my academic adviser, Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, about research opportunities. “Dr. B,” as she is called, was interested in the undergraduate experiences of Edith Renfrow Smith, Grinnell’s first Black woman graduate and at 107 the College’s oldest living alumnus. She asked me if I’d like to work with her. I said yes.

This was my first time doing archival research. To gather biographical information about Smith, I examined transcripts of previous interviews Smith had given, a thin archival folder labeled with her name, and old Grinnell College catalogs and yearbooks.

Edith Renfrow Smith was born in Grinnell, Iowa, on July 14, 1914. Her grandparents were born into slavery, and her parents were among the early African Americans who made Grinnell their home. She was the fifth of six children and the youngest of the four girls.

She studied in Grinnell all her life; she attended the local grade schools before enrolling in Grinnell College in 1933. As an undergraduate, she majored in psychology and minored in history and economics. She also participated in many sports including field hockey, basketball, and tennikoit, a form of ring tennis.

After graduating from Grinnell College, she worked in Chicago at the YWCA and eventually became a public school teacher.

My research also included the history of Grinnell, both the College and the town, and the role African Americans have played in it. Although the town touts its abolitionist roots, including being a stop on the underground railroad, the experiences of most Black residents have often been difficult. After high school, most Blacks — including Smith’s siblings — left for better job and social opportunities.

In all this material, what has intrigued me is her persistent loyalty to and ceaseless love for Grinnell, the town and the College. I began to comprehend what makes Grinnell special for her when Dr. B. and I had the honor of visiting Smith at her home in the Bethany Retirement Community in Chicago in June 2021.

As we walked into her apartment, Smith greeted us warmly. She was wearing a sky-blue blouse with yellow butterflies and cream-colored slacks. One of the first comments Smith made to us was: “Grinnell was home.” This statement was a simple one yet carried profound and dense meaning. I’ve come to realize that Grinnell was home to her because of the memories she cherished and the connections she forged.

Smith grew up seeing her mother host weekend meals for the few Black male Grinnellians who studied on campus in the 1920s. As a high school student, she attended concerts at the College and she was part of the Campfire Girls, a group led by Laetitia Conard, a member of the College’s faculty. When she was in college, the education department chair, Milton Wittler, and his wife kept a room for her at their house so that she would not have to walk two miles back home during the winter.

She calls Grinnell a “wonderful place.” Since graduating, she has visited Grinnell regularly. She chooses to call the town home despite not being allowed to get a proper seat at the movies for years. She chooses to praise the College despite having been the only Black student on campus during her four years. Loving Grinnell, the town and the College, was a choice she made, regardless of the treatment she and her family received.

Smith developed such a mentality largely due to her mother, Eva Craig Renfrow. She grew up hearing her mom say, “No one is better than you.” She recalls, “My mama told me you may not have many clothes, you may not be pretty, but you got it up here. If you have it up here, nobody can take it away.” Indeed, all the Renfrow children completed college.

As Smith continued to share these stories, I reflected on my own upbringing in Ethiopia. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to attend college. My mother helped me with my homework until all my textbooks were written in English, a language she can’t speak. 

I still remember the day I came home with a math word problem in English. Terrified of going to school with incomplete homework, I stayed up late trying to solve the problem myself while my mother patiently sat next to me. She brought me a blanket and warm milk, and she told me, “Whether you get the answer or not, don’t lose faith in yourself.” 

At the end of my summer research, Edith Renfrow Smith is more than just a name I recall. She embodies the Grinnellian I aspire to be: compassionate, kind, humble, self-confident, dedicated, and inspiring. 

A Day Without Humor Is a Day Well-Stressed

About 10 years ago, George Drake ’56 said tutorial topics should be fun, a comment that stuck and caused me to choose psychology of humor for the topic of my seventh tutorial in 2015. I knew very little about humor, as it rarely appears in textbooks for introductory psychology or my field, cognitive psychology. I quickly learned that research in the humor field was growing and producing abundant fruit — research on how we detect humor, how we appreciate its various forms, and how important humor is to our health, relationships, and quality of life. Chris Johnson ’89 talked me into writing an undergraduate textbook, published in 2019. The research shows humor is more than fun and games.

Humor is a complex, multidimensional process that can be parsed into cognitive, social, emotional, and motor components. Because multiple areas distributed across the brain are needed to process and integrate these components, impairments or changes to our sense of humor can be diagnostic of brain difficulties or damage. Laughing because we comprehend and appreciate humor helps to maintain a healthy brain by activating a complex neural network that detects and resolves double meanings of the literal and humorous; uses schemas and social norms to form expectations; interprets contexts or situations and surprising punchlines; empathizes and represents others’ perspectives; and generates mirth and amusement, resulting in smiles and laughter. Humor’s ambiguity strengthens our working memory and social skills which manage that thin, often-crossed, line between funny and offensive.

Laughter and humor are healthy coping mechanisms that ease our response to stress. We take ourselves or the stressful situation less seriously when we laugh. Lightening up also frees up cognitive resources to problem-solve. Thus, laughter and humor help to regulate our emotions, increasing happiness, decreasing anxiety, or distracting attention away from stress; and problem-solve, affording energy (and gaining advice of friends who laugh with us) to decide what to do about the stressor. Oxygen flowing with laughter is good for brain and brawn, releasing psychological and physical tension. Activation of the laughter network helps us physically to handle prolonged stress, reducing cortisol’s wear and tear on our organs and boosting our immune system for resilience. Laughter and humor strengthen social connections. Giggles and laughter seldom happen when alone. Infants’ laughter acts as an external sign of their pleasure, strengthening bonds with caregivers. Later, it acts as an external sign of sharing an appreciation of the situation and enjoying attitudes and expressions of others. Laughter reduces threats and rewards working together. When others see someone laugh at their own mistakes, everyone relaxes and maintains proactive, rather than defensive, behavior. Even humor that demeans others might cause a similar effect, because aggressive humor frequently functions as play and not as aggression.

Humor is play, a break from reality, but it is informed by our world beliefs. Cultures around the world value humor, but not everyone finds the same thing funny. Some cultures have a low tolerance for ambiguity and prefer predictable punchlines, but many Americans prefer unpredictable ones. Some cultures hold a suspicion of laughter. Some cultures find irony funny whereas others feel insulted (e.g., “If your wife is making you late, then perhaps you should divorce her”). Most cultures believe men are funnier than women; evolutionary psychologists explain that men produce and women appreciate humor to advertise their cognitive and social competency for passing on strong genes. Data show our genes contribute both to our personality and to our sense of humor.

Humor is a character strength, a virtue. Humor and laughter produce positive emotions that encourage flourishing and feelings of belonging. A sense of humor enhances well-being, life satisfaction, and meaning for our lives. It correlates with curiosity, love of learning, hope, and wisdom. It also correlates with creativity and fluent thinking, needed for flexible thinking and decision-making.

You can improve your sense of humor and increase your frequency of laughter to gain its many benefits:

  • Surround yourself (even virtually) with funny people and funny events; watch comedies, listen to funny podcasts, and read comic strips.
  • Look for funny things as you go about your day.
  • Try to produce humor; we tend to get funnier with more attempts.
  • Do laughter yoga, a mindful way to laugh on purpose. Perhaps start by faking the laugh (hee hee, ha ha) until it gets so ridiculous that you genuinely laugh. Listen to others laugh, and your motor cortex will activate your laughter network.
  • Combine thoughts of a stressor and humor, thereby diminishing the negative feelings of the stressor. For example, with COVID-19, many of us were dismayed that we stayed inside the house more than the trash (insert laughter here), or as we watched the American divide to be or not to be social distancing or getting the vaccine, we could joke that COVID-19 spread is caused by a) populations being dense and b) populations being dense.
  • Adopt a playful attitude, allowing silliness now and then to be OK, and respect the powerful role humor plays in our adult lives.

In addition to her studies on the psychology of humor, Professor Janet M. Gibson’s research as a cognitive psychologist focuses on executive functions and on implicit memory (the influence of past experience that facilitates or biases current performance in the absence of conscious recollection). She explores these areas in the context of aging and problem-solving. She has served as a Grinnell faculty member for more than 30 years.

An Education in Letters

The trunk had sat locked in various basements for well over 25 years. It was one of two trunks I’d used to ship my belongings to Grinnell back in August 1971, and it still had my name and the Grinnell College address painted in green letters on the outside.

Last year my wife and I sold the house where we’d lived for two decades and downsized to a condo. While cleaning out the basement, I came across my old trunk. When I finally pried the lock open with a small crowbar, I discovered a different sort of treasure than what I’d imagined; the trunk was full of letters. Some were in shoeboxes, others in manila envelopes, and a few in batches held together by aging rubber bands. The letters covered several decades of my life, including my time at Grinnell, junior year abroad at Durham University in England, my graduate school years in Minneapolis, and my first 20 years or so in the Boston area.

My first response to seeing all these letters was to feel overwhelmed, and I had a momentary impulse to throw them away. But when I plucked one of them at random and read about what a Grinnell friend was doing the summer between sophomore and junior years, I knew I couldn’t get rid of them without reading them first. Instead, I transferred them to a large box and moved them to our condo.

A couple of months ago, I located that box and began working my way through the letters, one batch at a time. The letters that interested me the most, I soon realized, were those from Grinnell friends and acquaintances. Those coming-of-age college years have a profound impact on people’s development, and I had formed a particularly strong bond with a small group of college friends.

“No one will ever open a trunk in a basement and find a cache of emails.”

What struck me first was the sheer number of letters in the box. We wrote each other constantly: during summer vacations, winter breaks, and even short spring breaks. And after we’d graduated from Grinnell, we kept writing on a regular basis for decades.

The length of our letters also amazed me. They often consisted of four to six pages of small print, sometimes more. We had clearly spent many hours of our lives writing these letters.

Reading letters from my Grinnell friends stirred many memories — of people I barely remembered and events I’d long forgotten. And the experience was often as painful as it was pleasurable. We had our fair share of unhealthy relationships and bad choices, the reminders of which were sometimes difficult to relive.

We also displayed some of the pretentiousness and self-righteousness that are often features of that age period. But beneath the occasional posturing, I observed something more admirable taking place: an attempt to sort out who we were and where our passions lay. And as the Grinnell years gave way to the post-Grinnell years, I saw something else happening in these letters. I watched my friends forge their lives, recover from false steps, figure out careers, find long-term partners, start families, face down serious illnesses, suffer painful losses, and keep going through it all.

By the time the 1990s rolled around, the once steady stream of letters had slowed to a trickle. And when my core group of Grinnell friends arranged to attend our 25th Reunion in the year 2000, letters were fast giving way to emails. That makes me sad to think about now. No one will ever open a trunk in a basement and find a cache of emails.

As I read through my letters, I began to separate them into piles. Then I put each of these piles into a large manila envelope and sent them all off in the mail. I wanted to share with my Grinnell friends a window into their younger selves: to show them where they’d come from and remind them they had not made the journey alone.

Peter Guthrie ’75 majored in English and history at Grinnell and then received a master’s degree in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. After teaching English for six years, he eventually returned to graduate school and received a master’s in clinical social work from Simmons College. He worked as a psychotherapist at Wheaton College in Massachusetts for 18 years and now maintains a private practice in the greater Boston area.

Stories of Good in the World

Sally Campbell Galman ’96, a professor of child and family studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has earned significant acclaim for her arts-based social science research. This spring, her “Look for the Helpers” series of cartoons that ran in her hometown newspaper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, has brought her sharp insights to a wider audience.

Read also:

  • Visit her website, or
  • Follow her on Instagram at @sallyanncampbell.

Campbell Galman’s newspaper cartoons are a familiar sight for many Grinnellians. Her popular comic, “Stating the Obvious,” ran in The Scarlet & Black for years. It was published as a 1996 book collection, titled Obviously, the proceeds from which were used to purchase new outdoor play equipment for the College preschool. Cartoons even played a role in her admission to Grinnell: “I sent cartoons in lieu of college essays,” she says.

The three cartoons here are excerpted from the larger “Helpers” series, which has attracted worldwide attention. Campbell Galman says it is gratifying to see that the work is resonating. “Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that we are obligated to share our courage with others, even if we ourselves feel fear,” she says. “I put out there the reassurance I would want to see.”

Helper's Mr. Rodgers cartoon

Helpers Music cartoon

Helper's Chickadee cartoon

How Place Anchors Memory

Neither of my daughters considered attending Grinnell. Its distance from Honolulu wasn’t the reason, as both ventured even farther for college. So it came as a surprise when the older one, Hana, who lives and works in Boston, suggested we attend my 40th reunion together.

I’d not planned to make the trip, distance being one factor. Another was a fear that what memories I had would be sullied by the realities of 2019 — the needs to rely heavily on nostalgia and to discuss medical procedures with my classmates. But Hana’s offer to join me in Iowa provided the opportunities for two reunions, and proved too good to ignore.
If Hana has a bucket list, I suspect it didn’t include rural Iowa. She’d likely heard enough about Grinnell growing up.

Paul Migliorato (right) and Hana on rural roadMy flight to Des Moines arrived a bit earlier than hers, giving me time to stop at the Friedrichs Coffee stand in the airport. The sign indicated the business had been around since 1903, the year the Wright Brothers first flew. When the woman behind the counter called me “hon,” I realized there was something special about the place.

The bus ride with a group of reunion attendees, none from my era but all happy to converse, gave us a sense of how much spring flooding there had been. It also initiated a flood of place-related memories.

Although I’d understood how place shapes experience, I wasn’t ready for how much place also anchors memory. Certain scenes and even sounds and smells brought back memories from decades back. A train horn early the first morning felt familiar and soothing to me; it jarred awake Hana, who was sure it was a tornado warning.

Jet lag convinced me to get up early and walk about the campus and town, triggering more memories. There was so much I hadn’t thought about in decades but recalled so clearly: a once-controversial sculpture on Central Campus, a dorm basement where I’d reluctantly done laundry, the Louis Sullivan bank building where I’d created my first checking account. The list grew as I walked. The place that is Grinnell did so much to make the interactions that defined my experience there.

The place we went that was probably the most informative and thrilling was the Conard Environmental Research Area, a reconstructed prairie and field station. The tour/hike was among the best things we did, even though it meant skipping a class photo. The prairie shaped and made possible what became Grinnell College.

I realized, perhaps for the first time, that a good deal of what I took away from my years in college went beyond the events and opportunities described in an admissions brochure. A large part of Grinnell was the peripheral experiences the physical place made possible. They remain possible all these years later.

There is a social aspect to this, too. Returning to Grinnell, made more pleasant by having a daughter as buffer and part of many conversations, meant interacting with people I hadn’t known while a student. Because we shared the geography that was Grinnell, we shared a past that had become our present during the reunion, allowing us to behave and feel like old friends. It was as reassuring as the “hon” that greeted us a few more times during the weekend.

While each Grinnell graduate’s experience is unique, I felt the fundamental kindness of Grinnell and the people it attracts. And an optimism.

It was a joy to see Hana interact with the people I knew would be there, from returning classmates to Grinnell faculty and residents. If the weekend was scripted, we largely ignored the instructions, bouncing between people, places, and memories. It couldn’t have been any more enjoyable or exciting. Inviting my younger flyover daughter, Saki, to join me at the 45th reunion now seems like a fine idea.

After studying in Japan his junior year, Paul Migliorato ’79 returned there for grad school and worked in finance. He and his family lived in Japan for 25 years before moving to Honolulu in 2003.

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?