Back Talk

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. 

Post-Polio Challenges Lie Ahead

As a 12-year-old polio victim in the early 1950s, I faced isolation, closed school doors, and bullying, including a common use of the circular motions recently used by the now president of the United States against a partially disabled writer. 

But there were good things. Friends gathered at my bedroom window after school. My school principal took me to shoot baskets on the school playground many weekends. A home-school teacher got me into loving history. Friends literally protected me from physical bullying. I had wonderful rehab personnel and stunned parents and family who did all they could to lovingly support me. 

My worst moment came in the hospital isolation ward. A girl my age was in the iron lung in the room across the hall. She and I would exchange waves, smiles, and the comic books nurses would read to her. Early one morning I could not hear her iron lung clattering away in depressing rhythm. Our nurse came in and said, “Bonnie is gone, Ron. She died at 3 a.m. I’m sure you made her last days pleasant.” After going home, I thought I would be done with polio.

Let’s leap forward to 2015. One of the residents of my late mom’s nursing home is exactly my age and had been a teacher and coach in the Worcester, Mass., schools. Bob is a big strapping guy hardly able to move his wheelchair. When I asked him why he was there, he said, “Post-polio syndrome. When I got it in my late fifties and started to go downhill, my wife couldn’t be of much help. Soon I had to be here. How did you escape?” 

Given research on the subject, my only explanation could be luck. My doctor tells me I have outlived normal startup points — further proof there are some advantages to being older. So many of us do not take advantage of the health care available to us, avoiding preventive care and necessary treatments for “hidden” conditions. I was reminded further of this when I recently talked to a polio victim. She had never heard of post-polio syndrome and had no symptoms.

Post-polio syndrome (PPS) is a relatively common condition that affects polio survivors years or decades after recovery from an initial acute polio virus attack. It’s characterized mainly by new and unexpected weakening both in muscles that were previously affected by the polio infection and in others that seemingly were unaffected — a condition that cannot be reversed as effects inevitably worsen. 

In my case it would mean that though I had total paralysis in a lower leg as a child with polio, 40 years later I could lose the use of upper-body functions — arm and shoulder weakness often being the first signs of PPS along with fatigue, sleeplessness, and new breathing problems. Evidence suggests that many doctors do not know about PPS. None of my doctors have ever raised the issue with me. Like so many health conditions, this is one requires self-maintenance and, for victims, support nets. 

The numbers are huge. There has been a major decline in polio cases, from an estimated 350,000 cases per year in the late 1980s to 74 reported cases in 2015. But the World Health Association reports that there are 12 million people who live with the effects of polio, 1 million of them being in the United States. Data I’ve seen suggests between 20 percent and 50 percent of these victims will suffer from PPS, a large number of people who will need help. 

Millions of people worldwide may be PPS victims, often in the prime of life, and often in addition to lifetime paralysis. Bottom line: If you had polio, there is a substantial chance you will have PPS and need to prepare yourself and your family. 

Here are some pertinent resources: and Mayo Clinic’s post-polio syndrome site:  

Conversing With Art

Art is a language. Artists communicate with us through color, form, subject, scale, texture, movement, and symbols. We all know how to “read” this language, if we stop and engage with the art. While many of us believe we can’t understand art, I’ve found that we are usually selling ourselves short. Instead, we can be intimidated by dense verbal discussions of art that leap beyond what is before us to complex interpretations and inferences. If we use our eyes and look closely at the work created, we can understand a great deal of the visual language. 

Lesley Wright

Think of a visit to an art museum as a conversation. Walk into a room and decide whom you would like to talk with (which work of art). What questions do you want to ask? What does the art tell you in return? What are its friends and neighbors telling you? Do they get along? 

Curators and exhibition designers (should) present exhibitions so that conversation comes naturally: conversation with the visitor and conversations among the works of art. The very best exhibitions that I visit, no matter how difficult or abstract the art, are ones where I can see that everything is there for a reason. Every piece has a relationship to others, sparks new ideas as I move through the space, or gives me a reason to look again at something I missed before. Being in the room excites my interest, and I want to grasp the argument made by the curator.  

The art on view is the end point in a long process of curating and creating an exhibition. For every presentation of art, someone had to make an inspired series of decisions to generate the conversation we have with the art. Showing art by culture, by chronology, by theme, or by color are all choices, not self-evident schemes.

How do we select the art and exhibitions we bring to Faulconer Gallery? That, too, is a conversation among curators and museum staff, and with artists, faculty, other museums and organizations who specialize in sharing exhibitions with museums. Sometimes we go out and create an entirely new exhibition, born of an idea in a curator’s mind. Sometimes we look for existing exhibitions planned at another museum and available to us. Weaving together these opportunities builds a stimulating exhibition program. Most of our exhibitions come together in about two years, but more complex or highly desirable shows can be in development for three years or more. Sometimes we seize an opportunity and bring a project to the gallery is about six months. 

Faulconer Gallery presents eight to 12 exhibitions a year, large and small. A powerful exhibition might have six works of art or more than 100. What matters most is great art and strong core ideas that can be shared visually with the public. Daniel Strong, associate director and curator of exhibitions, might work with a single artist on a project created just for Grinnell. Kay Wilson, curator of the collection, may develop an exhibition of prints from the collection in concert with a few faculty members. I may curate an exhibition about art in the Midwest with the Center for Prairie Studies. Or one of us might leap at an opportunity to curate an exhibition that beats with the pulse of contemporary art created elsewhere in the world. 

Exhibitions developed in partnership with others make the conversations in the gallery richer, informed by perspectives honed in other disciplines. Our programming makes some of these discussions available to our audience. Whether we pay to bring an exhibition to our walls or to build out a new idea ourselves, we seek a connection with our campus and community. Through the art we bring to Grinnell and our abundant programming, we hope you can join the conversation.

Lesley Wright has been director of Faulconer Gallery since 1999.

From Egypt to Iowa

I recently became a U.S. citizen; and the day I took my oath, I voted in my first presidential election.

I am an American by choice. More than 17 years ago, I arrived in the Midwest, a young graduate student looking forward to studying in an inclusive vibrant classroom where men and women equally participated in class discussion. For me, the Midwest was fascinating. Unlike the weather, people were nice and warm. I adjusted really well and became part of the community. I excelled academically, took part in interfaith discussion groups, volunteered in organizations working with the disabled people and was welcomed in the homes of my host families during the holidays. I was embraced and accepted, and I reciprocated and gave back.

Mervat Youssef

I chose to be an American. After graduating from the University of Iowa, I landed a job at Grinnell College. I earned it. I have worked hard, participated in educating hundreds of young men and women, obeyed the law, contributed to the economy, and paid my fair share of taxes. I was very happy to stay in the state I now call home. I chose to be an Iowan.

On Nov. 9, Donald Trump became president-elect despite losing the popular vote. My vote was not as valuable as some others. The electoral system in the United States does not guarantee that all votes are equal. Thus, although the majority of Americans did not vote for a candidate as divisive as Trump is, he is now president-elect. 

Following his populist rhetoric, I had anticipated the election outcome. It was my reaction that I had not anticipated. Donald Trump said he will be a president for all Americans, and he should. However, his administration choices, especially that of chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who is a white nationalist, is indicative of anything but being a president for all Americans. This is expected of Trump. What is not expected, however, is the deafening silence Trump’s choices received from fellow Americans who voted for him. I am yet to know of a single person who identifies as a Trump supporter who publicly voiced concerns about Bannon’s prospective appointment.

I chose to be American and I chose to be Iowan, but as I see many of my fellow Iowans stand silent before Trump’s choices, I find myself wondering if the smiles I see everywhere belong to hearts that no longer want me here. This is exactly how alienation happens.

My oath ceremony experience was a heartwarming one. In a room filled with diverse faces of those who are soon-to-be fellow Americans, a video of American people and places appeared on a large screen. Among them were Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I have a dream” speech inspired generations, and the Lincoln Memorial, where he delivered it. “America the Beautiful” played in the background. I looked at the faces of my soon-to-be fellow Americans and those on the screen, including President Lincoln’s face carved into Mount Rushmore. The America we chose to be citizens of and pledged allegiance to looked both diverse and inclusive. This is what I will hang on to. This is what I will always see. 

First-Year Classes Go Abroad

This past spring, I and 14 fellow first-year students enrolled in a semester-long course of a lifetime. Origins of Liberal Education marked one of two pilot courses* in what I hope will become a long line of Global Learning Program (GLP) tutorials. The GLP tutorials aim to connect first-year students to the global community through the fusion of a semester-long class and course-embedded travel experiences. The program was made possible by the generous support of Trustee Susan Holden McCurry ’71 and the Roland and Ruby Holden Foundation.

Led by our two professors, Aysha Pollnitz, newly named assistant professor of history at Rice University, and Mirzam Perez, associate professor of Spanish, our class of fresh-faced first-years logged more than three weeks and 7,500 miles of unforgettable globe-trotting. 

Through our travels, we experienced the topic of our course firsthand. Suddenly, the concepts we dicussed in class, which addressed how liberal education has shaped cultural, political, religious, and economic life, became tangible objects and experiences. 

The Origin of Liberal Education tutorial group gathers in front of the University of Salamanca

Our travels began during Grinnell’s spring break, when we abandoned our cozy classroom and headed across the Atlantic, straight to the cobbled streets of Rome. For two weeks, we scoured the limits of Spain and Italy, frequenting museums, architectural wonders, and historical sites — not to mention the occasional gelato stand (or two). 

In Padua, Italy, we stood on the ground level of the world’s first anatomical theatre, where live dissections were once taught, and reclined in the same sala magna where Galileo Galilei once hosted his astronomy lectures. In Florence, we gazed up at the smooth curvatures of Michelangelo’s “David” and gazed down at the city’s skyline from the top of Brunelleschi’s perfect Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. 

The second portion of our travels spilled over into the first week and a half of summer vacation. Our class ventured to Mexico City, where we toured the the remains of Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city, and reveled in the beauty of Frida Kahlo’s studio at La Casa Azul. 

Four students ham it up in a leap on the top of the pyramid

With each new city and each new adventure, we saw a different part of our course come to life. At the University of Padua, we saw how the tenets of the liberal arts shaped the growth of one of Europe’s oldest universities. At the top of the Duomo, we observed how Brunelleschi’s interdisciplinary approach to architecture influenced his innovative design. And, from the steps of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, we witnessed the role education played in the development of one of Mexico’s oldest cities. 

As a class, we were fueled by genuine excitement — an excitement that only grew stronger with each new experience and each new academic connection. 

Megan Tcheng

Even today, long after I unpacked my suitcase and stored away my passport, I still feel a genuine, reverberating excitement. The Global Learning Program tutorial has shifted the way I view my education at Grinnell. It has made me consider the impact of ancient histories and foreign cultures. It has made me question the roots of my own experience. And, above all else, it has made me undeniably excited for my next three years at Grinnell.

From Secular to Chassidic Judaism

Becoming a Chassidic observant Jew was the furthest thing from my game plan as a free-spirited, liberal-minded Grinnellian back in the ’80s. I loved walking barefoot around campus, diving deep into philosophical discussions at the Forum, and hanging out underground at the Pub Friday nights. Here, in the middle of the vast cornfields of Iowa, lay fertile ground for an adventurous and meaningful life. Meeting people from across the globe, taking classes about any and every subject under the sun, and having professors who cared to give time and attention to each student was such a gift. My young mind opened to questions and controversies, always focused on making the world a better place.

After graduating, I moved to Berkeley, Calif., where I received a letter (life before the Internet) from my College boyfriend, David Feldman ’90, who was visiting Israel. He spoke about miracles, G-d, eating kosher, and learning from ancient texts. My once-partner in liberal-secularism had taken an unexpected detour — he was embracing religious Judaism.

Since I had never heard of a secular Jew becoming an observant Jew, I brought the letter to a rabbi that I found in the Yellow Pages. He told me that David was in a cult and advised that I go to Israel and get him out, as he was being brainwashed. Wow. That threw me for a loop — hopefully it wasn’t too late.

I boarded a plane for Israel, armed with a slew of antireligious books, feminist books, evolution books — whatever I could read and carry, I brought. When I met up with David, he already wore the traditional knotted fringes (tzitzits), covered his head with a kipa (yarmulke), and donned black boxes called tefillin every day. He was learning traditional Judaism based on an educational movement started by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to increase Judaic knowledge and practice among Jews worldwide.

Upon lengthy discussions with David, I realized that it was not a cult that he was following, but the ways of his ancestors, a tradition of strict laws carried down for centuries.

I enrolled in classes myself and spent my days and nights learning and arguing the authenticity of the Torah (Old Testament) with my teachers, rabbis and rebbetzins — as female teachers are called. My experience at Grinnell taught me how to meet intellectual challenges head on, with courage and open-mindedness. While the concepts were foreign to me as a secular-minded individual, I was open enough to explore the possibilities of this significant spiritual reality. It was such a paradigm shift that it was a several-year transformative journey.

Today, David and I are married and living in Chicago as committed Lubavitch Chassidim (a mystically minded form of traditional Judaism). As much as this faith-based, traditional path differs from the liberal path that I walked at Grinnell, I still consider myself a Grinnellian. I lead an adventurous life raising six children and engage in deep, philosophical discussions around our guest-laden Sabbath meals. Although I’m not dressed in the same clothes that I wore on campus, preferring a head covering and modest clothes instead, my Grinnell values have never waned. From Grinnell I learned the importance of making the world a better place, doing acts of kindness, and living life true to one’s values. These core traits I carry with me on my journey through life.