The Scarlet & Black

The Independent Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Ya Dig?: Star signs and liberal enclaves

What do you do when your grandmother begins yodeling outside of a grocery store? This was the sort of question I asked myself often at the preciously insecure age of 13. All I wanted was a small and soft-spoken grandmother that smelled of roses and would slip me sugar cookies with moisturized hands. Her name would be Granzee. My real grandmother’s name is Ruth, but we call her Oma. Oma likes to yodel, and she will do it in public. I don’t know if the yodeling stems from her Bavarian roots or the fact that one of her favorite CDs for car rides is entitled “Yodeling from the Foothills of West Virginia.” It was in West Virginia, actually, while camping, that my grandmother threw a water bottle at me in reaction to one of my asinine comments. Anyway, our hypothetical sweet Granzee would have been equally upset, but would have done nothing. Well, maybe she would have burnt the batch of cookies on purpose next time around, but really that’s it. Oma, on the other hand, never held back on lecturing and molding us grandchildren. She would tell us in her thick German accent to “ask more questions,” “get off our phones” and, my favorite, to “have at least a basic knowledge of our star signs.”

As I got older my mother admitted that she too used to be deathly embarrassed to be seen in public with Oma. “There was that one time she had a little too many afternoon beers and got up and started dancing like crazy at the Folk Festival,” my mother once told me. “No one else was dancing and I just sat there mortified.” My grandmother loved to dance when everyone else was too shy (like Granzee, for example, she would clap and would be so, so close to being on beat that you had to give her some credit), especially when she was in Germany day drinking with her relatives.

As I got older I learned to embrace the very things about my grandmother that used to make me want to cover my prepubescent face with a freshly purchased Abercrombie sweatshirt. I learned to embrace how she openly took issue with things she found to be problematic. I appreciated her exuberance for dance, conversation and life itself, whether or not her behavior aligned with social norms.

When around non-Grinnellians, I am quick to make fun of Grinnell before anyone else can. I know that Grinnell is eccentric and, just like my grandmother, some people won’t understand what makes Grinnell beautiful and important. Explaining Grinnell, defending it, these are things we all learn to do. Last summer in a car speeding across the flat farmland of Mississippi, I remember talking with some fellow interns. We were discussing marriage and I was arguing something critical. It wasn’t anything radical by our standards; perhaps I was saying marriage is an institution with other (capitalist, heteronormative) goals besides uniting blissful lovers. I don’t remember what specifically. What I do remember is that I was dismissed with, “Well, you just go to school in a hippy enclave.”

At first this statement offended me. But I didn’t want to fuel the fire of the stereotype they had just pinned me as: of the opinionated and overly socially aware liberal arts student. I just laughed and let it go: “Yeah, you’re right.” I stared out of the window in silent brooding. “Are we an enclave?” I wondered as we passed a “Be thankful, your parents chose life” billboard. Grinnell is not so different from other institutes of higher learning, I reassured myself. But then I thought harder. While I think it is dangerous and sometimes untrue to think of Grinnell as not American, or not like “all the other colleges,” I do think there is a degree of truth in the statement. An enclave is somewhere, possessing a culture and identity that is the minority within a larger and separate state. I know everyone has had that moment when you try to explain how gender-neutral bathrooms just really are not even a big deal at Grinnell. I am proud of Grinnell and I think most Grinnellians would agree that, when you say, “Oh yeah, Grinnell is super weird, like we do the weirdest stuff,” internally your chest swells just a little. We say weird, but we mean a lot more.

We love our quirky grandmothers, just as we love Grinnell. I’m going to try to never talk differently when I’m behind their back than when I’m in their presence. As a teenager I did not defend my grandmother to my friends. Yet I do now, recently explaining to a friend that “Yes, she once performed mouth to mouth resuscitation with a duck on the side of the road.” Similarly, the next time I find myself around people who dismiss what I have to say just because I go to Grinnell, I will proudly defend our “hippy enclave.” Just because Grinnell and my grandmother stick out in a crowd is no reason for them to be dismissed for inadequate reasons. (Now if you want to make fun of how Grinnellians who are oh-so-socially aware still manage to be too embarrassed to talk to their FM employee or leave their trays in the dining hall to be cleaned up by others … be my guest.)

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