The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Little College on the Prairie


“You’re not even in Des Moines, right? So you’re in the middle of nowhere?”

When that frustrating question inevitably comes, it’s easy to mention the friendly people, the excitement of presidential campaigns or the quality education that Grinnell provides, but the reason I came to Grinnell started much, much earlier than that. It began with Laura Ingall Wilder’s’ “Little House on the Prairie” novels, a romantic recollection of childhood and life in the upper Midwest during the 1870s and 1880s.

For a little boy growing up in the mall-lined suburbs, there was nothing more beautiful to me than gathering honey or catching fish out of small streams to feed your family. Heart swollen with admiration, I did my best to imitate Laura and Pa; joyously eating sticky amber sap from different redwood trees at the playground while pretending it was honey, (bad idea — too many questions from teachers) or whacking a long stick at a pile of rocks, pretending I was pulling up fish left and right (also a bad idea — many more questions from teachers). There was nothing I couldn’t do without imagination; I scared away bears and conquered long cold winters, even in the sunny and tame foothills of the San Francisco Bay Area.

As I grew older, my admiration for Laura Ingalls morphed into Calvin of “Calvin and Hobbes fame,” then Harry Potter and later protagonists like Huckleberry Finn and Ned Stark. I still fished though and developed a serious, yet short-lived, interest in falconry, but the limitations of suburbia gradually eroded my memory of the little house on the prairie. When college applications began, I had to seriously consider where I would go for the next four years, which many said would be “the best four years of my life.”

I knew a few specifications I had right off the bat; I wanted to go to a small, liberal arts school that wasn’t in California. I also learned from prospective student tours that I didn’t want to go to school on either coast, as I reasoned that I would likely spend plenty of time near a beach after graduation.

And then I visited Grinnell, the “Jewel of the Prairie.” Just like that, the happily nostalgic memories of childhood came flooding back; Laura and Ma and Pa dealing with all sorts of hardships and mishaps, but ultimately pulling through with grit, warmth and the American spirit. Grinnell had all that; the spirit of the Pioneer, of settling into the great unknown, though I do not mean to ignore the problematic nature of the notion of the “uncharted frontier.”

And I loved it, every single minute of that visit. I wanted to live on the prairie and to hear the stories of farmers who have lived here all their lives and folks who were just passing through Iowa like the Ingalls did all those years ago. Where others saw nothing but cornfields, I saw the deer and turkey-covered foothills that I had dreamt of marching through as a young boy, gun in hand, boots in the snow, foraging for my family.

During that visit and throughout the past four years, there has been no shortage of amazing professors, fishing buddies and incredible families who treat me like one of their own. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve never lacked for opportunity to live out the outdoorsy dreams of yesteryear at this little college on the prairie.

In this column, I’d like to take you on a whimsical tour of the highs and lows of every year I’ve had at Grinnell, on what I’ve learned about myself both inside and outside the classroom. It will be a figurative and literal tour of heart and heartland. The same spirit Laura Ingalls evoked with her words inspires it, and I hope that in some small way, I can give back as much as I’ve received.

“As you read my stories of long ago, I hope you will remember that things truly worthwhile, and that will give you happiness, are the same now as they were then. It is not the things you have that make you happy. It is love and kindness and helping each other and just plain being good.”

-Laura Ingalls Wilder

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