Miss Spoken: College YearsSep 24, 2014
Thanks to an invite from Rosamund Lannin, I got to share my college alumni "cult's" origin story at this month's Miss Spoken reading.
Watch the video and/or read the text below.
HOW TO START A CULT
Every year, cherry pick the oddest of oddball high school seniors. That one? The one who was really frickin’ brilliant, but can’t tie their own shoes. Yes. That one.
Throw these wunderkinds into the middle of nowhere. A campus the size of two square blocks. Just a chunk bigger than ONE floor of the Merchandise Mart. Okay, that might be all right in the middle of a vibrant, bustling city. No, surround that 120 acres with cornfields. Many, many cornfields.
Give these smart cookies a heinous workload. During my time, we were purported to have the second hardest workload behind MIT. Asking how someone was was not answered with a mood, but with a to-do list.
"Hey Brandy, how are you doing?"
"Well, Brandy, I have a twenty-page paper due tomorrow, 200 pages to read by Monday and that scale model to construct out of foamcore and tears for my scene design class."
Now, this breaks the mold of cult building. Instead of one leader, make every goddamned smartypants their own boss. Couple it with an emphasis on inquiry and critical thinking. This model creates a rabidly antiauthoritarian student body.
But works pretty darn well. Every so often a coed would fall hard, like barely surviving alcohol poisoning. More often there was a social safety net, like the strong buddy system when people were tripping on acid.
This generally resulted in a four year journey:
You are away from home for the first time, untethered, but still fairly timid. You get stupid, but you’re still an amateur.
You delve into professional levels of stupidity. You fall down a rabbit hole of alcohol or an insane courseload with a perfectionist streak or the very seductive drug of love with a fellow overthinker. A crisis of your own making arises and you get through it by the skin of your teeth. You snap to.
The one year you are truly present and in college. You have declared a major. You study it.
You are older, wiser and counting down the days til you are done and can leave the teeny, tiny campus.
You now have a Bachelors Degree from the best school no one has ever heard of.
I went to Grinnell.
No, not CORNELL.
GRINNELL. In Grinnell, Iowa.
When someone asks where I went to school, I get the following responses:
7 out of 10 people?
2 out of 10 people, at least here in the Midwest.
“Oh...” That knowing sound that means I must be smart and/or really friggin’ hard working.
The 10th person –
“Oh. You’re one of those people.”
That 10th person has encountered the Grinnell Cult. Or as my friend Pat Jurgaitus, who just married Jim Thaxton ’96, has named it The Grinnell Vortex.
We’re a cult.
Because we were bonded for life from isolation and 4 years of academic hazing.
We had been through battles of impossible professors and brutal winters and countless hours of studying, reading, writing.
And epic procrastination hanging out in dorm hallways.
Somehow we each won the war of our own self doubt, perfectionism and course completion.
January, in the throes of the Polar Vortex, my friend, Heather Farber Lau, up in Minnesota, wrote a Facebook post. She asked if anyone else found the Class Notes in our alumni magazine demotivating? Instead of curing cancer or winning a Pulitzer, she wanted to see an update like “Heather Farber Lau ’96 ate a pie and a pint of ice cream in one sitting.”
There was an avalanche of response. It struck a nerve and people rapidly added their updates. Mine was, “Brandy Agerbeck ’96 is thrilled to be fed and vertical by 9:00 am. Still bathrobed, she’s hoping to solve the medical mystery of this crushing fatigue and is optimistic she will come out of this depression.”
The next day, Donna H. Lohmaier ’96 started a closed group called Everyday Class Notes. Within a few weeks, it had grown to a few thousand people, double the size of student body. Our class was the top of the bell curve with most of the members between 35 and 45.
ECN had three waves:
The original format of a class note for the alumni magazine written in arch third-person about an everyday trial or tribulation. An early favorite -
“Upon removing cornbread from the loaf pan and giving the pan a careful inspection, Emily Langerak '01 decided that the pan was clean enough to put directly back into the cupboard, thereby saving herself at least 10 seconds of dishwashing. She then spent 10 minutes composing a post about the event for ECN.”
To which Jefferson replies, “Did you wipe it down at least?”
Emily shoots back, “Are you my mother?”
They ranged from the silly like
“Kendra Hillman Chilcoat '94 figured out where that smell was coming from.”
to a heartbreaking note where a woman ponders how she and her husband will tell her stepdaughter her dad has cancer.
In the second wave, ECN stood for Extreme College Nostalgia. Favorite dining hall food. Favorite professor. Favorite campus band. This is my least favorite phase because 4 years of four hours of sleep a night resulted in Extreme College Amnesia.
Someone asks what dorms you lived in. We are reminded that even though the campus was this big -- 🤏-- there was a North/South campus divide. The jocks lived North, the freaks South.
We put our differences aside and remembered our Grinnell bond, forged in the fire of the academic rigeur and tempered by the freezing sleet that could whip across a wintery campus.
Ryann Cheung ’93 asked, “What if we sent every current student a surprise care package?”
Within 3 weeks, 300 of us shipped 1500 packages in time for Valentine’s Day and midterms. Many of us wrote letters of encouragement, about life post-Grinnell and the strength of our lifelong community.
From candid posts about illness, adoption, debt, parenting, grief, joy, smells of many kinds, we realized that our group had been through EVERY LIVING THING.
In this third wave, folks regularly consult the ECN Hive Mind. One woman asks if she should attend a coworker’s wedding who she suspects is in an actual cult. Of COURSE she should. And we demand live updates.
Within the first month, Scott Wittsruck ’93 said if there an ECN logo he would get it tattooed on his body. An image immediately flashed in my mind and in 5 minutes, I posted a sketch. Two months after that, I joined three men in Grinnell to watch them each get the tattoo on their shoulders.
In May, I attended Reunion with my new ECN sister Karin Sederstrom Wertheim ‘90. Joanne Sackett ‘90, a total track rockstar, picked us up in Iowa City. At first impression, I feared we had little in common, since I was built for comfort, not speed. She showed that trademark Grinnell generosity by going far out of her way to bring us to campus. On our car ride, we discovered we both had been art majors under the iron fist of printmaking professor Crowley. I felt a massive comfort in commiserating with someone who shared this very rare and totally isolating experience. Later that weekend, we confessed how cathartic our conversation had been for each of us.
One day, James Rechs ‘97 said
“Post a pic of yourself this evening. And do it here…. because just because. Don't over think it. Don't sugar coat yourself either.”
Seeing the unsugarcoated faces of our fellow ECNizens was amazing. Stealth pictures taken in boring meetings or on public transit, snaps shot cuddling with the kids, donut runs and long waits for government bureaucracy, perhaps a much needed drink in hand, or showing off one’s rack in a favorite shirt.
It really brought home that we are all human beings. Along side each other. Just getting through. We are facing our lives with humor and classic Grinnellian overthinking. And because we each survived the same gauntlet, I now know I have 3600 people who have my back.
Life is hard.
We had a shared agreement not to make it harder in this online space.
We spontaneously created a safe place to share pretty much anything.
We dropped the artifice we usually build around our private experiences to create a public face.
At age 20, I was striving, struggling at a top notch college. You have all your grand ideas of what the future will bring, some shining ambition. We all shared that tiny campus four ultra-intense years.
Then we scattered across the world.
20 years later, one post invited us to reconnect. The bonds of the Grinnell experience, our shared character still held true.
We form a most vulgar chorus when someone gets the horrible news or loses a loved one and needs to yell, “FUCK CANCER.”
We can completely nerd out sharing a virtual taco night.
We share the tiny triumphs, the ongoing struggles and plenty of plain ol’ mundane.
Brandy Agerbeck ’96 stands on stage at Miss Spoken sharing how powerful a single post can be and the beauty of all those thoughtful, candid, generous, silly and strong members of the Grinnell Cult.