As soon as I learned to read, I was never without a book. Often the characters were just as real to me as my siblings. When my father took me and my cousins out on forced-march hikes to some middle-of-nowhere place in rural South Dakota, I invented elaborate families, lives, and conversations for these characters. Due to my wild imagination, my cousins dubbed me “that kid.”
Aside from my own imaginary stories, I remember sitting around the oak kitchen table at my home, listening to my father tell the story (for the 15th time) of how he climbed the Matterhorn in Switzerland as a 20-year-old college kid. His guide drank an entire bottle of wine on the way up. I can still hear my mother tell me about the boy she beat the tar out of in elementary school because he stole her jacks. Bedtime at my house was usually enforced — except when my Aunt Marge was over yakking about the latest drama at her vet clinic, or when my older brother Frank was home from his most recent crazy endeavor in the Marine Corps. When there were stories to be swapped, I was allowed to stay up as long as I wanted, listening.
Having been saturated with storytelling as a child, an English major seemed a logical choice for me at Grinnell. It would allow me to read and discuss stories while I did my homework. But I was happy to discover that stories weren’t relegated only to the academic sphere. Nowadays, I hear less about my father’s ability to blow smoke out his eyes and more about the friends I have made in the larger Grinnell community.
I met most of these people at a wonderful event called Community Meal, which takes place every Tuesday at Davis Elementary School. Sponsored by the chaplain’s office, along with community and student groups, the Community Meal brings people together to cook a free meal available to anyone who wants to come. Usually, about 100 people show up. Last week’s menu consisted of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, grilled cheese, assorted cookies, lemonade, and milk.
I would never call the skills I’ve acquired at Community Meal “culinary.” For while I am now able to chop many, many onions, open numerous cans of fruit cocktail, and make 12 boxes of Betty Crocker brownie mix, I spend most of the meal talking and listening to the stories people tell me about their lives. While we sit at folding lunch tables under bad fluorescent lighting, surrounded by colorful crayon artwork, I tell community members about the French exam I have on Friday and how I don’t think I will ever truly understand the subjunctive tense. In exchange, Dave will tell me stories about his time in Germany during World War II. Later, I will move to a different table and sit in on Erlene and Rose-Marie’s reoccurring and rather heated discussion about George Bush and Wal-Mart. Moving yet again, I will sit down next to a 95-year-old retired minister who sings me songs and tells me about his long-ago trips to Israel and Palestine.
As a result of these conversations, when I am sitting on the park bench in front of Wells Fargo or getting tea at Saints Rest, I feel less like a student from out of town and more like a part of the community at large. Grinnell, the school, is intense in many wonderful ways, and there is no point in denying that it can be stressful. That is the way of college. But it has been crucial to my perspective and my sanity to remember that a five- to seven-page paper pales in importance to a good story about someone’s life.
Sarah Boyer '08 is an English major from Rapid City, South Dakota.