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Grinnell traditions I miss: National pipe cleaner day

Every institution of higher education has traditions [1]. To students, it may seem like the traditions always existed. However, traditions come and go [2,4]. Sometimes that’s good. For example, there are cross-country traditions at Grinnell that clearly needed to disappear [5]. But sometimes traditions that I really love seem to disappear for no clear reason. Let’s consider one of them.

Back when I was a young faculty member [6], one day each year [7] was designated National Pipe Cleaner Day. No, it’s not a real holiday. It’s just a day in which SGA [8] would buy what seemed like tens of thousands of pipe cleaners [9] in various colors and place them in public areas around campus: The mail room [10], the Forum Grill [12,17], Cowles and Quad [18], and others I forget. Students would then use the pipe cleaners to make interesting crafts [19]. In addition to pipe-cleaner creatures and flowers, you’d see a variety of headgear and other accessories [20].

I really loved National Pipe Cleaner day. It was a day in which the campus was clearly filled with joy and creativity. Yes, Grinnell always has some joy and creativity. It was just more extensive on National Pipe Cleaner Day. I appreciated seeing not only the creations of incredibly talented students, but also the attempts of people, like myself, who were less talented at pipe-cleaner crafts but still enjoyed making things.

And then, one year, it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen the next year either. After a few years, I asked someone in SGA. I think the response I first got was Yeah, it was a great event. We’re looking at how to revive it. But it never got revived. I think that no one was left who had seen just what a wonderful day it was [21]. I believe I was also told that it created a lot of extra work for our custodial staff. But I’d hope that we could find ways to moderate that.

Once in a while, I’ve done the next best thing. I pick a time toward the end of the semester, and I buy a few thousand pipe cleaners for the students in my classes. I tell the story of National Pipe Cleaner Day. I warn the students not to make extra work for our custodial staff. I turn them loose. And I get to see a small fraction of what the original day was. It’s not the same, but perhaps it suffices.

When my summer research students were attempting to clean my lab this summer, they found one of the stashes of pipe cleaners. If someone reminds me during week thirteen, I’ll pull them out for another Noyce Third Pipe Cleaner Day. Before then, I may even reflect on some other traditions I miss, such as the Doug Cutchins You Can Do It parade. There’s even one associated with the Cross-Country Team. Stay tuned.

[1] Hmmm. Do I really want to state that as an absolute? Maybe not. Institutions of higher education have traditions? Most institutions of higher education have traditions? Every institution with which I have been associated has traditions? I’ll just leave it as is.

[2] At Grinnell, TenTen is less than twenty years old [3] and the Mary B James party clearly does not predate the naming of that residence hall (and probably does not even predate the 1970s).

[3] Perhaps appropriately.

[4] Kuviasungnerk, one of the modern UChicago traditions, started while I was an undergraduate. When it started, I believe I convinced a significant number of people that Kuviasungnerk was an Icelandic word for Winter festival of the summer flowers.

[5] No, I won’t put in writing which ones those are.

[6] More accurately, back when I was new at Grinnell. I was in my early 30’s, so I don’t think I could have been considered young, even for a faculty member.

[7] Or perhaps one day each semester.

[8] SGA is Grinnell’s Student Government Association.

[9] I’m pretty sure they were still called pipe cleaners then. These days, people seem to refer to them as Chenille Stems.

[10] The one under Carnegie. I’m still trying to get some of the mailboxes from that room. I’ve been asking for a decade [11]. I’m told it’s at least two more years until they get rid of them.

[11] Yes, I still have the email from a decade ago in which I asked for the mailboxes, and responses from at least two different administrators.

[12] Before Joe’s Quarter [14] was built, the Forum was the student center. And yes, we had big cookies. I’m told they were better then [15].

[14] The Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center, for the uninitiated.

[15] I don’t know that I ever had a big cookie in the Forum Grill. I’m also not sure that I’ve had one in the Spencer Grill [16].

[16] Or Grille, as people sometimes spell it.

[17] Or Grille, as people sometimes spell it.

[18] You may think of Cowles as the place where Grinnell has apartments upon which President Kington imposes rules. However, it used to be one of our dining halls.

[19] I was tempted to call them artworks. But if I did so, I’m pretty sure that Matt Kluber would be unhappy with me.

[20] Pipe-cleaner flowers are one of those accessories, often worn in the hair.

[21] Or perhaps I’m the only one who found it so wonderful.

Version 1.0 of 2018-01-20.