MY FRIENDS CAN READ IT FOR FREE. (Excerpt #4 from The Harvest of Reason). John was strictly businesslike later in the afternoon when he came to borrow Maddie’s notes. She was sitting at her desk… READ MORE

(if you’re here for the first time look at the previous excerpts in earlier posts)

John was strictly businesslike later in the afternoon when he came to borrow Maddie’s notes. She was sitting at her desk and had to look up at him.

“Here they are.” She handed him the neat binder.

“Okay,” he said, “I’ll run down to the copy shop and have these back to you in an hour.”

“Oh, no hurry,” she said, “Our next class isn’t till Wednesday, and I’ve already reviewed them, anyway.”

And she’s organized, too. Watch it John. You’re staring again.

She reached for a pen and started twirling it around in her fingers. “How…how come you missed the first two weeks of the term, anyway?” she asked.

“Oh, I was down in Puerto Rico.” John leaned against the bookshelf. “That’s where Dr. Pinkerton grows all the F2 populations for the beet breeding project. I had to supervise the harvest.”

“Sounds interesting. How was it?” she asked.

“Oh, lots of sun,” John murmured, recalling backbreaking hours of labor in the midday heat.

Her eyes seemed to be avoiding contact. “Well, just put the notes on my desk when you’re done with them,” she said.

“Okay, thanks.” John felt he’d been dismissed.

Back at his desk, he was impressed with the caliber of her notes. Even, rounded handwriting, very neat. But what he admired was their content: she hadn’t missed much. He wondered if the fact that their graduate student office was almost clinically clean had anything to do with her presence there. The bookshelves were lined with neat rows of reprints and journals. The coffee maker on the counter had sugar and creamer, and stirrers, for God’s sake! Each of the six desks had some semblance of order to it. And somebody had put a collection of African violets on the windowsill.

He would have been happier to discover that she was somewhat stupid and incompetent, so as to lessen an impulsive attraction that could complicate his life. He did not need any distractions before his prelims.

Prelims…That dreaded rite of passage anyone seeking official admission to doctoral candidacy had to pass. The three-hour exam, which was conducted orally by five professors, involved a review of all knowledge pertinent to the field of Plant Breeding and Genetics. He would be grilled on everything he’d studied since kindergarten. Graduate students usually took their prelims after completing all of their coursework, and they studied for months beforehand. He would have to study while at the same time taking classes, practically running Dr. Pinkerton’s project single-handed, and conducting his own research. Nope, he really didn’t want any distractions.

The door swung open and Pete walked in and threw down his backpack. “Hey, John. Did you meet her? Did you meet the goddess?” he asked. John frowned at the overloud voice.

Glancing at the open door he answered quietly, “You mean Maddie Hawkins? Yeah, I met her. I’m looking over her notes right now.”

“Oh, wow!” Pete came to look over his shoulder. “I wouldn’t mind looking over her notes myself. I wouldn’t mind that at all.” He lowered his insinuating voice, “Hey, John! Did you notice those…” His hands looked like they were weighing two large grapefruits.

John felt the hairs on the back of his neck rising. “All right, all right, Pete, that’s enough.” Why wouldn’t he drop it?

“Hey, just because she’s… you know… doesn’t make me blind. In fact,” he grinned, then went on , “they say that they have double the umph, these hoochie coochie mamas.”

“Jesus!” John nearly catapulted from his seat to shut the door to the grad office. “Look, man, keep your voice down,” he nearly growled. “Better yet, keep your thoughts to yourself!”

Pete put up his palms, as if he were being unfairly chastised. “Okay, okay,” he said.

They both turned back to their own desks. John found he was violently angry. He had heard racial slurs all his life. He’d never much liked them; for the most part he just let them go by. But hearing them leveled at the girl he’d just met somehow disturbed him. She had seemed so wholesome, almost pure, in contrast with Pete’s horny garbage. He cursed his luck at having to share a crowded office with four other students, at least one of whom was an obvious moron.


Maddie, Lisa, and several other female graduate students were seated halfway down the auditorium, waiting for the weekly Plant Breeding seminar to begin. The orange seats were not quite comfortable, at least not if you wanted to take a nap. It was the third Friday of the semester, and Maddie was happy her own presentation was scheduled for November, so she would have enough time to prepare.

“God, I still can’t get used to the idea of graduate students having to give these seminars,” she told Lisa.

“How come?”

“At my old school it was the professors who gave the plant breeding seminars. Students were mostly spectators. Unless they were really self-confident.”

There could be no hiding here. She would have to stand up in front of everybody and expose her thoughts. The turnout for these seminars included everyone from the head of the department down to the technicians.

Looking up toward the front of the auditorium, she saw John Pitts standing near the overhead projector, talking in a relaxed manner to Dr. Castle, the seminar coordinator. She realized from his tie and sports coat that he must be giving today’s seminar.

She turned to Lisa. “Is John Pitts the one giving today’s seminar?”

“Looks like it.”

She frowned. “Why? He just got back, didn’t he?”

“Well, probably because all the later dates were taken.”

Poor guy, he really must have had to scramble to get ready. “It doesn’t seem fair,” she murmured.

“Oh pooh! This is nothing to John,” Lisa said.

Maddie’s eyes found their way back to John. He didn’t appear to her to be nervous. Slowly, Maddie became aware of tittering among her companions.

“Yeah, sure, I’m interested in the topic…” Savannah said, snickering.

“Right, Savannah, you came just to hear about his Beta vulgaris[i].”

“Honey, I’d go and listen to him talk about Drosophila[ii] if he did it in those jeans.”

More snickering. Jean piped in, “You think he’ll turn around and give us a good view?”

“View of what?”

“Shh…” More laughter.

“Quit talking about him like he’s a sex object,” Lisa said, good naturedly.

Maddie’s eyes had gone wide; she was embarrassed to realize that she wasn’t the only one affected by his good looks. She was just like everyone else! The only thing that set her apart was that she hid it better. At least, she hoped she did.

When John was introduced, Maddie watched mesmerized as he came forward, laser pointer in hand, and proceeded to deliver an almost flawless presentation. His topic was not the most naturally fascinating. In lesser hands, she was sure it would have been boring. But his fluid presentation incorporated a thorough review of the literature and the pertinent current research. Interwoven was his practical experience of the sugar beet crop, gleaned from years of dedicated work. Forgetting her previous train of thought, Maddie became engrossed in his world. She was conscious of really learning. Not only did this guy move like a dream, he had the makings of an excellent teacher.

During the question-and-answer period Maddie noticed that the professors asking questions treated John almost like a colleague. No kid gloves, but hard-hitting questions. What was the prognosis for breaking the Hawaiian yield record? Dr. Janski had asked. What was the status of Monsanto’s nutrient uptake studies? Dr. Gates wanted to know. These were very broad, scary questions. He answered them as if he already were a full-fledged breeder. As they rose to leave the auditorium, Maddie hoped that when her turn came, she would carry it off half as well as John Pitts.

[i] Beta vulgaris – scientific name for beets.

[ii] Drosophila – the common fruit fly.




I’m really interested in your comments. So leave a comment.

DISCUSSION QUESTION 4:  How often do people let racial slurs go by unchallenged?



About rheaharmsen

Rhea Harmsen is a scientist, novelist and author of Language of the Spirit, a volume of selected poems. She has also released three novels, The Harvest of Reason, Intermarry, and God Created Women. Harmsen was born in a family with a black father and a white mother at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some states. Her parents gave her a vision of world citizenship that informs her writing and her lifestyle and has caused her to reject traditional views of race and gender. Harmsen's article "Science in the Hands of Women: Present Barriers, Future Promise" appeared in World Order in 1998 and provides the foundation for the story line for her novel The Harvest of Reason. She co-published the Monroeville Race Unity Forum Bulletin and authored many poems on racial topics, crystallizing the "conversation on race" in the novel Intermarry. Her work with domestic violence survivors in Puerto Rico inspired the novel God Created Women. Harmsen holds a doctorate in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently resides in Puerto Rico. Upcomming projects are described in her web page at
This entry was posted in agriculture, biracial, college students, genetic engineering, genetics, interracial marriage, John Pitts, Maddie Hawkins, plant breeding, race on campus, Uncategorized, University of Wisconsin-Madison, women in science and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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