Both of my grandpas were farmers. They held other jobs in their lives, did other work with their hands, but in their hearts they were always farmers.
By the time I came along they were no longer working 40 acres with a mule and a plow, but they both had gardens, wonderful gardens. Maybe there was something about rising out of bed before the sun came up, or smelling the dirt in a freshly plowed ground, or seeing a red, ripe tomato hanging on a vine, but until the end of their lives they loved to pull on their overalls, put on their caps, pick up their hoes and plant themselves into those gardens among the vegetables, fruits and land.
“Being a farmer takes lots of hard work and lots of humility,” both of my grandpas told me at one time or another as I followed them down the rows. “It takes lots of hard work because each morning from spring ‘til fall you rise before the sun, walk the rows with seeds, hoes, and buckets in your hands, plant those seeds, hoe the weeds, and fill the buckets with tomatoes and squash and green beans and strawberries. You plant, hoe and pick until the sweat from your body mixes with the dirt and you become a part of the garden itself.”
They were farmer poets, my grandpas were, some of the last of those wonderful farmer poets who walked the farms and fields of the South.
“And it takes lots of humility because no matter how hard you work, you can’t make the brilliant green bud pop through the deep brown dirt; you can’t make the bright flower fold into a baby tomato; you can’t make the rain fall to help the corn grow.
Nope, when you close your eyes to the day, you can only know that you have given as much of your heart, mind, soul and body as you can to the ground, and that you have received the produce as a gift.”
As I rise before the sun and make my way toward my elementary school I often think of their lives and their words. Like being a farmer, being a teacher takes lots of hard work and lots of humility, too.
I remember how hard I worked with a 10-year-old kid named James. He was in the fourth grade but could read only 20 words correctly per minute on a second-grade level. He was growing up in a desperately poor household. As Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund reminds us, his economic poverty made him less healthy and less likely to graduate from high school than his non-poor peers. He had a tough row to hoe.
He could neither read well nor write a complete sentence. He could, however, tell a story. He was a natural-born storyteller. He often met me at my classroom door with twinkling eyes and a beaming smile. “Mr. Barton,” he would say, “let me tell you what happened to me yesterday.” He would tell those stories with wonderful expressions, exciting verbs and colorful adjectives. “You should have seen me in my football game! I nuked a player this way... I jostled a player that way... and I left the rest of the team behind like I was a lightning bolt!”
At the end of the school year, after I had poured all of my knowledge and teaching abilities into him to help him become the best reader and writer he could become, he wrote this poem:
Anger is red and black,
It smells like gunpowder,
It tastes like bullets,
It sounds like a shot,
It feels like a sharp knife,
It lives in fear
I took his poem back to my classroom. I closed the door and sat facing the window that looked out over the grounds that provide so much order and safety in a world full of chaos and danger for the children we teach. I wept for the hardness of our work as teachers, I wept for the hardness of our students’ lives, I wept for the beauty of watching a child learn to read and write, I wept for the beauty in James’ heart.
But just as I remember the hardness of my work as a teacher, I remember the humility I felt because of a 10-year-old kid named Alexia. Like so many of my students, she speaks Spanish at home and English at school. She is a beautiful, wonderful, ingenious immigrant child.
She knows that I am trying to become a genius about whales this year. My whole school knows I am studying them and writing about them. I am even nerdily wearing Vineyard Vines shirts to school each day because they have whales on them. Because she knows this, she drew and colored a picture of a blue whale for me. It is breathtakingly beautiful. I am framing it so I can keep it and show it forever.
I was sitting at her table, working with her group, and she told me, “Mr. Barton, you said one day that you can’t hear as well as you used to hear. Well, if you ever lose your hearing, then I can sign for you.” I said, “Really? Do you have someone who is deaf in your family?” She answered, “No, but I wanted to learn so I taught myself on YouTube.” Then she signed for me.
And I smile for the humility of our work as teachers, I smile for the gifts our students bring to us, I smile for the whale Alexia created for me, I smile for my grandpas, for they were right – when I close my eyes to the day, I can only know that I have given as much of my heart, mind, soul and body as I can to the ground, and that I have received the produce as a gift.
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