Tractors Drive Themselves: One Man’s Return to the Farm
2012 Column Contest Winner
Matthew James called his bank the other day. A woman answered and said, “Well hi, Matt. How’s your mom been?” This is both comforting and disconcerting. That is his life now. After 15 years away, a writer returns to the corn farm where he grew up and the small-town life that most of America left behind. He might be the only person with tickets to see Louis C.K. in San Francisco who doesn’t know how he’s getting there. And by “there,” he means an airport.
Teach the Kids Good.
Sometimes you have to make important life decisions with eyelash quickness and none is more dire or immediate than, What kind of substitute teacher should I be?
You could, for instance, be the moment-in-the-sun substitute teacher. You could grab the classroom key, the one on the rope, put it around your neck and scream at anyone or anything that moves. You could be the rabid flight attendant measuring seat back angles with a protractor and saving lives by crushing iPhones with her heel. You could take every disappointment you’ve ever had, in work and school and love, and blast it through a fire hose at unsuspecting teenagers like they were protesting in Alabama in the ’60s. No talking. No laughing. No smiling. No, you cannot go to your locker. No, you may not have a Kleenex. No, you can’t go to the bathroom. There will be no passes of any kind issued for any thing, including but not limited to, diabetic seizures, erupting appendices and heart murmurs. Showed up 2 seconds after the bell? Go to the office. Listening to music? Go to the office. Back-talked with your eyes? Office. Now.
I did not go this route, of course, because one of my thousands of flaws is a crippling need to be liked. You are probably saying, Wait, didn’t you give up a life as a transient but lovable journalist and move back to Kansas to work on the family farm? Isn’t that why we’re all here, reading this nonsense? Why would you be subbing? What about spending time with your frail parents who are truthfully not frail at all and your meadow-fresh baby nephew who as it turns out, often smells like a feedlot explosion?
Don’t worry, I am still a farmer. Perhaps in the way Paris Hilton is an actress, but it counts. A bona fide member of the Farm Actors Guild. (There’s an acronym that probably won’t catch on.) In the last eight months, I have driven loaded semi trucks (slightly terrifying), sliced iron with a cutting torch (moderately terrifying), fired a rifle for the first time since I was a kid (entirely terrifying), and guided a tractor through fields with only the slight help of satellite radio and satellite steering. Oh yes, that fabulous GPS really does take the wheel. If a carpenter had the equivalent, it would pre-cut all the boards to exact lengths.
When Dodge’s “God Made a Farmer” truck commercial came on during the Super Bowl, with the cow standing in that snowy field by herself, and the late Paul Harvey saying into the silence, “And on the eighth day…,” well, it was about me. Paul Harvey’s voice, that amazing voice that for so many years gave Midwesterners “The Rest of the Story,” that voice that could quiet a preschool at snack time, that voice was talking about me.
But while I’m gaining agricultural skills, I fear I’m losing the artsy ones I’ve been grinding into rudimentary tools over the last decade. I dropped speech class twice in college because of anxiety. I’ve written several stand-up routines, taken them to open-mic nights in Minneapolis and central California, and never been able to get up. It’s slowly gotten better through the years, talking at rotary and optimist clubs, but that awful burning in the gut has never completely left.
And let’s face it; the farm is not a place for oratory sculpting. You see the other guys in the morning. You drink a lot of coffee, share a few donuts on Saturday morning. Then you sit on a tractor. You check the water pressure of an irrigation well. You change a tire, order fertilizer, check the cows. Ears are everywhere, but corn doesn’t give much feedback. Weeks could go by without seeing someone who isn’t 1) A family member 2) A farm worker or 3) A truck driver here to pick up corn and deliver an unsolicited Obama joke.
There just aren’t many stopping points to the labor or a limit to its quantity, not to mention a lot of the work is exciting and satisfying, so it’s easy to imagine waking up 60 years old having never played a city league softball game or joined a book club or visited Europe. The land in western Kansas is nasty and tough, flatter than a pawn shop oboe in every direction, a life-long challenge that will swallow a man. Chew him up and spit out his 40s.
Maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I wanted to keep some contact with my journalist life and, well, society in general, and so I figured substitute teaching once in a while might be the answer. This is at the high school where I graduated a couple decades ago with hair and promise, ranked in the top 35 of my class. (Some would say “bottom half,” but I choose to word it differently.) What better place for a guy who is scared of kids and guns to hang out than a school? Hurray! The kids immediately recognized my teaching style as non-confrontational pushover, so one day while a history class was talking loudly and surfing the internet (they all have district-issued laptops now) I tried to start a productive conversation and half-jokingly asked if they have school shooting drills now, a 21st-century version of fire and tornado drills. I kind of expected to be laughed out of the room but I wasn’t. Kids today might be exposed to a lot because of the internet and changes in society, but they also seem capable of handling a lot, with more maturity than their parents in some cases. They have interesting opinions.
Two girls said one teacher told them if a shooter ever entered the school the class was supposed to get in the closet. Not exactly an airtight plan, they decided, since the closet would barely hold the somewhat hefty teacher. I spent the next 10 minutes glancing at the closed door at the back of the room with the narrow window, wondering if some sort of untapped adrenaline auto-pilot would activate in a crisis. These aren’t the things you consider when you casually send your college transcript, fingerprints and substitute teacher application to the state of Kansas.
My somewhat pathetic goal is to make any sort of positive impact without ruining the moment, which I realize is probably not the right attitude, but the ball-buster substitute ultimately fights a losing battle. And I know this is the teenage me talking, but that person completely negates the lucky break of having a sub in the first place. I remember sending the nicest girl up to ask to go to the bathroom and then everybody following because at that point you can’t say no to anyone else. This is America, home of the brave and land of the free to roam the halls. I know all this.
And I know, ideally, it should seem as if the regular teacher was never gone, but let’s be honest, I’m a guy doing a shaky impression of a farmer pretending to be a teacher. Being cool is probably as good as it gets.
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