A Teacher’s Regrets

I was 23 and had landed a job as a teacher in Skaneateles, NY, a village that sits at the northern tip of one of the pristine Finger Lakes. I didn’t know much, but fresh from college, I didn’t know that yet.

I learned quickly that there were village kids and there were the farm kids. There were deep pockets of old money. And just as many folks on the outskirts of town scraping by.

Marcus Pendell was a student in my first class, a third generation farmer. Of all the absurdities of life, it turns out that he has been a grownup for a couple of decades now, and I’m on my way to visit him and his wife and kids. You get to do stuff like this when you become a “teacher of a certain age” and you’re now part of the nostalgia that takes over 50 year-olds’ lives. And yes, my former students are in their fifties.

I picture what Marcus might look like, and realizing he farms so close to a village known for its good taste and style, I wonder if he’s turned into one of those celebrity farmers, the ones who talk about sustainable sourcing and charcuterie. They show up on glossy magazine covers. They wear suede jackets. They pose in a field of flowers, holding a jar of honey, or with both arms outstretched, full of chanterelles.

By the last turn onto his land, I can tell I won’t be seeing organic herbs or morels today. Just a hunch he won’t be wearing anything from the J. Peterman catalogue.

Two German shepherds announce us as the car pulls up to the house at the top of a dusty hill. Marcus’s wife is waiting and she shoos away the dogs from under our feet. This is a dairy farm. Cows. Milk. Knee-high rubber boots from Sears.

“He’s still a man of few words,” his wife laughs, “but he’s excited to see you again.”

We wait in the kitchen, and after a few minutes, Marcus bounds into the room through the sliding door off the back deck. He’s still big and burly, now with a dark beard. He wears one of those big caps farmers wear with the name of a seed company on it. We hug.

He says, “You look exactly the same except you have short hair now.” I laugh. Then we both laugh. He was 11 the last time I saw him.

We start our farm tour by climbing into his big pickup. I’m still processing the idea he’s all grown up. That he could — if he wanted to — shave. He may be processing that I need a hand getting myself into and out of his truck. I can’t tell.

And then, sort of out of nowhere, he says, “I never forgot the first day in your class.”

I’m surprised by this because I don’t remember much at all.

“Tell me,” I say.

Apparently I had written on the black board: Write a composition about what you did over summer vacation. Marcus tells me he looked at the instructions and thought, Well, I didn’t do anything over the summer — milk, cut hay, clean the barn, feed cows, deliver calves — nothing. He figured it was going to be one of those years.

He sighed. He began writing. His opening line was “I’m a farmer.”

He says I collected the compositions, sat down at my desk and started reading them aloud. The one I read right before Marcus’s was written by someone whose family owned a 30-foot sailboat.

Then I turned to his. I read his opening line and stopped. I said, “Where is Marcus?” He tells me this was the worst thing I could have said because everyone knew who he was, and everyone (even the ones I thought were nice girls, he tells me) had made fun of him somewhere along the way since kindergarten precisely because he was a farmer. He raised his hand, but he knew no one would laugh because it was the first day of school and they all wanted to get on my good side.

He tells me I looked straight at him and said, “A farmer! Wow. You’re a farmer.”

 

This is the life of a teacher. Once in a while, you get stories like the one Marcus is telling me.

But once in a while it goes this way: You send a friend request on Facebook to another child-now-grown-up who also spent a whole year with you. And the person sends you a terse reply, letting you know in his first sentence that his memories are not warm. They’re not pleasant, or inspiring, or even mediocre. And even though a Facebook friend is not a real friend, he has no intention of being yours. It was something you said, trying to be funny, maybe, but he heard it as unkind. Maybe it was.

You want to go back and make it all better. At the very least you want to remember saying it, but you don’t. He is all grown up, with children of his own. But he still remembers what you said. You write a long apology back, and you hope maybe he will forgive you. You never hear from him again.

 

“Watch your step here,” Marcus says.

He is about to answer a question I just asked about tractors, but he stops instead and says, “I was proud that day, that first day, when you read my composition and asked all those questions about being a farmer. Thank you for that.”

Even in this moment — pretty much a teacher’s dream — I think of telling Marcus about the other boy. I want to let myself off the hook, maybe, by saying, “Too many kids, too many moments, too many words for all of them to end well.” But I’m still too sad about the kid who hates me to even talk about him.

“We better get back to the house,” Marcus says. Lunch is probably ready.”

The year he was in my class, Marcus taught me about farming. He schooled me — the suburban girl who didn’t know field corn from sweet. Lots of times he’d arrive in class and tell me about the calf he’d helped deliver a few hours before. I was always breathless during his lessons. I took more than I gave. He was always the teacher, though neither of us knew it then.

I want to thank him for being a kinder one, a better one, but I don’t. We go inside to wash up for lunch.

39 thoughts on “A Teacher’s Regrets

  1. I didn’t want to read this post. I didn’t have time. I didn’t connect – I’ve never heard of the finger lakes (I suspect few people in this south east corner of England have) but I couldn’t help myself. Beautifully written, emotionally intelligent and – more importantly – true. Of course, I connect because that’s what great writing does to you, jumps distances and time, leaps over the hurdles of ignorance to link hearts and minds and synapses, and this was a passage of great writing. I’m willing to bet that reading your post is probably one of the most enjoyable things I will do today…thank you for sharing, thank you for revealing that even great teachers aren’t great all the time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh so odd. I am a teacher.37 years at one school, retired but now teaching at adult ed two days a week. Loved, understood this story and know exactly where she taught. I started my career teaching New York History and geography. I’ve lived in NY all my life and went to college in the Finger Lakes. But, oh so much more than that…I spent a summer in Exeter, tramping the mooe, traveling to Plymouth, Cornwall, Torquay etc. Best of all, I grew up on a dairy farm. Hmm, life is a big circle.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Bridget, you took the words out of my mouth, every word of it! Do you have a microchip implanted in my brain where you were able to read my thoughts? Then as I sat here reading your words, it was like I was struck in the head with lightning, and I realized that my 11th grade English teacher did the same thing with one of my farmer friends as well, and actually went and spent the day with him on the farm to get a real sense of what he went trough. The whole class was impressed with him for doing that. Thanks,

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh Linda, I do enjoy your writings. Thank you ever so much for continuing with them. I am going to pass your life notes along to 2 very dear young teachers out in B.C. for their eyes. Not that they can copy your life, but they are marvelous teachers and this will inspire them a little more for the future. I truly wish that I had had one teacher that I could say made a difference so many years ago. I am now in my 60’s and that early schooling is far behind me and must pick up my inspirations elsewhere. Like here reading your posts. So I thank you once again whole heartedly!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. We live in the Village of Skaneateles. We have raised two daughters here who are now out on their own. Before it was time to send them to school, I was warned by neighbors that there was a distinct difference between the way the rich kids and the farm kids were treated by each other and by the school itself. I took that advice with a grain of salt until Special Persons day in Preschool when my three year old daughter proudly introduced her father, a police officer, to her class and he spoke with the class and showed them his police car and the lights and sirens. The children loved it! When I came to pick our daughter up, one of the moms looked me up and down and said – “I always thought you were a farmer”, and not in an admirable way. That stuck with me and we ended up sending our children to private school, at a great sacrifice , because we could never compete with the “rich folks”. I admire you for seeing the wealth of someone who farms the land and raises herds to sustain the community. Had I been guaranteed all of the girls teachers would be like you, I may have reconsidered not sending them to Skaneateles schools. I am proud to say our youngest daughter married a fine young man from Skaneateles, who is a very successful business man, and who spent his summers working on one of the biggest farms in town. They had their wedding on the farm on the shore of the beautiful lake and that day I felt we were the richest people in town. Hard work teaches valuable lessons.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. As a fellow teacher, I just loved this post. It’s always amazing to catch up with past students. Don’t beat yourself up about the one who can’t get over himself. You will probably find that something else in his life was and still is amiss. It’s all too easy to blame the teacher or the school when things don’t go right.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. All I can say is WOW! Thank you for the candid and emotionally wonderful snapshot of your life Linda. It made my day.

    I grew up in the area and have many great moments at the lake. Farms are a common site all through the area. Kids will always be cruel, but God gives special favor to those who look after the least of these.

    Now I’m in Lancaster, PA where farming also is strong. It is beautiful to see, and I appreciate seeing the open land that reminds me of home. It can be frustrating to see that developments are taking over.

    Again, thank you for sharing, and remember that you can’t please everyone. That isn’t your goal. It would be an impossible task. Love your God, second, your neighbor as yourself. I fall short of this sometimes, but moments like this fuel you to continue spreading that love, and hopefully create a positive spark in someone else’s life. Your interest in Marcus’s life shaped his life in an instant and gave him value as a person that no one else had.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My dad grew up in Skaneateles. His dad had a general store and extended credit to local folks during the Depression so they could eat. Unfortunately for him, he never was repaid enough to maintain the store and lost it. Despite this, the family did not show bitterness toward the community. After my grandfather died, my grandmother continued to live in the village, quite simply. We used to visit her on Sunday afternoons. Dad and his brothers worked driving the mailboat during summer vacations, delivering to camps along the lake. As a life-long teacher, what you have to say about students resonates with me. Great article!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am a college professor, educating/training those who want to become teachers. I have shared this with all of my classes today; it’s a powerful piece with an amazing message! What we say to our students and how we say it, really does matter! THANK YOU!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow. You’re a FARMER!

    Linda,
    I cried immediately upon reading those four words-just spontaneously burst into tears. You hammered me right in the heart. Those words and this story encapsulate what teaching is to me, what I admire in the best I’ve seen, and what I aspire to. The best teachers are the purest incarnation of love, caring, dignity, respect, and so much more.

    Thank you for your example.
    Thank you for investing in our youth. Thank you for investing in Marcus. Thank you for this writing.

    I wish you the best,
    Jon

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I too grew up in Skaneateles. As a kid making friends you make friends through the activities you take part in. I grew up with rich friends, farm friends, village friends, country friends. As breakfast club says YOU SEE US AS YOU WANT TO SEE US. That farm kid with Sears boots…his dad just bought a $600 k tractor. Not saying there were not cliques, but what work environment doesn’t have cliques? Wether they’re right or wrong, its reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Linda,
    I grew up near Skaneateles and my grandfather’s farm was there. I was also a farm kid and we experienced similar comments like Marcus from the town and city students. I did not have a teacher like you and he was blessed to have you. Your words and wisdom were well beyond your years.
    I am an Orthopedic Surgeon and the lessons learned through the work and responsibility of caring for livestock and the land have helped me on this journey.
    Thank you for sharing this story.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I live in Johnson City and was just in Skaneateles two weeks ago. (I subscribe to your blog, but tend to be a lurker). I loved this post because I wasn’t a farm kid, but lived the rural life for several years in my 30’s. And, I know several retired teachers (one was my childhood best friend). Thank you for sharing this story.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve been a teacher for 20 years. I’m now a school librarian. The “a-ha” moments and lovely connections are the best parts of our jobs. However, the occasional barbs still seem to cut the deepest, don’t they? When I think about those unkind words said by former students, I push myself to remember I am doing good work, helping great kids, and serving with a smile most of the time. It’s hard to compartmentalize something so personal, but in this case, it has helped me forge on with teachers and kids who want and need my help. Your kiddos do, too. Even the ones who might only remember the bad are most likely helped the most by your good.
    I am also from CNY and love your area! We just bought 20 acres close by, with a farmer keeping most of our land clear by growing clover and corn. Love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I am a farmers daughter and granddaughter. I’m also from New York – from a little farm town called Pulaski just north of Syracuse. Thank you for being a teacher. Unless you’ve lived the farm life, you can never really understand the year long hard work, the agony of defeat (crops fail, cows die, equipment needs to be replaced) and yet the joy of seeing a calf born. Thank you for taking the time to learn from this young man. I’m sure you touched him and added more to his life than even he could tell you.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I also live near Skaneateles and my Grandparents were farmers..I spent a lot of time there and really appreciate all the hard work that goes in to being A Farmer….an inspirational piece…really takes me back to my youth….thanks for being that kind of a teacher….

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Linda,
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and stories. I retired as a School Counselor after 34 years in the Syracuse City Schools. So many times when students came to me “complaining” about a teacher, it was either a misunderstanding/misinterpretation, or they were mad about something else entirely and the teacher was a good target. I’m sure that’s the case here. From your words we can all tell how much love and caring went into your teaching. God Bless You!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. That’s the best part. We can each insert the name of a classmate or ten. I feel so lucky to have had the ‘richness’ of a childhood just like this. My teachers & a close childhood friend, a teacher @SCS taught me lessons that I’ve tried to teach my kids. In a classroom, the chairs are all of “equal height” because what a kid’s parents do has nothing! to do with the Teacher’s job. Not everyone knows Central NY is a great dairy region where farm kids & country club kids were just kids growing up together. We played and were teammates or simply Lakers!
    See, I’m that lucky girl (smile w me) that grew up w guys that hunted, water skied and trapped too. Our Mom bought my brother & I, 4 pairs of Levi’s at Roland’s store at the start of every year in high school. Yes, we shared the same size although they definitely fit us differently. Nothing better for my self esteem than being referred to and known for that SKOAL ring on the back of my butt. Perhaps this explains why I was friends w many but not exactly date-able. Laugh w me and remember your own moments that built character.
    I’ve become a wine country parent, living in a small town on the West Coast for over 20 years and never considered how this related to my childhood. Today, I realize why I’ve always been so impressed with the mutli-generational farmers here too. Sure we all have heard the expression ‘wine brats’ in this part of the country but I can tell you we are close friends with many families that simply say, “My crops are grapes. Yes, I’m a farmer and what do you do?”
    Thank You Skaneateles, Sonoma, Connie Coyne Bohrer & LINDA DEMERS HUMMEL for being ‘My Teachers’.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I’m a fairly new teacher who started teaching in my 40’s. (As a side-note, I grew up very near to Skaneatles though I now live in Mississippi.) Thank you for the reminder that what we say daily makes a difference; that which is said with, and often without, thought. The impact is real.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. It was just wonderful that you touched him in a way that made his life better, and made him fill more secure with his own life. That how he could teach you things about farming and different plants . It was a blessing for both of you. And a very warm feeling to read about. You know I am not a teacher, my grammar is probably not what it should be. I just had to let you know it was a wonderful story. God bless you both. Barbara Ann

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Thank you for your service to all kids. I grow up in Syracuse. Graduated from Onondaga Valley Academy in 1961. Joined the Navy and served 20 years. After retiring in San Diego when to college and got my degree in Technical Education and taught 20 years at the college level. The last 4 years were at ITT Tech in Liverpool. So came full circle. Loved the article. I still keep in touch with a few students. Now live in Anderson, SC.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. What a great story. My students are in their fifties now also. Being a TugHill area was raised with dairy farmer kids and know the value of these terrific families- specifically around the Lewis County area

    Liked by 1 person

  21. This touched me deep down in my soul. My tears flowed freely, causing the letters to blur as I read. I grew up a bit closer to Lake Ontario, in the town of Sodus. We lived on a small postage stamp of land surrounded by orchards, dairy farms, a Christmas tree farm, a chicken farm and a vineyard. I often thought that I had the worst of both worlds, living in the middle of nowhere in the Twilight Zone that was neither village nor farm, just a poor family scraping by barely above the poverty line. My brothers loved the freedom to choose when to earn money working for a farmer without being expected to do daily chores before and after school. They happily lived the frontier life of exploring the woods, hunting and trapping game. My options were more limited, as my father decreed that farm work was not suitable for his daughter, but there were few opportunities for babysitting or other “girl” jobs other than helping out in our own home. Our school clothes arrived each fall in packages from the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Wards catalogues. Our “big” outings consisted of going to the local laundromat each week, then helping our mother shop for groceries in the Star Market if it was our designated week to go in the store instead of waiting in the station wagon with our father and siblings. If we were really lucky, the grocery store’s display of Matchbox Cars at the checkout included a model we wanted. What touched me most about this piece was how special this teacher made the boy feel. I hated my Kindergarten teacher, and was convinced that the feeling was mutual. I made frequent attempts to sneak into the classroom next door, only to be dragged back to my assigned class. School was definitely not a positive experience for me that year, so I did not expect anything different the following fall. Then I met Mrs. Putnam. She saw something of value in the shy unkempt wild child, and encouraged my desire to read even though she usually had to tell me what page the rest of the class was on when it was my turn to read aloud, and sometimes even pull my attention back to Dick and Jane because I had sneaked a different, more interesting, book from the shelf next to my desk. I still cherish the book she gave me on the last day of class. Too Many Pockets was mine, all mine, with a note written on the inside cover. It said “Never stop reading. Mrs. Putnam”. Though I never did feel that I fit in with any particular clique, I went on to graduate Saluditorian of my high school class, and eventually became the only one of my family to attain a college degree. I have never forgotten Mrs. Putnam. I wish every child in every school has at least one teacher who is a purely positive influence.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I am the daughter of a farmer in Skaneateles. Unfortunately, I did not have a teacher like you. Many of my teachers treated farm children like second class citizens. My guidance counselor told my parents that community college was “good enough” for me, despite the fact that I scored high on achievement tests. Community college was better than “good enough.” It was great. I went on to graduate from Syracuse University, Syracuse University College of Law, and have had a very successful professional career. That I did so was a surprise to my non-farm classmates, who bought into the oppressive, discriminatory culture that existed in Skaneateles schools. For many the hurt still lingers more than 40 years later, and they will not attend class reunions as a result. I wish they would, if only to show that they are happy and successful, despite having achieved no encouragement from those in the school system.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. I am a 73 year old retired teacher, lucky enough to live in the town where I taught for thirty years. My great grandparents farmed outside Skaneateles and my grandfather, one of nine children, had to quit school before graduating because he was needed on the farm. Later, the whole family moved to Syracuse, leaving farm life behind. I loved this story and felt so touched by sharing a beautiful profession and its joys and sadnesses with you.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. I read this on Syracuse.com. You have a wonderful way of storytelling! My heart breaks for you because I have unintentionally hurt feelings as well, and I know the anguish. I’m sad that the person cannot forgive and move past it. I have had teachers who made a big difference in my life and this inspires me to look them up and let them know.
    You have brightened my day with your story about Don. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

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