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.