Fat Heifers, Good Teaching, Happy Father’s Day

Rhode Island Black and White Show, Rocky Hill Fairgrounds, 1969. Me with Shelly; My dad looking on (with Tum-A-Lum shirt on).

Rhode Island Black and White Show, Rocky Hill Fairgrounds, 1969. Me with Shelly; My dad looking on (with Tum-A-Lum shirt on). I was supposed to be looking at the judge.

My mother carted me to swim lessons where I refused to get into the pool with other children, and to ballet when I quit after one lesson because the teacher said a word I didn’t recognize: recital. When my sister Barbara Ann picked me up, I asked her to define it. “You dance with all the other children on stage and we come to watch,” she said. End of my interest in that activity. While I cried, my mother packed my lunch for my two week stint at day camp. Around her friends’ children, I clung to her lawn chair and whispered in her ear to take me home.

Defeated, she finally left me alone with my dogs and my books.

Then, my father suggested 4-H. My father, who never suggested anything, really, who just came and went from the barns and the fields, a welcomed and beloved visitor into the everyday struggles my mother faced trying to get me to make friends.

“You have to try this 4-H thing,” my mother said, and then she added the words that sealed the contract: “For your father.”

*    *    *

“Pathways,” my principal said at this week’s faculty meeting. “This is a word you’re going to be hearing a lot about next year.”

Last year it was Successful Habits of Mind. Other years: Standardized Testing; Interdisciplinary Education; Data Driven Instruction; Rigor; Response to Intervention; Alternative Assessment; Collaboration; Project-Based Learning; Understanding by Design. What does powerful learning look like, we are asked? How can we integrate technology into our classrooms? What are some authentic tasks we ask students to perform?

Consultants arrive toting giant-sized post-it notes, markers, a powerpoint with clips to videos they find amusing. “We’re going to do some break-out groups, some pair-shares, a gallery walk, a table-share. We’ll report back.”

When I think I can’t take it one more second, a colleague who truly cares about me says: “Remember what a small percentage of your time in this career is spent in meetings like these.”

*    *    *

I did not quit 4-H. Instead, I learned a great deal. For example, everyone showed calves, not cows. In my father’s world, cows ruled. Clean-boned, pink-uddered behemoths who tested your arm strength and your endurance for a shoulder full of their drool when you showed them. These were famous cows, bovine divas. They were doing you a favor allowing you to clip their rosettes to your back pocket as you walked out past popping flashbulbs. But our calves, those poor progeny, were boneracks, pale shadows of their gorgeous dams and of the beefy calves, round-shouldered with massive throats, that my fellow 4-Hers showed.

Into the microphone, once he’d lined us up, the judge would say: “I’m starting the class today with this big, strong heifer, blah, blah, blah. At the end of the line, a calf that just can’t compete with the size of the animals up front.”

“How do you get your calves to grow so big?” I finally asked, humiliated. They fed their calves milk for the first year, extra grain.

“Grain?” I asked. Meanwhile, my crazy father asked me several times of day: Got that hayrack filled in front of your calf?

My 4-H friends snorted: “Hay doesn’t grow them.” Then they’d glance behind me at the hip bones of my feline-like yearling. “Obviously.”

Oh, the battles I waged to do what other kids did, but my father wouldn’t budge. Two months of milk, he said. Racks full of hay. That’s the way you grow cattle.

“You know what happens to those over-conditioned [farmer-speak for fat] heifers? They grow up with too many fat deposits. Can’t put up an udder. Don’t last. You want a dairy heifer, goddamnit. [By this he meant an animal that will grow up to convert her energy into milk, not meat] No matter what anyone says, that’s never going to change.” Then he stormed off to erect a silo out of a kit.

So I fumed, but I did not win. Not with him. Not against my peers and their decidedly un-dairy heifers.

4-H would be even greater, I thought, if my father would just butt out of it.

*    *    *

This past week, my seniors long gone, I have been preparing for my new role as mentor coordinator. That is, it will be my job next year to assign our new teachers an experienced educator to lead them through their first year in the profession. In an article about classroom management, I read that it’s important to understand what your own bottom-line is. What do you absolutely believe to be true about what is necessary in your classroom? Behaviors? Philosophy? etc.

I stare out the window. Good question, I think. Then: Thanks for asking.

*    *    *

A few years ago, I returned to the fairgrounds. It is both good to be back and heartbreaking. If there is such a thing as ghosts, my father’s is here every August.

In a calf class, I watched the children — even grandchildren — of my former 4-H friends leading their animals around that hot ring. When they lined up, the biggest calf did not win. Instead, the judge chose an angular calf, sharp-shouldered, leggy. Her over-conditioned competition stood much farther down the line, in a spot I was very familiar with.

Into the microphone, the judge said, “I’m starting the class today with this dairy heifer.”

Okay, I said to my father, who, if his ghost was there, was leaning on the rails beside me, sunglasses on, hands clasped before him. He would have picked the winner as the animals milled about outside the ring but he would have waited anyway, see if the judge knew what he was doing. He wouldn’t say, I told you so. He would have looked at me and smiled (he had a beautiful smile) and remind me: “I told you, honey. Your daddy is always right.”

*    *    *

Distilled, my teaching philosophy is this: I want kids to understand the power of language. Maybe this means to love a book, really love a book. Maybe it means to write a poem they didn’t think they could write. Maybe it means listening to a peer read aloud from something so powerful, or so funny, or so honest, that it stays with them long after that stupid tone sounds to end the class period. Tell a story, listen to a story, love a story.

And I want them to love being in my class, to feel safe, valued, a part of the community we get to inhabit for only a few days out of what I hope will be our very long lives.

So this is for you, Dad, who taught me to understand what lasts beyond all trends, to develop an expertise by listening, by watching, by cultivating patience, and then, in the face of all those people who insist they have a better idea, to cling quietly to your own understanding of what will always work.