Anyone can farm…

Farmer Stuart Kunkle learning an essential skill in hog rearing.

This entry will be a bit long–just an upfront warning.  A long time ago I read Teacher Man by Frank McCourt (Scribner, 2005), in which  Mr. McCourt describes his experiences as an English teacher in inner New York city in the 50′s and 60′s.   One character in particular jumped out at me and I’ve waited all this time to be able to tell this story here.  I’m going to quote a couple pages of the book, but it applies to the concept of “anyone can farm.”  Grab a cup of coffee or tea and enjoy:

In my class Bob Stein never sat at a desk.  It could have been his bulk but I think he found comfort perched on the deep capacious windowsill in the back of the room.  As soon as he was settled he smiled and waved.  Good morning, Mr. McCourt.  Isn’t this a great day?

Through all the seasons of the school year he wore a white shirt open at the neck, the white collar lapped over the gray collar of his double-breasted jacket.  He told the class that the jacket once belonged to Orson Welles and if he ever met Welles they’d have something to talk about.  If it weren’t for the jacket, he wouldn’t know what to say to Orson Welles as his interests were completely different from the actor’s.

He wore short pants that were long pants cut off at the knees and, no, they did not match the jacket so there was no connection with Orson Welles.

He wore gray socks so heavy they lumped in woolen piles over his yellow construction boots.

He carried no bag, no books, no notebooks, no pen.  He joked that it was partly my fault because of the excited way I once talked about Thoreau and how you should simplify, simplify, simplify and get rid of possessions.

When there was a written assignment or a test in class he asked me if by any chance he could borrow a pen and some paper.

Bob, this is a writing class.  It requires certain materials.

He assured me everything would be all right and advised me not to worry.  He told me from the windowsill the snow was appearing on my head and I should enjoy the years left to me.

No, no, he told the class. Don’t laugh.

But they were already in hysterics and so loud I had to wait to hear him again.  He said that in a year from now I’d just look back at this moment and wonder why I wasted my time and emotions on his lack of pen and paper.

I had to play the part of stern teacher.  Bob, you could fail this class if you don’t participate.

Mr. McCourt, I can’t believe you’re telling me this, you of all people with your miserable childhood and everything, Mr. Mccourt.  But it’s OK.  If you fail me I’ll take the course again.  No big hurry.  What’s a year or two one way or the other?  For you, maybe, it’s a big thing but I’m only seventeen.  All the time in the world, Mr. McCourt, even if you fail me.

He asked the class if anyone would like to help him out with pen and paper.  There were ten offers but he took the one closest so that he wouldn’t have to climb down from his windowsill.  He said, See, Mr. McCourt?  See how nice people are.  Long as they carry these big bags you and I will never have to worry about supplies.

Yes, yes, Bob, but how is that going to help you next week when we have the big test on Gilgamesh?

What’s that, Mr. McCourt?

It’s in the world-literature book, Bob.

Oh, yeah.  I remember that book.  Big book.  I have it at home and my dad’s reading the Bible parts an’ all.  My dad’s a rabbi, you know.  He was so happy you gave us that book with all the prophets an’ everything and he said you must be a great teacher an’ he’s coming to see you on Open School Night.  I told him you were a great teacher except you have this thing about pens and paper.

Cut it out, Bob.  You haven’t even looked at the book.

He urged me again not to worry as his father, the rabbi, often talked about the book and he, Bob would be sure to find out all about Gilgamesh and anything else that would make the teacher happy.

Again the class erupted, embracing one another, high fiving.

I wanted to erupt, too, but I had to maintain teacher dignity.

Across the room, over the giggling and gasping and laughing, I called, Bob, Bob.  It would make me happy if you read the world-literature book yourself and left your poor father in peace.

He said he’d love to read the book cover to cover but it did not fit into his plans.

And what are your plans, Bob?

I’m going to be a farmer.

He smiled and waved the pen and paper so kindly donated by Jonathan Greenberg and said he was sorry for disrupting the class and maybe we should start writing what I wanted them to write at the start of the period, which was quickly passing.  He, Bob, was ready with his work.  He told them teaching is the hardest work in the world and he should know because, once in summer camp, he tried to teach a bunch of small kids about things that grow in the ground but they wouldn’t listen to him, just ran around chasing bugs till he got mad and said he’d kick their asses and that was the end of his teaching career, so have a little concern for Mr. McCourt.  But before we got down to business he’d like to explain he had nothing against world literature except that now he read nothing but publications from the Department of Agriculture and magazines that had to do with farming.  He said there’s more to farming than meets the eye, but that’s another subject, and he could see I wanted to get on with my lesson and what was that lesson, Mr. McCourt?

What was I to do with this large boy on the windowsill, a Jewish Future Farmer of America?  Jonathan Greenberg raised his hand and asked what was it about farming that didn’t meet the eye?

Bob looked gloomy for a moment.  It’s my dad, he said.  He’s having trouble with the corn and the pigs.  He says Jews don’t eat corn on the cob.  He says you can go up one street and down the other in Williamsburg and Crown Heights and look in Jewish windows at dinnertime and you’ll never see anyone chewing on corn on the cob.  It just isn’t a Jewish thing.  Gets in the beard.  Show me a Jew eating corn on the cob and I’ll show you one who has lost the faith.  That’s my dad talking.  But the last straw was pigs.  I told my dad I like them.  I’m not planning to eat them or anything but I’d like to raise them and sell them to the goyim.  What’s wrong with that?  They’re really pleasant little animals and they can be very affectionate.  I told my dad I’ll be married and have kids and they’ll like the little piglets.  He nearly went crazy and my mom had to go lie down.  Maybe I shouldn’t have told them but they taught me to tell the truth and it’ll come out in the end anyway.

The bell rang.  Bob climbed off the windowsill and returned pen and paper to Jonathan.  He said his father the rabbi would be in to see me on Open School Might next week and he was sorry about the disruption.


The rabbi sat by my desk, heaved up his hands and said, Oy.  I thought he was joking but the way he dropped his chin to his chest and shook his head told me this was not a happy rabbi.  He said, Bob, how’s he doing?  He had a German Accent.

Fine, I said.

He’s killing us, breaking our hearts.  Did he tell you?  He wants to be a farmer.

It’s a healthy life, Mr. Stein.

It’s a scandal.  We’re not paying for him to go to college so he can raise pigs and corn.  Fingers will be pointed on our street.  It’s gonna kill my wife.  We told him he wants to go that way he’s gonna pay for himself and that’s final.  He says don’t worry.  Big government programs have scholarships for kids who want to be farmers and he knows all about that.  House full of books and stuff from Washington and some college in Ohio.  So we’re losing him, Mr. McCoot.  Our son is dead We can’t have a son living with pigs every day.

I’m sorry, Mr. Stein.


Six years later I met Bob on Lower Broadway.  It was  a January day but he was attired as usual in short pants and Orson Welles jacket.  He said, Hi, Mr. McCourt.  Great day, isn’t it?

It’s freezing, Bob.

Oh, that’s OK.

He told me he was already working for a farmer in Ohio, but he couldn’t go through with the pig thing, that would destroy his parents.  I told him that was a good and loving decision.

He paused and looked at me.  Mr. McCourt, you never liked me, did you?

Never liked you, Bob?  Are you joking?  It was a joy to have you in my class.  Jonathan said you drove the gloom from the room.

Tell him McCourt, tell him the truth.  Tell him how he brightened your days, how you told your friends about him, what an original he was, how you admired his style, his good humor, his honesty, his courage, how you would have given your soul for a son like him.  And tell him how beautiful he was and is in every way, how you loved him then and love him now.  Tell him.

I did, and he was speechless and I didn’t give a tinker’s damn what people thought on Lower Broadway when they saw us in a long warm embrace, the high school teacher and the large Jewish Future Farmer of America.
So, if a young boy from New York City could follow his dream to farm, so can you.  Eighty acres or a lettuce plant on your windowsill,  anyone can farm!

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