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Maud the Mule
Maud the Mule

Maud the Mule

or

A Response to Being Rescued from the “Drudgery” of Farm Work

by Jonathan Kirk Brooks of Wheatley, KY

I have never had a better employer than my very first boss. His name was Paps. It may be true that I have never had better work than the work I did for Paps, even though I make a little more money now. When I was a boy, my grandfather, “Paps,” taught me to be outside.

Paps was born in 1926 and grew up on his daddy’s farm. He and my grandmother (Susan Averitt, often called “Sudie” by my grandfather and then shortened to just “Udie” by the time the grand kids needed a name for her) were still living on that same farm when I met them a few days after I was born. He had lived there all my life, and all of his life, too. In his sixties, he began the venture of turning a small part of the farm into a community cemetery.

About ten years later I came along, with a slough of other grandchildren who were ready to learn what work ethic was. I had a special opportunity because, for a good chunk of my childhood, my family lived in a house on the old farm. Every day when I finished my school work (I was home-schooled at the time), I would run across the field to visit with my grandparents.

When I was old enough, he would give me a tool – a pair of lopping shears maybe – and walk outside to some fence row with a bunch of scrubby trees in it and say, “Kirk, see this fence row? We’ve let it become a mess. It’s over-grown. And I’d like you to clean it up. Cut the little trees off very close to the ground. Whack all these tall weeds and briars down with this (hands me a scythe[1]) and when you’re done we’ll settle up.” “Settle up” meant ten dollars an hour. For a twelve year old in 1996, that was a lot of money.

And so it took me a lot of hours to learn what Paps wanted, not just because more hours meant more money, but because the work was hard and Paps cared about it. Because Paps cared about me, I cared about him. Because he cared about the work, I cared about the work. Despite his generosity he wasn’t paying me just for fun, there was a right way, a good way, to do the work. And he would come out many times over the course of a week to instruct me and sometimes ask me to cut something off even lower to the ground than I had or to work a little more at a particular area until it met his aesthetic standard for the place. He wasn’t a hard boss, he was gentle. But he was particular. And he didn’t want me to hurry. The money it cost him to teach me to do good work seemed never to be on his mind. What was on his mind, as was made very plain to me in every conversation about the work, was that it was imperative that the work I did must be done well. The weight of that imperative was tangible, it was the lesson he was teaching me always. And not by accident. I felt, often, as though doing good work was some sort of dying art and if it cost him everything he had, he would teach that art to someone and was delighted when I came along – a naive but willing student. To Paps, work as an artform, meant that it would be done with a certain carefulness, and steadiness; it meant paying attention. It meant that the work would not only be pleasing to look at, it meant, also, that the work, however strenuous, would be good work to do – adequate to my capabilities as a boy, almost always hard, but allowing for sufficient rest, in the shade of a big sycamore tree perhaps, and water, and time alone to think about the work or about anything. Good work meant opportunities to make decisions along the way, autonomy, safety, joy in bird song or the song of a creek babbling close by, or both, free from irrelevant pressure. The only “pressure,” if it could be called that, was to satisfy Paps, and soon, as I began to grow in this good way, I wanted to satisfy my own mind as well. Over the years, it became so that I knew if I was pleased with the work at the day’s end, Paps would most likely be pleased as well. And the rich reward of the trust I had earned from him was worth more to me than any amount of money. Paps knew I would do work that satisfied him. Eventually, I knew I could and would do it too. And I enjoyed myself in that knowledge and the acquiring of it. Even though Paps has been gone a long time, I still consider earning his trust and learning to work to his standards to be one of my life’s greatest accomplishments.

At the turn of the century the first tractor had been made. And in just a few short decades, the decline of rural populations everywhere would be well underway. My family, like many others around us, continued to use horses well into the 40’s even after they purchased a Farmall M. In 1961 Paps bought a new Massey Ferguson 35, that, I should add, still runs like a top. (Funny how, for all of our technological innovations today, we seem not to be able to make something that can last a few years anymore, let alone sixty. I mowed the back pasture with this same tractor last week.[2] Despite the marvel of such a well-made little tractor, there was, apparently, some delay in my family’s decision to purchase a tractor. It wasn’t for lack of funds either. Though a tractor was and is certainly an expensive machine, there was some other great hesitancy involved. That was, I know now, the mules. My family, like most other good farm families, loved their mules. You can have a relationship with a mule that cannot exist with a dead, inanimate hunk of machinery. A mule is quiet, strong, the only fuel it requires is a “renewable resource” (grass), it is safer than a tractor, breaks down less often, is cheaper to buy and cheaper to maintain. One might even argue that a well loved mule – unlike a well loved tractor – does, in fact, reciprocate that love. Working with mules or horses, I am told, is one of the great pleasures of farming from years past that is practically extinct today. And Paps would affirm that notion. He loved to tell us countless stories about Maud. Maud was the name of one of the family mules that Paps held in very high esteem. The incredible feats of Paul Bunyan’s ‘Babe the Blue Ox’ paled in comparison to Pap’s stories about Maud. Maud was obedient. She responded to the quietest “Gee” and “Haw” and “Whoa, Maud.” Maud was a hard worker and would work for hours on end for the simple cost of a little oats or grass, a little kindness, and a good drink of water now and then. The pride Paps had in that mule – long dead by the time I arrived on the scene – rivaled the pride he showed for any grandchild. And Maud had earned that admiration.

I bring up Maud here for her own sake, but also to point out that the delay in the change from horses to tractors says something about the way working men felt about our work animals. It says something in regard to the way they felt about tractors too. It speaks to a general and growing feeling of uneasiness that must have been felt by rural families, albeit mostly unarticulated in the public sphere, as the American way of life began to move faster, and the family farm became little more than an iconic cliché of old paintings. As farmers began to feel more and more pressure to produce at ridiculous quantities or move to the city (“Get big or get out”[3]) the quality of their products inevitably began to decline. But it was not just the quality of their products that had to decline. Thanks to Paps’ memories, it seems obvious to me now why anyone would hesitate to get a tractor: Buying a tractor, Paps and his father seemed to understand, while it might speed things up, would significantly decrease the quality of their life and work. Why should “speeding up” be a goal at all. They enjoyed the work how it was. Part of that enjoyment came from the opportunity to work with Maud, a member of the family. Part of that enjoyment came from the opportunity to work with each other, and to talk while they worked. A tractor, for all its “effectiveness,” eliminated both the need to work together and the ability to talk with anybody while the work was going on. They knew that the work they did before the tractors came was excellent, enjoyable and provided enough for their family, more than enough in fact.

I don’t remember Paps ever using the word “efficient.” Additionally, “efficient” wouldn’t be the most precise adjective to describe either Paps or his work. However, words like, “good,” “kind,” “gentle,” “excellent,” or even “slow,” are words that could describe him – both his work and his character. It wasn’t that Paps wasted time. He simply enjoyed time. And to our modern minds, whether we’d like to admit it or not, the idea of simply enjoying time might be synonymous with wasting it. Or, just as bad, we often seem to think that having time available to enjoy is a luxury limited to the independently wealthy. Someone else, somewhere else, but not our life. We don’t have time to enjoy. However, the idea of making an efficient use of our time and life has surely been pushing its way to the forefront of our consciousness since the Industrial Revolution. As we come up with more ways to keep moving, more and more ways to be connected to everybody and everything, as we become increasingly addicted to mobility – justified as “opportunities” for our children to play soccer, piano, ballet, basketball, baseball, 4H and the tuba – we’ve got to do things quickly. We’re so busy that living life efficiently has replaced all notions of living life well, living life kindly, gently, with excellence and certainly (God forbid!), living life slowly.

To Paps, getting something done quickly at the cost of doing a job well was heresy. If I didn’t have time to do good work, then I didn’t have time to do the work at all, and it should wait until tomorrow. One of his most common instructions was for me to slow down. If I went too fast, I wouldn’t do as good of a job. I would skip over something and the work would be sloppy – no matter if I had mowed the field 10 minutes faster than the last time. He didn’t want anything skipped over. And if I had achieved a record time at a particular job, the time I’d saved was quickly lost in Paps’ skepticism as he thoroughly and slowly inspected the work, believing that somehow, this increase in speed had to have cost the work something. This became even more important to him as I got older and was allowed to drive the tractor. Now more than ever, his admonition to, “take your time, Honey” increased with fervor because it was as much about my safety as it was about the neatness of the work I would do. And so eventually, I did learn to take my time. I put the tractor in a low gear, and paid attention. There is a lot to pay attention to in mowing. Every rock, sink hole, stream’s edge or slope can be a challenge that can tear up a piece of expensive equipment or worse, a grandson. If I was driving too fast, he would walk out of the house or the barn to the field where I was working and tell me that I was doing good work, but, the field would cut so much nicer if I would slow down a bit. It would also be “much easier on the equipment,” he would say. He taught me to work steadily. And when the work was done, to stop and rest and look at it. The sun might be going down after it had beat on me all day, and we’d stand there together in the cool of the evening, the barn swallows still swooping and diving over the field, scooping up the bugs I’d stirred up with the Bush Hog. Sometimes silence, especially in the presence of another person, can be awkward. But this silence wasn’t for lack of subjects to talk about, it was for awe and respect. On those evenings standing next to Paps looking out at the field, it was as if something in me had finally settled down for the day. The work was done. The day was rewarding us with its beauty and peace to look at. Often times, it would come to me like an epiphany that this was the first occasion I had taken to see what I’d been chopping away at all day. Paps would say, with his arm around my shoulder, “Now would you just look at that, Kirk! That’s real fine. You’ve done some good work here.” And I would feel like I had. Paps taught me to make a place better than it was when I’d first come to it. He taught me not to hurt things, but to heal them. He taught me to love a place.

I spent roughly 10 years of my life in that place. Loving it, walking and playing on it, caring for it under Paps’ guidance. I didn’t know, at the time, how I felt about those experiences. Paps was paying me and I thought that’s what I was after: a new skateboard or a new guitar or a new Nintendo game or a new whatever else I was into growing up. But he had given me so much more than money. And then I went inside for the next 15 years of my life. For a while I forgot about all that time I’d spent working outside and largely hadn’t noticed how much I had liked it until I began to do other kinds of work. I realized that out in the cold or the heat, wearing myself out and then coming in to eat something afterwards had been a fine way to spend a day to me. And after I spent a long time inside, teaching and being taught, getting a big head full of stuff about how you’re supposed to write and how you’re supposed to teach and how you’re supposed to lead a school when you become a principal… I just wanted to go back outside. The work I did for Paps had always birthed in me a deep contentment. The work I had found after Paps usually left me feeling like so many things were broken and I would not be able to repair all of them fast enough. While I worked at mending the original problems all the other pieces would begin to fail, too. So each day I had to leave a pile of work that, despite the day’s efforts, was a bigger pile than the one I’d left the day before and so on and so on into despair, as one wonders if eventually the work will bury you (if not metaphorically, it seemed inevitable that I would be literally buried in work by the end of the school year). In a situation like that, it is no wonder that so many people begin to stop caring about their work. If you care too much, it could kill you. At the very least, you might feel some pressure to stop being a good dad or husband (or person) to try and keep up with the job. I regret to say that more than a few coworkers of mine have lost their original marriages. It would be foolish here to try to argue that this was because of their work life alone, but I know, from the difficulty of trying to maintain my own marriage, that work like the kind I am describing doesn’t help a marriage. One almost has to find a way to laugh at the ridiculousness of the fact that he is being asked to accomplish something that is in fact, not accomplishable. The laughter is a coping mechanism. The alternative is insanity. Being a good teacher – trying to do everything that is expected of you – is the closest I have ever felt to being insane. And then to come home to one’s family and try to have any love, time, care, or mental capacity for them, when you haven’t had time to sit down and eat a bologna sandwich that day, is difficult.

With Paps, looking back on a day’s worth of improvements to the place I was in, was a reward to see. Paps had to teach me to see it at first, and then slowly, the desire to see it became a goal in itself. Eventually, I didn’t need Paps to make me see how good the thing was at its completion, I knew it would be good. Or at least hoped it would be, assuming the work I did was the right kind. Before long, I had learned to see it for myself. I would try to make it good just for the satisfaction of admiring it at the end of the day. Working for someone else – big systems in particular – one can leave at the end of the day, having worked hard all day and yet, not have effected anything he can be proud of, having nothing to look back on and say, “Look there at what I accomplished today, look at the good change I made, look at what my work has done.” Too often, we are producing nothing at all. And because the work is never finished, there is never an opportunity to feel a sense of completion. At best, one has simply to learn that at five o’clock, it is time to quit and go home, no matter what has been accomplished – if anything. At worst, though he may have completely exhausted all of his faculties to give his very best to the work at hand, the result at the end of the day is usually that somehow, a young teacher has acquired more work to do and that, since the day is over, he will simply have to stop right in the middle of it and pick it up again in the morning. This process generally carries on all year long until the summer comes and the students go home. At which point, although the work he has acquired each day along the way had continued to surmount, there is no longer any point in trying to finish it because, finished or not, the students are gone. And the only solace one can take in the face of this seeming failure is that: He has done his best. The best teachers had done a little bit more than the bad ones and had tried to maintain a smile, at least in front of the kids. But this is no way to live. It’s exhausting work, but it’s not good work. It is real drudgery.

My children have occasionally asked, “What did you do at work today, dad?” That is a question that I could have answered easily when I worked for Paps. I could have even taken them to the place, pointed to my work and said proudly, “Look! That’s what I did today.” For too many of us, there is often nothing to point to. I frequently found myself, despite my exhaustion, having a difficult time explaining exactly what I had done at work. In education, the most valuable work is always relational. I hope that one day, a few good men and woman will be able to point to their lives and say to my children, “This is the work your father did, he loved me, and that has made some difference in my life.” But too often, though every school system would adamantly shake their heads in agreement that “student relationships” are our most important work (all the “research” acknowledges this after all, and as we all know, our education systems are entirely “research based”), the actions of these systems, even the good ones I have seen, do not support the notion that they care about students as much as they care about their own performance, reputation and efficiency. When a teacher does connect with a student to impact his or her life in some positive way, it is always despite the system, never because of it. And these efforts at reaching out to students exact a cost to the teacher. A cost that further buries the teacher in that other, meaningless drudgery and tedium of bureaucracy, record keeping, score tallying, and the yearly revision and addition of various academic trends touted as the solution to all of the problems of our education system then quickly forgotten the following year. It is only by being willing to largely ignore the demands of the employer and its paperwork, risking some consequence – at very least risking getting behind in his regular “work” – that a teacher might begin to feel like he has made some significant impact on his students, his community and the world. All of this, of course, has never stopped said system from taking full credit for any positive experience a student may have had at school if it believes it could earn some favor in the public eye by publicizing the teacher’s kindness, even if he is behind on submitting his lesson plans for approval.

In an educational environment like this, kids are inadvertently trained to think little and work fast, if not down-right motivated to simply get out! It has been my observation that, in my own life, I have had need, very infrequently, to think or work fast at anything that mattered. On the contrary, most of the time, the mistakes I have made were made because I didn’t think long enough. Why on earth would we want to teach kids to think faster than they already are inclined to do? Why would we want to encourage a habit of thinking less instead of thinking more? It seems like common sense to me that the last thing we would want our children to do is think faster. It contradicts everything we have told them in our homes up to the point they reach school and beyond. How many of us were admonished by our parents to, “Think before you speak.” Imagine if our parents had said, “Just think fast and respond! Memorize the right responses so you don’t have to think as long – just act.” This may work for a times tables quiz. But that is the only life experience I can imagine where thinking faster, might produce better results than thinking longer. And even that is a questionable scenario. Unless of course, there happened to be some sort of timed test at the end of this whole nightmare that would be used as a reflection and measure of my ability to teach. Then maybe I would feel like I needed my students to memorize some things and be able to spit them out on a test as quickly as possible.[4]

But it’s not just in our schools that we receive this unsolicited training. It has practically become a cliché to mention what the fast pace of social media, television, advertising and the internet have done to our people’s ability to focus for very long on anything, let alone a teacher, a book, a task, a thought or an idea. Rather than try to counteract this, our education system has largely jumped right in and tried to make the school experience as much like surfing the internet as possible. “Choose your own path, we’ll try to be really entertaining, fast paced and convenient because we know you don’t have much of an attention span.” Maybe it is because of these experiences in my life that I revel in opportunities to move slowly, to not multitask, to just stand for a while and watch the ewes in a good pasture, to enjoy my work, my food, my children, a nap, a book, the back porch, or a good conversation with a neighbor.

Today my wife said to me, about my oldest son Joshua, “We will need to warn his wife about how slow he’s going to be. No one warned me about you.” Joshua, I am proud to say, is carrying over a tradition, began for me in my grandfather Paps. His work is usually of the highest quality he can manage. And he takes his time to make it so. Albeit sometimes to the consternation of his family and teachers. My poor wife has learned, over the years, to tolerate my deficiency in the area of speed and “multitasking ability.” Perhaps it would be better described as my stubborn refusal to multitask or get in much of a hurry, because that’s what it is. Thankfully, no one warned her about this before our marriage and now, I am grateful to report that she feels like she will stick it out with me anyhow. I wonder if anyone ever warned Udie?

[1] A scythe was what people used before the gas powered weed-eater was invented. When Paps handed me a scythe, the gas powered weed-eater had been invented for 20 years, but he didn’t own one. He had to teach me how to use a scythe. There is a particular rhythm to it, a way it must be moved in order to cut effectively–in order to cut at all actually. But once you get it, it’s quieter, doesn’t break as often as a weed-eater, and it doesn’t give off any smelly fumes. Now that Paps is gone, I have that scythe hanging in my barn. But in full disclosure, I did break down and buy a fairly expensive, noisy, smelly, Echo brand weedeater a few years ago.

[2] August 11, 2018

[3] Earl Butz–United States Secretary of Agriculture, 1971-1976

[4] SAT or ACT anyone?

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