I work in a literacy program in southwest Detroit, near a neighborhood known as Mexicantown.
One day, a coworker was commenting on how some of our students go back to Mexico for extended periods, usually to visit a sick relative and usually taking their children out of school for the trip. She is shocked at how little regard they seem to have for their children’s education.
“It’s cultural,” I observed. Not her culture. She could not imagine taking her children out of school.
“My mom used to pull us out of school for a week every fall,” I remembered.
“What?” she exclaimed.
I explained that my mother grew up on a farm in northern Michigan and my grandparents grew potatoes, which were harvested in the fall. Although my mother was one of ten children, only one remained on the farm and when it was time to harvest the potatoes, my mother returned home to help, taking her children with her.
The schools up north incorporated harvesting times into their school calendars; but Detroit Public Schools paid no attention to agrarian cycles, and my mother paid no attention to the Detroit Public Schools. Farming was in her blood, and helping her parents was her priority.
As we spoke, images of harvesting potatoes flooded my mind, images I had not thought of in many years.
A digger was hitched to the back of a tractor—giant metal talons which sunk deep into the earth and jostled the ground, gently dislodging the potatoes. I loved watching the digger dancing along the rows. In its wake sat piles of potatoes, previously hidden and now miraculously revealed.
It was magic to me, and I never minded missing school to participate in this annual ritual.
What I did mind was the corresponding week in spring when we would make the trek to the farm to pick rocks. My uncle once explained to me that while potatoes grew all summer and were dug up in the fall, rocks grew all winter and needed to be dug up in the spring before the plows could ready the fields for planting. “Why do you plant them?” I would whine to him. Picking up rocks was not as magical as digging up potatoes.
I really believed rocks grew, until I was about eleven and consulted an encyclopedia to learn about the geological formations in northern Michigan and the nature of frozen ground heaving.
My co-worker looked at me in amazement as I related this story. Yes, even though my mother pulled me out of school twice a year, I had turned out ok. We may have missed some academic lessons but we were still learning—about nature and farming and the importance of helping out family.