In October of the year,
he counts potatoes dug from the brown field,
counting the seed, counting
the cellar’s portion out,
and bags the rest on the cart’s floor.
The farmer in Donald Hall’s poem is going to market, and many of us are only a few generations away from such a family farm. I’m reminded of it with each rereading and every time the school bus routes and back-to-school sales are published in the local paper preparing for the new school year, the school calendar being one of the last vestiges of our agrarian past. I start counting my figurative potatoes while thinking of my past classes and my daughter, the teacher.
In my retirement, I no longer have the August teacher dreams but feel a pang since I no longer share that calendar. Just as the foliage dies, back in the potato field, the crops await digging and collection from the soil. I am an observer of the rhythm of planting, harvesting, and going to market as in the poem.
“Ox Cart Man” and the opening days of school blend for me in theme and practice. I liked to read this poem in October of the year—with my new English classes, with fellow teachers, to myself—as a fresh school year unfolded. In the poem’s agrarian cycle, the farmer walks to Portsmouth to sell a year’s worth of crops—“potatoes, flaxseed, birch brooms, maple sugar, goose feathers, yarn”—then cart, then ox, before walking home to begin again.
It is an evocation of the school year cycle. It located my students and me in the time of year, the ritual of taking our “goods” to market, the ritual of inhabiting the world of the poem. Reading this poem demonstrated how to read a poem and how to write one. Yet it is only recently that I’ve fully located myself in the experience described. I too am ox cart man.
By October, the fresh classroom rhythm established, you feel like the oxen are pulling evenly in the yoke. The new class of students grows into their back-to-school sneakers and pants; the new backpacks are a little scuffed; the new seating arrangement comfortable; harvest can begin. One hopes. We make our way to the fair to sell our potatoes, brooms, sugar, and yarn, the fair being the commerce of the classroom. We read, write, discuss, while pulling the cart of learning.
Schools harvest in June; now is sowing time—yes, a reversal of the spring planting and fall harvesting. Schools, too, are building on the enrichment of last year’s crop and preparing to load the wagon heading for June, with the new potatoes and feathers of learning. And every year it is a new wagon, new seed, testing new varieties. Some get saved for the farm itself and some are spent on supplies and, presumably, the taxes and materials that support this “farm.” The learning reseeds itself.
The family, too. My granddaughter has entered preschool, the first of the next generation to join our family business. Freya is in the Butterfly Room. Mango, her stuffed sloth pal, tags along, suspended from her backpack. Today, there will be circle time and nap time and colors and letters and numbers and playground. And snack.
She is 14 blocks high and learning to sit at a table to draw with her parallel pals. She parts her hair in the middle with two pigtails and knows the names of all her family members. I am Opa. Morning hairdos are a new thing, as is getting up early and into the car. And she has a real cart: a baby buggy, she has discovered, to push around with her butterfly cohort.
Just like her mother, Hilary, did a generation ago, she enters the schoolhouse door to start her preschool years. Now, Hilary teaches her own class of kindergartners assembled on the rug for morning meeting, reviewing the weather, the alphabet, the schedule, the rules of recess, and the early lessons of kindness and civility. Child by child, she forges a connection.
We romanticize farming, but it’s hard work, every day. Same for teaching, at every level.
The new mother in her joins the teacher, much as it did for me as a father when she was still a new daughter; when parenting was still new for me; when grandfathering was still new for my father, as it is now for me, on this road to my Portsmouth.
We romanticize farming, but it’s hard work, every day. Same for teaching, at every level. But the crops—oh, the pleasure when a field of potatoes flowers; when the vegetables are vine-ripe; when the youngest child grows like a weed and marches proudly down the furrow, dripping seeds for pumpkins or zinnias or friendships and playmates.
If we can step back from the minutiae, the daily chores and cares of rainfall and seasonal volume of work, the mere multiplication tables, phonics versus whole language and the pressures to read, the occasional instructive failures. It’s the romance of growing that carries us forward, that helps us to renew our labors, like Hall’s farmer who starts in on next year’s ox, harness, yoke, and cart.
Yes, I am ox cart man. And off to market I go, with another crop: this writing that you now read. Next year, I may rotate the north 40. What if we planted sweet peas instead of onions? Imagine the blooms! And the soil will thank us, sequestering carbon and love and enriching the whole valley when we go to market. For our family business is your family business. What are you loading into your cart this season?
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as An Ode to the Classroom Rhythms of Fall