Between the Rows: That's Where I'm From

Published online: Nov 15, 2019 Articles, Between the Rows
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This column appears in Potato Grower’s 2019 Idaho Annual issue.

Mrs. Archibald was—and remains to this day—perhaps the greatest high school English teacher in the history of high school English teachers. In all the annals of secondary educators of language arts, there aren’t many whose talent and impact could be seen both immediately and long into the future.

On occasion, Mrs. Archibald had a tendency to come off as slightly scatterbrained. She was, however, relentlessly laser-focused in one thing: Making sure her students at Oakley Junior/Senior High School had a command of the English language that would serve them well not only in passing some standardized test, but in whatever future personal and vocational endeavors they might pursue. It’s ironic, then, that one of my favorite memories of Mrs. Archibald occurred upon her seeing the results of just such a state-issued assessment.

It was my junior year, and my class had recently completed the Direct Writing Assessment (which may or may not now be defunct; I’m not sure). The assessment had been administered in the form of a prompt from which we each wrote our own extemporaneous essay. I should note here that there were probably between 400 and 500 eleventh-graders in our school district, and exactly 28 of them attended Oakley High and were educated by Mrs. Archibald.

When the results came in, she simply couldn’t contain her pride at her students’ performance. Through the grapevine, Mrs. Archibald had learned that of 12 perfect scores awarded across the Cassia County School District, no fewer than six had come from Oakley kids. For those of you keeping score, that’s 50 percent of the cream of the crop coming from roughly 6 percent of the student population. That, to be brief, rocks.    

That statistic has stuck in my memory over the ensuing years because it affirmed what I’ve been brought up to believe from the cradle: That highly successful people can and do come from what many might deem obscure places and circumstances. And not just in some “the human spirit can triumph over anything” way. I can’t speak for everybody who grew up in a little farm town, but I firmly believe that any success I have achieved is largely because of my upbringing in Oakley, Idaho, rather than in spite of it.

I believe that any success I have achieved is largely because of my upbringing in Oakley, Idaho, rather than in spite of it.

A dear friend—someone who has for years lived and raised a family in farm country, though obviously not on an actual farm—once mentioned to me how remarkable it is that my family is so educated, well-read and well-spoken, considering they’re all “just farmers and cowboys.” Well, thank you for the compliment … I guess?

I mean, most of your “just farmer” neighbors have dollar values that register in the several millions go in and out of their businesses every year. They interpret weather and economic forecasts on a daily basis. They intimately understand and are involved in government at the local, state and federal levels. They are on a first-name basis with the most capable lawyers, bankers, politicians and scientists in the region. And, the Clampett family’s hijinks notwithstanding, they would comport themselves just fine in Beverly Hills or Manhattan or Paris, thank you very much.

More value comes from Idaho’s potato farms than just the inarguably impressive billion-plus dollars’ worth of raw product they generate annually. That kid who rogues potatoes and pulls rye out of the wheat field all summer may never set foot on a farm again after he turns 18—but he’ll dang sure know how to work hard as an engineer or city planner or football coach. Driving 10-wheelers at harvest is what keeps Hank, the widowed, retired middle school principal down the road, feeling young at 84. And what better way for a kid with a diamond ring burning a hole in his pocket to get to know the family than to be subjected to the dust-cloaked, 16-hour workdays of spud harvest in Grace or Gooding, Menan or Middleton?

As far as I know, Mrs. Archibald never got an “O Captain! My Captain!” moment like Robin Williams did in Dead Poets Society, but that’s only because real life isn’t a movie. No matter how many “Thank a Farmer” campaigns get rolled out, our potato growers aren’t likely to see any dramatic show of gratitude, either. Their legacies lie in every kid who never apologizes for graduating from a 1A high school and who holds his head high when all the recognition his home state gets is from that 10-pound sack of starchy goodness in the pantry.

I’m proud beyond measure to say, “Yep, that’s exactly where I’m from.”