Do you remember your best teacher ever? Maybe an Algebra teacher who turned the search for “x” and “y” into an adventure. Or a History teacher who taught you that where and why an event occurred were much more important than memorizing dates. Or the teacher who saw your potential and would not allow you to let yourself down.

Mine was a summer school teacher — demanding, rewarding, and unconventional. Definitely unconventional.

1956: My 39-year-old father has six kids, five boys and one girl, and we are living on the city’s Southwest Side. He sees a lot of young men hanging around on street corners and says, “Not my boys.” So he does the obvious; he buys 5 acres of a farmer’s cornfield in Roselle where we will build our new home — and farm.

We do build our own home. We know nothing about farming.

A year later, he orders 2,500 (yes, two thousand, five hundred) tomato plants from Evans Plant Farm in Tifton, Georgia. They arrive bare root, tied up in bundles of 25, and wrapped in wet newspaper to keep the roots moist. It is important that we plant them because the money we earn will pay our (Catholic School) tuition, and it’s urgent that they be planted as soon as they arrive so they don’t die.

So we get to take a couple of days off from school to get the job done. If you are old enough to walk, you are helping. Strings 200 feet long are stretched to mark rows, holes are dug every 3 feet, an 8-inch-tall tomato plant is dropped into each hole, followed by a cup of fertilized water, and the hole is filled. Move the strings. Better than standing around on city street corners, right?

Lessons learned:

1) the difference between important and urgent,
2) that a day off from school is not always a vacation,
3) that farming is hard work,
4) that many hands and a division of labor make a really big job go quickly, and
5) every new venture is built on hope, mountains of hope.

We’re now looking at 2,500 baby plants, absolutely helpless, barely visible on an acre of barren black soil, under an unforgiving sun. Please, God, let it rain. Please. Don’t let them die. We probably had to water these plants by hand no more than a few times over all the years we grew them.

Lessons learned:

1) There are no atheists in foxholes – or on farms and
2) when faced with an overwhelming task, we look for a supernatural solution. When that fails, we do what we have to do.

By the first week in August, the tomatoes start ripening. We have two farm stands — one in front of the house and a second one on Lake Street. We’re picking hundreds of pounds of tomatoes a day and need more markets. So we start to “think outside the farm stand.” On weekends we load up the back of the station wagon with tomatoes and other vegetables and drive a few miles north to Hoffman Estates, where the homes are close together.

As dad drives slowly down the street, two of us walk up to the homes on either side, our arms loaded with tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. “Good morning, Ma’am. Would you like to buy some fresh vegetables? Of course she does. Peapod long before Peapod was invented. After multiple morning trips, we load up yet again mid-afternoon and go to the exit gate of a nearby factory just as the workers are getting off their shift. Yes, they want them too. Farmers market before there was farmers market.

Lessons learned:

1) If you didn’t have a “plan B” when you started, you better be able to come up with one, and
2) convenience sells.

By early fall, we are mostly selling tomatoes by the (50 pound) bushel for canning. When the first killing frost comes, the season is over. The plants we raised from their dependent infancy through productive adulthood are finished with their life on this Earth. But they’re not done yet. All those tiny tan-colored seeds inside every tomato are each plant’s future generation. From the plant’s point of view, the actual red tomato is simply a delivery and dispersal vehicle for those seeds. Obviously, it works.

Lessons learned:

1) For everything there is a time and a season, and
2) the desire to live on — however we define that, is universal.

So we hook up our orange trailer to the back of our blue Ford tractor, cross the street, and go clean out the neighbor farmer’s chicken barn. Straw, manure, and urine. Unforgettable smell. Something you never get to experience if you only buy the chicken or the eggs. Loaded up, we drive back home and go up and down the rows of dead tomato plants using pitchforks to spread the fresh manure onto the field for the sake of next year’s crop. Then we plow it under and let mother-nature do the composting.

Lessons learned:

1) You have to replace what you used up (soil nutrients),
2) one man’s problem is another man’s opportunity,
3) there’s an easy way to compost, and
4) driving a tractor is fun.

If the goal was to keep everyone busy and off the street corners, it succeeded wildly. If the point was to learn how to run a business by maximizing profit while minimizing labor and expenses, well, that was never the goal. I don’t think we ever knew how much money we made. But we were busy and the tuition was paid.

Lessons learned:

1) Sometimes our goals have more possibilities than we realize, and
2) sometimes lessons we could learn are left “off the table.”

My summer school teacher taught me (almost) everything I would need to know about life — without ever uttering a single word. Forty percent of us will be planting vegetable gardens this month and the most popular vegetable in those gardens is the tomato. So the next time you bite into a slice of that red deliciousness, whether you grew it or bought it, you’re biting into one of life’s best, unconventional, and unsung teachers ever.

For the “bible” on tomatoes, get a copy of “Epic Tomatoes” by Craig LeHollier.

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