Friday, July 2, 2010

The Boss of the Cornfield

Flickr photo by Bulsti, creative commons
If it'd been up to her, I'm sure Janice would never have hired me. She needed a girl with arm muscles, someone tough enough to tramp through cornfields in the blazing summer heat, to dig holes eighteen inches deep with only a hand auger, collecting thousands of samples of soil to analyze for Janice's graduate thesis. Janice had trained for the work, lifting weights and running up hills in her work boots.
At 17, my most athletic moments were the times I was accidentally hit by a ball while walking across the high school gym.

But Daddy and her advising professor were friends and colleagues, so there I was, my thighs stuck to the vinyl seat in the state owned truck at 4:30AM, smelling the diesel and her coffee as we headed off to yet another cornfield of eastern North Carolina.
With temps in the upper nineties, 100 % humidity, and at least 250 holes to dig each morning, Janice and I were always on the road early, racing against the elements.

"Eat a pumpkin muffin; it'll help," she'd say, and hand me the paper bag. Besides the hippies I babysat for down the street, Janice was the only person I knew in 1981 who ate yogurt and bought whole wheat flour. "Your body is a machine," she'd say. "You've gotta give it the right fuel."

Janice baked? How interesting that this lady in the tank top, shorts, and steel toed shoes could be such a bizarre mix of my mother and my father. She did research with a team of men, yet she made up recipes of her own? Would I be like her when I was a worldly woman of 23?

Janice was a patient teacher, up to a point. She taught me to follow the maps she'd sketched off on graph paper, to count our paces as we walked down each row, the leaves slapping our faces, making paper cuts on our eyelids and cheeks.
She taught me to squat as I twisted the auger through the soil, to use thigh muscles I didn't know I had. And on the few occasions when I didn't sweat out the gallons of water we downed, she taught me how to find a tree at the edge of a field, grab onto it, squat again, and pee.

When the days were especially unbearable, Janice would help me make an ice hat. We'd pack our floppy hats with ice and salt, then quickly turn them over and tie them on our heads. An hour later, we'd get punchy and fall over laughing at the sight of each other with the water dribbling down our necks, our faces smeared with dirt, our shirts soaked with sweat and melted ice.
She'd tease me about turning from Little Miss Weakling into Wonder Girl, and I'd feel myself walk taller. And at the end of the day, when I'd dance around the truck, lost in the ecstasy that comes with finishing something hard, with pushing my body to the brink of exhaustion, I'd catch a smile on her face as she turned away, forcing herself to hold back the sarcasm.
She was proud of me. I was sure of it.

But work with Janice wasn't all daisies and ice hats.
Janice also taught me how to properly receive a cussing. Of course I'd heard plenty of curse words before, but never by nice people. And no one had ever cussed at me. In fact, nobody had ever even yelled at me, except my parents, and they certainly had reason.
Janice welcomed me into a brand new world of profanity.

One day she cussed at me for fifteen minutes straight, combining cuss words in arrangements I'd never even heard before. We had just finished our second field of the morning, (the SECOND field,) and I was in the throes of ecstasy. We both were, laughing and singing and jogging back to the truck. The Lighthouse was only fifteen minutes away, a meat and three restaurant with the coldest, sweetest ice tea in the entire state of North Carolina. When exhaustion hit us at hole #403 of the day, we kept each other going with descriptions of that icy cold tea.
And then I tripped.
Maybe it was my own size 9 feet and my adolescent clumsiness, or maybe it was a fallen cornstalk or a root, but as I went flying, so did the crate. It flew, and with it flew each of the 250 soil samples, the clumps of soil scattering in the air, the tin caps flying.
Then the words flew.
How could you be so *#$ stupid and so @^*%*#@ clumsy?
She cussed as we fumbled around in the dirt and gathered every one of the 250 canisters and lids. She cussed as she carried the crate back to the truck, she cussed as I sat in the truck and cried dirty tears. Janice saw me crying and just kept cussing.

And then she stopped.

After a quiet moment at the back of the truck, Janice returned to my side, fished the graph paper map of the field out of her back pocket, clipped it back on her clipboard, and said, "We better get started. Got your water?"
We headed for flag #1 and started over. That was the end of it.

It's funny. I've worked in laboratories and in high schools, in a kindergarten and in churches, but I count walking the cornfields with Janice as one of my best training grounds ever.

Janice taught me that my body could do amazing things, that I could work harder than I ever thought possible, for longer than I ever imagined. I learned that my sensitive nature was resilient too. Words were just words, and a person could be funny and loving in their own way and still cuss a blue streak. I learned that women can be tough and soft and hard and kind, all at the same time-- or maybe at different times.

But the best lesson I learned with Janice was that I can find joy and maybe even God in working my hardest at a difficult task, even if it's digging holes. I'm still trying to figure out how that works. Is it because we come from God? That when we push ourselves to really dig for strength and the abilities God gave us, we get more in touch with the Source of strength? That God's own traits become more visible? Maybe, I'm not sure. But I am certain that whenever I discover more about my true self, I discover more about the God who made me.

Thank you, Janice, wherever you are!

This post is part of the writing project on "Bosses," over at the High Calling Blogs . Starting Monday, July 5, hop over here for links to more stories about bosses.

But before you skedaddle, would you share about a favorite boss you had? A crazy or funny or scary boss? I'd love to hear from you!

Have a super weekend, friends!
Love, Becky

PS. Enjoy Janice's Pumpkin muffin recipe!
Janice's Pumpkin Muffins
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/8 tsp cloves
1/2 cup raisins
1/3 cup butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses
2 beaten egg
1 cup canned pumpkin
1/2 cup milk
Sift together first 7 ingredients. Add raisins and stir to coat them. Set aside.
Cream butter and sugars, and then add and blend remaining wet ingredients. Stir in dry ingredients. Bake in a greased muffin tin at 375 for about 20 minutes.
Makes 12-18 muffins, depending on how high you fill the tins.


Roxane B. Salonen said...

Becky, a fabulously visual post. Simply wonderful. Your talent is incredible. Thanks for sharing it with us! Let's see...bosses...well, when I was working as a newspaper reporter, I had a boss that someone had described (before I took the job) as mousy. He was a mild-mannered newspaper editor who had inherited the gig from his prominent, publisher father. Turned out to be a wonderful, though understood and underestimated man. He was such a respectful boss, and I learned so much from him. He was not mousy at all but had a very strong interior and Christ-like manner. He wasn't your typical Type A editor and I'm so grateful God led me to him. Thanks for reminding me of this incredible soul who entered my life at a time when I really needed that kind of guidance.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

What a mentor you got to have! I wish every young girl had a Cornfield Boss like you did--imagine how tough and confident they'd become!
Your writing just sings.

Anonymous said...

I feel like I had a morning visit to the cornfield! Imagery is great! The best boss I ever had was a seemingly scattered OT who was also a brilliant therapist. She was very helpful to point out to me that I am a nonsequential thinker and that I would always know stuff without being able to explain how I know it and that it was okay! It took me many years to really understand her analysis of me, but she was dead on an it helped me to accept and embrace how I think.

Amy Sullivan said...

I love that the first person who ever cussed you out is a person who taught you so much (besides curse words!). Oh, don't you wish Janice could read this? What would she think?

Jeff Rogers said...

Thanks for a stirring and lyrical testament to a remarkable person and an extraordinary (/ordinary!) season of growth. This one sounds the best notes of your voice through and through! I loved it.

It reminded me of Phil Datinoff, a Jewish manager of a family-owned women's clothing store, who gave me my first "real job" and taught me how to treat customers well (selling women's shoes!) and trusted me with successively more responsibility; Bob Witherspoon, who hired me to work in roses (that's right, lower case "r", as in rose gardens, not to be confused with the defunct retailer by the same name) for whom I dug holes 'til I couldn't move, pruned bushes 'til my hands, wrists and forearms ached, and shoveled cow manure and chicken manure by the truckload--and once refused to spread DDT (and he didn't fire me for insubordination!); Warren Elledge, a principal who hired me as a classroom teacher's aide in a sixth grade classroom when I was between colleges and in one school year changed my understanding of teaching, learning, and human nature. God worked in each of them to work in me.

Thanks for reminding me of them, and thanks for a great post that stirred the frisking subtitle of your blog in me!

(Oh yes, and thanks for the recipe, too; I’ll give it a try . . . sans raisins.)

Anonymous said...

Becky - There are so many rich treasures in this post. What stands out to me most is your one line about the ecstasy that follows 'finishing something hard." And you didn't even know you could do it. Isn't that a true statement about life? Hopefully our kids will learn that as they grow up.

Also, regarding the cussing: "Words are words." Yes, and people are people. I used to be such a prude when I was younger (brought up in a home with no cursing) and was so shocked at cursing. You realize later that people are people, and words are words. They aren't always as intimidating as they might appear.

Rebecca Ramsey said...

I'm LOVING the stories, y'all!
Roxane, it always startles me when people turn out to be so different from the first impression they give. It makes me remember to try to wait and give people a chance.

GG, yep, I wish my daughter could have a tough, physical job like that. Her nanny job (for last 2 summers) has given her some great experiences though.

Hey Susie, that's really cool. You do exactly the same thing for me, you know, help me understand the way I think & the way my kids think. I'm so grateful! When we understand our own personalities better, the world just makes more sense.

Amy, I never thought about it that way, but that is a good thing. I'm not sure whether I'd want her to read it or not! The bare truth, based on memories from long ago, sometimes hits people in different ways. I hope she'd like it. :)

Thanks, Jeff. I love your stories too. Now every time I see you in the pulpit, I'm going to picture you kneeling in front of some lady, slipping stilettos on her feet. Or shoveling chicken manure. :)

Hi Brad, yes, I was a prude too. I think I missed out on getting to know some really cool folks because the walls went up as soon as I heard what came out of their mouths. I hear you!

Angie Muresan said...

I don't think anyone ever cussed at me to my face. In some ways I'm still such an innocent. But I have heard plenty of it directed at other things.
Happy 4th, Becky! Blessings and love to you and yours.