Here’s what happened when I taught school one day: A teacher assigns the now completely boring and overdone 4th grade project of doing a history report on a famous American. The “fun” part is coming in dressed like the figure. (Okay, I think George Washington Carver was kinda cool, but every year there’s like 20 kids dressed as him–couldn’t the teacher open the kids’ minds a little?).
One kid who normally has zero interest in school runs to the teacher’s desk all excited. “I’m gonna do John Deere!”
The teacher barely lifts her head to acknowledge the less-than-stellar student. “Who?”
“John Deere. My father has this great tractor and I started looking him up on-line–John Deere, I mean– and I’m gonna do him.”
The teacher shakes her head. She looks over her list. “Hmm. Well, he’s not really famous, is he?”
The kid shoves his hands in his pockets, thinking. “I know him–and there’s stuff on the computer about him.” The kid’s 4’6.” The teacher’s a goddess.
She moves her pencil down the list. “Let’s see what the other children are doing. Jane is being Harriet Tubman. Matt is doing George Washington Carver and Lucy is doing Brittney Spears. Does that give you a better idea what I’m looking for?” (This really happened!)
The brief elation on the kid’s face, the one glimmer of excitement he has for school disappears. He doesn’t answer, just goes back to his seat.
His mother talks to me about it the next day. This kid despite his teacher’s suggestion and his mother’s misguided pleading decides that he’s going to do John Deere NO MATTER WHAT. This kid receives a star next to his name in my head. His sweet mother worries that he’ll cause trouble and she depends on a substitute job at the school to get by when milk prices and ridiculous regulations threaten to kill her husband’s farm livelihood.
“You’re kid’s a future leader,” I say. “They can’t fire you because your son thinks John Deere is cool. Half of Hollywood wears the company’s gear.”
I see that she loves her kid and doesn’t want him labeled a troublemaker. She a good mother. I tell her that. “You should go talk to the teacher. I’m sure she doesn’t realize she’s putting nails in your son’s educational coffin. You know your kid is right.”
I don’t know if the kid ever presented his project. I didn’t want to know because I suspect the mother was too afraid of the teacher. I hope I’m wrong. I hope that kid stayed brave. He’s a non-famous hero of mine.
Now here’s the history: Until I moved to Upstate New York I thought John Deere was a hipster fashion designer, but John has a history. It’s not as bold and crazy as Bruce Jenner’s history, but for the men who talk tractors up here Mr. Deere’s equipment is the stuff of romance. You have your International Harvester devotees and the old Ford machines set some men’s hearts thumping under their flannels (my husband), but John Deere is the man.
Young John was apprenticed out to a respected Vermont blacksmith at the age of 17 in 1821. He opened shop, failed at it and escaped west to Illinois with his wife to start over. John had a lot of sex with said wife–they produced nine kids. During a lull between sparking he invented a high polished steel plow to replace the cast iron and wood models that sod-busters were using with little success on the tough prairie soil.
The farmers LOVED it. The demand was great. John realized that if he manufactured extras customers could stop in and leave with the product in hand (not like in the old days when you had to put in your order and wait).
John took on a partner who didn’t like railroads. Mr. Deere wanted a railroad track right through town to send his plows to their new homes. This partner had questionable bookkeeping practices so John washed his hands of the partnership.
The company went on to do great things as we all know. Even Hollywood wears the gear.