When I was in seventh grade, my family acquired an old farmstead reclaimed by the forest. We worked on the weekends, clearing land that would become the driveway, erecting outbuildings, slowly turning the place back into a recognizable farm. By the time I got to high school, my morning duties involved feeding the pigs while my sister fed the cows (she was a senior when I was a freshman). Our transportation to school was the family plow truck. It was a 1986 Dodge Ram with a key broken off in the driver’s side door and a key permanently stuck in the ignition. The name of our small farm was spray-painted by hand on the doors, using blocky stencils.

In high school,
Stevie Dembowski
and her sister juggled
liking to stay up late, having to feed pigs and cows before school and depending on a balky truck for transportation. Photo courtesy of Stevie Dembowski

Other charms: The truck had a shoddy starter. When my sister and I went to use it, she sat in the driver’s seat and turned the key while I slid under the truck with a hammer and tapped the starter until the truck eventually rumbled to life.

Between morning farm chores, the truck starter and being high-achieving students who stayed up too late, we inevitably arrived tardy to school on occasion. In the era of “Seinfeld,” with an attendance taker who couldn’t be conned, the woman was infamously referred to as “the Attendance Nazi.” Students griped about never being able to garner her sympathy, or pull a fast one on her. She happened to be an acquaintance of our mother, but that didn’t mean we had an in.

One morning, when my sister and I spent 15 minutes trying to start the truck, our mom, seeing our struggles, called it in. Another time a family friend pastured his horse with our cattle. We woke up to a broken fence post and loose cattle. We corralled them before heading to school. Our mom was home to see the devastation and called it in before heading to work herself. Once, simply because we were too slow-moving, my sister managed to get us to school under the wire: 10 miles in a mere 10 minutes.

Because we were known to have farm animals and were occasionally late because of them, we were able to rotate through a list of excuses, based on real-life incidents, but varied enough to keep folks from getting wise. There was the standard: “Cows (or pigs) got out.” Once a calf was born on the outside of the electric fence, so that was incorporated (one-time use only). My personal favorite was using the pig farrowing excuse. Late to school – why? “Gotta pull the dead piglets so the mom doesn’t cannibalize them and the rest of the litter.” Just gruesome enough to discourage further probing.

My sister and I thought we were geniuses, getting the best of the Attendance Lady. It wasn’t until we were older that our mother informed us that the Attendance Nazi never believed a word of our excuses, but they were so creative, they kept her amused, and she let us slide.

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