All my mother remembers is that I suddenly stopped eating beef.
I was a smart kid. Not smart by the standards of private schools, or households where you are expected to excel in subjects that refuse to make sense, like chemistry or any kind of math, but I was smart all the same and, more importantly, I was good. I wanted to do well and pay attention. I wanted my teachers to like me and tell me that I was special, I was hardworking, I was their favorite. When you grow up in a small town in Texas, in a school district where by the time you reach high school it seems like half the class is either pregnant or constantly stoned, being both smart and good does not go unnoticed. They put you in EL, Extended Learning. It’s a special class where they gather all of the well-behaved smarty-pants in one room and teach you stuff the other kids don’t get to learn, like how to cook seaweed, or how to become a smug know-it-all asshole. While other students were learning Texas history again, we got to do reports on exotic, far off places like Bhutan and Canada. We learned how to weave baskets–it’s one of my most useful skills–and made necklaces out of arrowheads. We made volcanoes, and learned about the ocean and the sun and the moon and the stars, and all about Pluto when it was still worthy of being a planet. We learned lots of really exciting, interesting stuff, the kind of things that all kids should learn instead of constantly focusing on test prep. Best of all, we went on field trips. We went to a pond to learn how to test the water for chemicals and pollutants. We went to a library where a woman with glasses and a beige jacket taught us about archives. And we went to a farm, so that we could learn about where our food comes from, how it gets to the grocery stores and how that process is related to keeping us healthy and alive.
It was a cattle farm. Some type of ranch where they kept their cows until they were big and juicy, then slaughtered them and sold the beef to restaurants and distributors down in San Antonio. They drove us around in a wagon pulled by a big, noisy tractor, and Blake got yelled at for trying to reach down and touch one of the wagon wheels. This was EL, Blake. We were the good kids. We didn’t do that kind of dumb shit.
We got to touch some of the cows, and point and laugh at piles of cow crap. We got to see where they go to slice and dice them. Where the blood gets pushed by a giant squeegee into an even more giant floor drain that led down to some kind of blood catching apparatus. The smell of flesh and heat and something I couldn’t identify and haven’t smelled since–does cow angst have a scent?–hung in the air around us. “Cool,” the boys kept saying. I felt like I might throw up.
They showed us the giant freezer where they stored the cuts.
On the bus ride back to school, I kept my face pressed against the cool pane of the window to stop the rush of vomit to my throat. “So what did we learn today?” the teacher asked. Too much. We learned too much. We learned things that we didn’t need to know. I was only 11.
All my mother remembers is that I suddenly stopped eating beef. But it wasn’t a sudden decision, far from inexplicable or rash. It came from a place of knowledge and experience. It came from extending my learning far beyond anything my stomach could handle. In the 16 years that have followed my trip to the farm, I have never returned to eating beef. Though in fairness, I’ve never once cooked seaweed either.