Editor's note: This story was reported and written before the spread of coronavirus forced widespread school closures across the U.S. — including the closure of South Central High School in Farina, Ill. We're publishing now because we think it's the kind of feel-good story many people need right now. We hope you agree.
Once a year, 15-year-old Brandt Hiestand gets a taste of the kind of independence every teenager longs for.
"It's the one day out of the year I can drive myself to school and no one can really say I can't," says Brandt, a sophomore at South Central High School in Farina, Ill.
"I milked it last year," says Alec Langley, a South Central sophomore. "I definitely had my fill of fun. It's a little dose of freedom."
That freedom tops out at about 20 miles per hour, because the wheels Brandt and Alec are so excited to drive happen to be attached to a tractor. And the annual tradition they're so excited about is Drive Your Tractor To School Day, or Tractor Day, as they call it.
Marked by rural high schools across the Midwest, Tractor Day is the culmination of National Future Farmers of America Week, which takes place every February.
In this part of south-central Illinois, the tradition dates back to at least the early 1980s, when Alec's father remembers driving his own tractor to school.
Dennis Wollin, a South Central sophomore and an officer for the school's FFA chapter, says Tractor Day is one way for rural students like him to know their pride.
"A lot of farm kids, you know, they might not have the nicest truck but that's because we have this hundred-thousand dollar machinery. And this is kind of the one day a year that we can bring it and show it off," he says.
Almost a quarter of South Central's 200-some students are in FFA.
Brandt's brother, Alec Hiestand, 14, says he started prepping his red and yellow Versatile tractor almost a week before Tractor Day.
"We waxed it twice, actually, did it in two nights, about three hours a night," he says. "Wax on, wax off."
Victoria Iler, 16, prepared by learning how to drive a 1940 Farmall tractor she borrowed from family friends. It was her first time driving one, but she was quick to master it. She took the faded-red tractor out for a few laps and didn't stall out once.
"I thought I was going to, not going to lie," she says.
When Tractor Day finally arrives, on a Friday in late February, Alec Langley heads out a little after 7 a.m. He climbs up into a green John Deere that he decorated with two American flags, then pulls the tractor out of the driveway. Just down the street, he meets up with his best friend, who's driving his grandpa's tractor, and they continue on in a small, slow-moving caravan.
Alec has been into tractors since he was a little boy "thinking the tractor was the coolest thing ever," he says. He often works alongside his dad growing corn and soybeans, and he can rattle off the details and differences between a half-dozen pieces of farm equipment parked in the garage.
It's a 20-minute drive into town, and on the way the caravan passes fields of short brown corn stalks poking through half-frozen puddles.
Alec's is the third tractor to arrive at school. He takes a spot in the staff parking lot, then raises his tractor's bucket loader so the American flags flutter in a cold wind.
Over the next half hour, more students pull in, honking their horns and revving their engines. In all, 16 made it in, and one broke down on the way. The students grab their backpacks and hop down from the cabs to pose for pictures and check out each other's rides.
Agriculture teacher T.J. Bolin gathers everyone together to decide on superlatives. Victoria wins for oldest tractor. Alec Langley's flags earn him the prize for best-dressed. And Alec Hiestand's waxing efforts don't exactly pay off — but he does win the award for loudest tractor.
Shortly after 8 a.m., Bolin brings the festivities to close, and nudges the students to class. The teens groan their disappointment. At least there's still the ride home to look forward to.