“I just had to learn how to play,” she shrugs. “Period.”
In the years that followed, she tagged along with several old-time fiddlers and performed with a little acoustical group in Casa Grande who mentored her, taught her techniques and allowed her to develop her own unique style.
In 1983, she landed a job with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension as a 4-H (a youth development organization) secretary and began a return to the agricultural lifestyle she loved.
While there, she and a good friend successfully designed software for livestock auctions. The program drastically streamlined the momentous task of cataloging, selling and transporting hundreds of animals. Her job evaluations were spectacular. Following each one, her boss Sam lectured her against wasting opportunities and encouraged her to re-enroll and finish her college degree.
His persistence finally wore her down, and she agreed in 1987 to enroll at Central Arizona College, a junior college located near Casa Grande.
“When I gave my resignation, Sam got this huge smile on his face,” she recalls. Then he arranged a meeting at the state 4-H office in Tucson where she met with representatives who gave her a roadmap of courses that would bring her back into the U of A extension. In the meantime, Sam advised her to also seek a teaching credential as a back-up plan.
“I always wanted to go into agriculture,” she confides. “But my dad knew there was no money in ag. Sam knew teaching was a great way to raise children.”
So, 14 years after dropping out, she returned to college as a single mom and promptly began failing her first class, a biology course. Immediately, she panicked and began an internal dialogue.
“Either I’m going to go ahead and fail, or I’m going to learn to study the right way,” she remembers telling herself. Armed with determination and her parents as a support system, she decided she would not quit again.
With a friend, she discovered a learning program called 3RQ which stood for “Read, Review, Recite, Question, and it actually changed her life. Her grades soared, and because of the turnaround, the school invited her to join the honors program. Graduating in 1990 with an associate’s degree, she maintained a 3.89 GPA and completed an honors presentation on the Central Arizona Project.
Her research included a trip to Buckskin Mountain, near Parker, Ariz., where she traveled along the canal, observing massive lift stations and the sump tank, and took hundreds of photos. Here she received the basis for her later fascination with water conservation and the acknowledgement of water sources as the lifeblood of farming and agriculture.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” she says. “I was treated with respect and completed the honors project.”
Then she transferred her units to Arizona State University and graduated with her bachelor’s degree in education in 1992.
She was assigned her first class that August at Saguaro School in Casa Grande and joined a team of dedicated second-grade teachers who played a big part in her life. Sharing the responsibilities, they assigned her the duty of arranging field trips.
“We were studying about fish, and I knew the University of Arizona Maricopa Agricultural Center had a fish program and I convinced them to let us visit,” she says. It was just the first in a long line of detailed educational trips for her students. Soon, they were meeting a crop-dusting pilot and touring his plane and then visiting a U.S. water lab and the Health Department so students could learn to tie agriculture to the food they ate.
“I didn’t know it, but my career was developing from a whim,” she says.
The field trips were so successful that other schools begged to be added to the roster. Meanwhile, Caywood-Robertson added more and more ag-related curriculum to her classroom lessons.
“I used it for everyday practical teaching of math, language arts and science,” she explains. She also incorporated her fiddling skills in those early years of teaching, mimicking animal sounds and having the students use their imagination to pen their own stories.
“It was a fun way to teach,” she says.
After taking a leave of absence for one year, she returned to teach first grade at Ocotillo School, an historic adobe school in Casa Grande where her parents, aunts and uncles all attended. Teaching there was nostalgic as well as challenging as most of the students came from the Indian reservation and represented the underprivileged.