As the Official Garden Lady at my son’s primary school, I don’t just get to wear mismatched outfits, a large hat and a laminated badge. I also get to witness how a few planter boxes serve as a microcosm of how life works.
Every week we meet for a few hours after school learning about where food comes from. We have a good time digging, finding worms and ladybugs, weeding, watering, pruning, sweeping and planting. And every week I am amazed at how it all plays out. Today was the first Garden Club of the school year, and so it all begins again…
There are The Regulars who I know from last year. I love them. They know the lay of the land: what to do with the hand shovels; where to fill the watering cans; and how to maneuver the red wagon through the maze of kids and coiled hoses. They arrive with smiles on their faces, are glad to be there, and then get down to business. They make my volunteer job a real joy. I can leave them alone for a few minutes and trust that they are not going to throw soil in each other’s faces or eat plant food when my back is turned.
Then there are the First-Timers. Shy, timid and unsure how to ask where they fit in with the gaggle of kids, I have to seek them out. I coax them into the environment like a newly transplanted seedling. They need time to acclimate. Once settled, you can see the wonder in their faces, the joy. Sometimes they even tell me, “Miss Jill, this is the first time I’ve ever planted a plant – EVER – in my Whole Life!” Their exuberance is innocent and genuine – such a pleasure to witness and support.
Unfortunately there is a third category, which I have to come into contact with from time to time. These are the wayward kids who are passing through between kickball and pick-up time. They use the garden as just another place to carry on with their playground antics: swinging shovels, pointing sticks like toy guns and on occasion, committing the cardinal sin of Garden Club: picking a plant before it’s ready. They make it not very fun for the rest of us, and test my skills in patience, compassion and keeping my language G-rated.
Today a group of drifters came in as a break from their flag football game. Unlike the Regulars who outwardly discuss how much they love being in nature and watching their food grow, I could tell these nine year old boys were most interested in stirring things up – but not in a good way. Dirt was flying, and they tried to implement a ‘digging race’ between the boys and girls. I was doing my best to keep the peace without having to resort to throwing them out altogether.
It all came to a head when, as an attempt to extend the proverbial olive branch and re-direct the energy, we gave the newcomers a tour of what was growing. I let one of my favorite Regulars – a fourth grade boy – lead the way. He pointed out our artichokes, strawberries, herbs and the last of the tomatillos. But it was the watermelon that proved too hard to resist for the drifters. A seedling we had planted last spring, there was one sizable fruit on the low growing vine that had made it through summer neglect. We should have known better.
After the tour, the boys were on their way, but within five minutes of their departure, my favorite fourth grader discovered the offense: not only had one of the boys pulled the one and only not-ready-to-pick watermelon right off the vine, he had stomped it into mash on the ground.
This set the garden Regulars into a tizzy. We now had a crime scene on our hands.
The ‘good kids’ were beside themselves about what had happened, how unfair and simply unkind it was. “We worked so hard, we planted that watermelon months ago, now we’ll never get it back.” It’s an innocent and sweet response – and they are right.
A group of us walked across the yard to talk to the offenders, explaining that we expected them to be respectful of the plants and of all the hard work we had put into the garden. I told them that we’d taken care of that watermelon for almost a third of a year and they destroyed it in five seconds. No surprise – the boys could care less.
Their indifference put my fourth grade helper over the edge and he insisted that I either make them pay for a new plant or purchase a watermelon from the store that the garden club could eat as a snack. I liked where he was going with this, even though I told him I couldn’t press charges. My six-year-old son suggested we solve the problem by installing an electric fence around the plants. The fourth grader’s response to my son was not that this would prevent us from actually getting into the garden, or would be dangerous, but that “electric fences cost, like, $500, so we can’t afford it.” The consensus of the rest of the group was that I never let those boys in the garden again.
I told the garden club kids that I was as disappointed and upset as they were. But I also tried to point out that while we lost the watermelon, we’d had a great two hours in the garden and that we should focus on the positive, like the fun we had and all the new veggies we’ll be planting next week.
Truth be told, it’s hard to know what to do. How do you have a response that is, well, responsive, without being over reactive? Do you give the offenders another chance to redeem themselves, or would that turn into just another opportunity for them to be destructive? How do I convey to the Regulars that I’m there to protect their hard work, while not being exclusive of the kids who perhaps made a one-time lapse in judgment?
So much love goes into that school yard garden: a watermelon is not just a watermelon.
Mistakes and disrespect come in every form, at every age…so does kindness, gentleness and forgiveness. Today I witnessed both. Such is life in the schoolyard garden.