Gardens and Graduates

I started my tomato plants indoors weeks ago, initially keeping them in the relative warmth and southern sunshine of a shelf in the window above the freezer in our laundry room. When they outgrew the laundry room, I jerry-rigged a clear-garbage-bag-incubator/greenhouse in the east window of the below-room-temperature upstairs bedroom. The geraniums were similarly situated in the west window by my art table.

Later, once the sunroom by the front door actually felt like a sunroom rather than a walk-in freezer, I put the tomatoes there during daylight hours, and shuffled them inside at night until the danger of freezing was past. Every time I checked, watered, or moved them, I’d run my hand through their leaves to simulate air movement and encourage them to strengthen their stems in resistance. They’d need this strong backbone to withstand the winds that cruise along the south side of the house where they would eventually spend the summer months.

Even with all my care to harden off the plants before finally transplanting them under a homemade wire-hoop-and-plastic “greenhouse,” they weren’t as resilient as I had hoped. The cool nights and early mornings weren’t a problem because of the insulating cover. Daytime exposure to direct sunlight sunburned a few tender topmost leaves, but nothing too concerning. I had even anticipated the prevailing west winds and put a stake on the east side of each of the tallest plants.

But one day a blustery wind whipped at the plastic cover and left the plants brutally exposed. All of the staked plants survived because they had the support needed to keep their still-strengthening stems from bending and breaking. Three of the shorter, un-staked plants were not so fortunate. The wind was too much for their untried youth. They bent and broke at the base of their stems.

I’ve since provided a stake for each of the remaining shorter plants.

Now, a few windy days later, all of the plants have developed thicker, hardy stems. Their roots have found purchase. They are established and growing. A few have even begun to form blossoms.

Ninety-two graduates “walked the stage” at my school last Friday. I fear that there are few of them whose stems are still too thin, too pliable and prone to easy bending and breaking. I wonder if they have the right support in the right places, supports they can lean into, supports that will hold fast. The winds of life can be gentle, but they can also become unrelenting storms. I hope that these young people have deep roots and sturdy supports. I hope their stems thicken, firm and strong and growing. I hope they don’t break. I hope — and pray. ▫️

☕️ Semester New Year Reflections

A Saturday Caesura

February is like a second new year for some teachers: old semester done, new semester begun. Fresh starts, new students, and resolutions in the form of course outlines and long-range plans. Even as I anticipate Monday’s new classes, there is a lingering sadness with the realization that in spite of the connections I make, when students complete my courses (grade 12 in particular), they will move on. The hours with them — learning, laughing, struggling, growing — will be a small blip (if that) on the radar screen of their years. Memories will fade as life continues its pace. They leave; I stay.

Yes, I know that teaching is, for the most part, a short-term relationship gig, but I still feel a particular emptiness at semester-end and at graduation.

In many ways, life is comprised of these come-and-go relationships. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but sometimes I wonder if we abandon some relationships too easily. When the “things” that bring us together to begin with — school, church, work, family, activities, interests — are removed or fractured or worn out or burned out, what happens to us? Do we pretend we never knew each other? Exchange pleasantries when we meet in the grocery store aisle? Become Facebook friends and peek into each other’s lives from time-to-time? Maintain a manageable distance through friendly but guarded conversations? Or do we seek new connections that move us beyond that initial “thing”? Do we fight through the change, distance, absence, or inconvenience to live as if this relationship still matters?

Yes, I know that relationships take time and energy and most (all?) of us are parsimonious about how we allocate those resources. Yes, I know that some relationships need to end, and some are necessary but can only hold together because of a healthy distance. For most of us though, such situations aren’t the norm. Most of us, I suspect, just slide through our relationships on the path of least resistance. I know I often do.

But I also know that every relationship — fleeting or long-lasting, easy or hard — contributes to the larger story of our lives. And part of that larger story for me is that several young people I know and care about have transitioned from student to friend. I stayed, but they came back. We developed relationships built on something other than school: common interests, mutual encouragement, similar losses and griefs, a shared faith. And really, isn’t this what makes and sustains friendships and relationships at any level or age? It isn’t about convenience; it’s about forging connections through all the changes that inevitably come. It’s about saying that we matter to each other in ways that are worth preserving. It’s about living love.

So at this Semester New Year, I’m rethinking how I approach relationships, and not just those that arise from classroom connections. Maybe there’s a few that I haven’t fought hard enough to hold on to. Maybe there’s a few that I have fought for but need to keep doing so even when it is hard and I’m tempted to not bother anymore. Maybe I’ve written former friendships off without fully recognizing the ways that even these “short-string” friends still impact me (you’d have to have been in one of my classes to fully understand the string reference, but I’m sure you can figure it out). There’s no “maybe” about this though: the friendships I do have are a treasure and a gift, a grace and a joy.

☕️ A School Week

A Saturday Caesura

Students filled the desks in my classroom again after almost three weeks of emptiness related to spring break and COVID-removals to online teaching. We were happy to be back, to see actual faces and whole bodies, to feel the comforting illusion of normalcy.

On Monday a few students needed a reminder that English class is for English, not for Bio or Math or CALM or Duolingo or searching for truck parts online. But mostly we read our books and experimented with odes and word sonnets and parsed gerunds and crafted truisms and raged at the unjust treatment of Jutta and cried real tears when Werner died and WHY WOULD THE AUTHOR DO THAT ANYWAY!

We talked about iambic pentameter and the plums no longer in the icebox. We practised the art of paying attention to our world and shared grad photos. We vented about COVID and named our aspirations for the future. We wondered why Monday always comes after Sunday and determined that we would never be careless people like Tom and Daisy. We blamed the masks for our shortness of breath after coming upstairs to Room 210 because farm girls could never be that out-of-shape. We made excuses for unfinished work and tried to complain about the sub in another class and satisfied the burning need to talk about how that novel ended.

About mid-week I realized that my plan to retire in three years (maybe?) means I would no longer have this messy delight of teenagers in my life.

I already feel the shape of emptiness forming in my heart. It is heavier than I ever thought it would be.

☕️ Adventures in Learning

A Saturday Caesura

Cold settled to the bottom of the sky this week, left glitter hanging in trees, spread a generous helping of white over autumn’s abandoned and decaying glory. The night the cold arrived, a stray kitten found a warm hideaway shelter, curled its baby tail around its pink baby nose and settled into that deep, world-abandoning sleep recognizable in babies of all shapes and sizes. In the early(ish) morning, the little kitten, a soft-grey tabby, went on an unplanned, very un-kitten-like adventure — to school.

The stowaway was not discovered until the student pulled into the school parking lot and heard something other than the usual purr of his truck engine. And so it was that kitty, smelling slightly of engine oil and still oblivious of the dangers of fan belts, found himself tucked into a flannel-lined jean jacket and smuggled into Room 210. Not that the secrecy part of the smuggling operation was particularly successful. The teacher, somewhat experienced with reading student body language and quite knowledgeable in techniques of interrogation, was quick to spy the bulging jacket, ferreted out an equally quick confession, and further declared that if kittens were going to attend English class, then she, as the teacher, would exercise her authority by being the first to cuddle it. Which she did. Of course.

And so it was that kitty found new warm shelters in various laps, explored an intriguing maze of legs (human and non-human), left tiny paw-prints on papers and desk tops, tapped a few Chromebook keys for good measure, and purred and purred and purred (and meowed), and then, oh glory of all glories, lapped up a dish of goodness made from three creamers smuggled (successfully) from the staff-room fridge, the contents mixed with a bit of water, and, once that was gone, munched on a generous scoop of tomato-basil flavoured tuna graciously donated from someone’s lunch. Oh, that all un-kitty-like adventures could result in such bounty, such an embarrassment of riches.

Any suspicions about how much school-work was actually done that class are probably warranted. Kittens are magnets and there is nothing in the high school English curriculum about magnets. Or kittens for that matter. Nothing. Nada. However, there is an entire general outcome related to collaboration and group work, and if one were to assess the class ability to collaborate based on their collective responsiveness to kitty’s frequent meowing and their ability to offer lap-space in an equitable manner without any squabbling, then it could be argued that, even in Grade 12, having a kitten in class is conducive to learning. And if the quality of learning was gauged by the full, round kitty-belly and the steady, rumbling purr, then the class certainly achieved a standard of excellence that day.

☕️ On Gratitude Calendars

A Saturday Caesura

Rain and grey defines this day. The few leaves left on the trees appear tired and waterlogged. Fall is fading towards a some sort of finale while winter lurks backstage. The drippy chill has not hampered the chickadees and blue jays cavorting outside my window, however. They appear delighted and energetic, as if rain is a thing of joy. The calendar may remind us to set aside this weekend for giving thanks, but my feathered neighbours remind me that gratitude can be written into every calendar day. Consider the past week:

Monday: reading through some brilliant-funny-wistful pieces my grade 12 students wrote about “the stories we wear” brings to mind a pair of hiking boots that have played a supporting role in many stories and adventures over the past 40 years. Gratitude for the miles and memories I’ve hiked in those boots spills over into gratitude for the man who encouraged me to buy them, then married me so we could continue to tromp through life together.

Tuesday: it is the season for glorious sunrise vistas from my classroom window. I turn off the lights and sit and absorb the rich colour, the majesty, the fading brilliance. I breathe it in and then breathe it out in gratitude throughout the day as students pull my attention away from windows and sun and clouds to books and assignments and forgotten pencils.

Wednesday: my evening walk or run is sometimes not much more than a forced routine I go through because I know my body needs the movement, the catharsis. But today I come home out of breath from both exercise and wonder, amazed at how the same routes and kilometres can contain such nuanced beauty that no two days look, smell, sound exactly the same.

Tiredness seeps in on Thursday. Lack of sleep, too many to-dos, the ongoing challenges of teaching in a pandemic restricted environment evoke a sense of weariness that clings to me all day. But weariness does not excuse me from being grateful: for the student who has a cup of hot tea waiting for me when I return from the photocopier, for the bowl of thick chowder for supper, made with fresh corn gifted from a friend’s garden, for a good rest at night.

Friday: just the thought of teaching a double-block of my most challenging non-academic class on the day before a long weekend puts me into survival mode. So I am not only grateful, but also pleasantly surprised when this rag-tag, rough-and-tumble group of mostly boys (only two girls — quiet, dependable) completely usurps my plan to have them listen to an audio-book version of the novel we are studying in favour of three of them, self-appointed, taking turns reading aloud to the rest of the class. Sixteen-year-old boys who would much rather talk about trucks, fishing gear (yes, one student brought his rod and tackle box – not sure why), quads, dirt-bikes, hunting, farming, skateboards, food, and all manner of shenanigans characteristic of such boys are actually reading a book together — without me. I watch and listen and breathe gratitude for what feels like a miracle.

Our calendars don’t come with the particulars of thankfulness neatly typed into the allotted box for each day, but if we look closely, if we have the right heart-posture, we can see all the ways that minutes and hours and events and landscapes and people point us towards a grateful response to the Ancient of Days, the God who cannot be contained in boxes –calendar or otherwise.

☕️ The Almost Didn’ts

A Saturday Caesura

The first three weeks of school in the midst of a pandemic with all its uncertainties, regulations, and anxieties has left me feeling like the world and my words are speeding by, the shape, form, detail lost in an indistinguishable blur. One of the reasons I write is to pay attention and to notice things, to find beauty and discover wisdom and wonder. Lately, my eyes and ears and heart have found it difficult to focus on anything in the jumble of life zipping past the window. I’ve not noticed so many things.

So I’m grateful for the things I almost didn’t notice.

I almost didn’t notice the skies pockmarked with dusky clouds and reverberating with the animated chatter of hundreds of geese making travel plans, discussing weather forecasts, channelling the energy of young ones caught up in the excitement and anticipation of their first Great Migration.

I almost didn’t notice that the trees have shivered and shimmied out of some of their summer garb, letting it drop in disarray at their feet like a discarded memory.

I almost didn’t notice the gradual slouching towards darkness that cloaks the morning commute with mystery and evokes a comforting cup of hot chai tea.

I almost didn’t notice the shifting colour palate of the marsh, not so long ago a richly nuanced green, now a motley gold-russet-chocolate-lemon that flavours and textures this year’s marsh fall fashion.

I almost didn’t notice the tracks trespassing on the newly graded road a few hundred metres from our home — a young bear venturing out to leave his bear-foot mark on the edges of society. I wonder if he felt brave and adventurous.

I almost didn’t notice the tears forming above the mask. The voice behind the mask was trying so hard to be brave. Even in a pandemic, school is already the safest place to be for too many teens. I wish I could give hugs.

I wish I could list all the things I didn’t notice. They probably contained so much beauty and wisdom and wonder. But I missed them.