Gardening and Teaching
August 22, 2011 at 12:30 PM
My husband Frank and I spend a lot of time in our garden trying to create and sustain beauty, balance, and peacefulness. Lately, I've been thinking about gardening as a metaphor for living and teaching. We never quite get the balance right, or if we do, those moments of "rightness" and beauty are fleeting. No matter how carefully or willingly we tend the garden, weeds sprout up, unexpected disaster occurs, and a lovingly cultivated plant fails to thrive.
About five years ago, Frank and I purchased a beautiful peony tree to anchor our garden. Every spring, the plant delighted us with gorgeous and delicate pale, pink flowers, but this past spring has been different. Something about the growing conditions that we haven't been able to figure out—too much water, too little water, a fungus—produced fewer and less vibrant blooms along with withering brown leaves. We tried a variety of restorative strategies that were recommended by the nursery where we purchased the plant, but all to no avail. The peony tree is hardy, so it hasn't died, but in an otherwise lovely garden it's a sore spot, like that one student who seems constantly out of place. We staked the faltering plant up to make it sturdier, but, afterwards, the nursery expert told us, "It's the hardest thing for people to do, to not stake up a faltering peony tree, but the plant will only stand on its own and become stronger, over time, once you remove those stakes." We haven't been able to do that yet, but I'm thinking about removing those supports. How does one determine how much scaffolding is needed on the way to independence?
On the other hand, we have a fig tree, which we planted six years ago in the middle of a hill in our backyard. We wanted a touch of whimsy and dissonance in an otherwise orderly area. That fig tree failed to thrive year after year despite our considerable efforts. In the middle of each growing season, Frank and I would talk about removing the puny tree as, once again, it had sent up paltry branches, few leaves, and no figs. And yet, we remained cautiously hopeful. Now, this summer, to our delightful surprise, the fig tree is tall and graceful. Its branches and leaves are beautiful; there are new sprouts everywhere, and even a few figs. We nurtured that fig tree for years, and, finally, that nurturing has produced an elegant, healthy tree. We don't know why this year is different, but, maybe all those years of nurturing are finally bearing fruit. Or, maybe, the tree is a slow grower and just needed many years to root and take hold.
To be a successful and joyful gardener, we need to be open to the idea of change and uncertainty being inevitable. Being willing to deal with change is essential to becoming an effective gardener, parent, or teacher. Nothing stays the same, and there are no guarantees that what worked well one year will work well again with a new crop of plants—or students. Each plant in the garden has its own quirks and special characteristics, just like our students and our children. Although they all need tending, the type and amount of attention and support varies. Certain times of year or stages of maturity require intensive care and lots of patience; other times the plant needs sustained time to grow on its own with just regular watering, feeding, sufficient light, and ongoing monitoring. Also, not to be minimized, we usually have to deal with those prickly, unique circumstances that are out of our control. Yet, season after season, we remain hopeful that there will be blooms in the garden. When the blooms come, and they always do, we savor their unique loveliness, knowing full well that the beauty is transitory but, also, that the beauty will appear again next year—more likely than not.
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