This seismic weather is crazy. Thirties two days ago and walking bundled up as if I was an ad for an outlet L.L. Bean store, walking today in shorts and without a shirt. So, continuing my summery thoughts about gardening and its parallels to teaching are more appropriate today than they were a few days ago.

I am a flower gardener, not of professional caliber or even of the over-serious flower-show variety. I don’t hunt, fish, or play golf. I just talk with my flowers. It’s a relaxing and invigorating hobby that beautifies my heart, ornaments the outside of our house, and decorates the inside. Neighbors stop by to admire the flurry of color, the arrangement of different sizes and shapes, mixture of smells, assortment of grasses, flowers, bushes, trees. “How do you do it,” one neighbor always asks me from her car. “Your plants are always so beautiful!” And whenever I walk over and start to tell her, she interrupts with an exclaimed “Oh,” a nonchalant wave of her hand, a “I’m not that serious of a gardener. I don’t have that much time,” and off she would drive.

How far I have come. When I first started gardening as a hobby about twenty years ago, I had a jet black thumb. I talked about different kinds of flowers, but I gardened as if my yard was populated by a single specie of flora called, “plant.” I didn’t worry about such things as soil preparation, availability of sunlight, feeding, watering, and all those other annoying details. I figured that all I had to do was to go to a nursery, buy some nice looking flowers, take them wherever I wanted into my backyard or front yard, dig a hole, drop them into in the ground, throw some any old fertilizer around it, put the hose to it, occasionally spray it with some smelly pesticide and pluck out a pesky weed or two, and then just passively lounge about in my hammock or watch a ball game, and cheer the plants on “to do their stuff,” waiting for the rewarding explosion of color and diffusion of perfume. It usually didn’t happen. In spite of my efforts, instead of green I got yellow and brown and black, instead of growth I got wilt and shrivel; instead of lush I got bare spots. My thumb was black. It was so black that there was a time I whimsically thought of establishing a business called, “Kill It”, for those people with house plants going on vacations who wanted to mercifully and quickly put their plants out of their inevitable slow agony. But, enough plants survived and bloomed that I could easily point fingers elsewhere: the weather was uncooperative; the insects were heavy; the plants were weak; and always the nurseries sold me poor quality plants. Those few successes, however, also gave me encouragement that I could be a better gardener. Slowly as I began to ask questions from nursery owners, joined flower clubs, read books, and experimented, I understood how haphazard, careless and indiscriminate I had been with the plants. I learned that the plants which had survived did so not because I was a good gardener, but were those whose needs were compatible with my amateurish efforts. As I studied, I discovered some essential principles of gardening that offered my black thumb a chance to change its hue to green.

The first principle is that I had to get beyond the collective stereotypical word, “plant” as if the garden was populated by a single specie. To say that every flower had to be planted, watered and fed was not enough. Each plant had its own name for a good reason. It revealed its individuality, its own set of strengths and vulnerabilities, its own special needs, all of which I had to attend: some were delicate and tender while others were hardy and could be roughly handled; some needed the full brilliance of the sun, others partial shades, still others deep shade. Some could endure the chill of the winter and remain in the ground, some had to be protected with a thick blanket of pine needles, some had to be dug up and stored. For some the acidic level of the soil was critical for survival; for some the depth of planting was important; for still others soil texture and composition couldn’t be ignored. Some flowers had to be watered heavily, some did not. Some had to be protected from the summer heat. Some flowers propagated themselves by seeds, some by rhizomes, some by bulbs; some could be grown by cuttings, some by division. Some flowers were early season bloomers, some were late season bloomers, some were mid-season. Some flowers stood tall, some were short, some were in between. Some flowers had to be planted in the fall, some in the spring. And it goes on and on and on with the endless variety and diversity of individual needs.

The second axiom that finally got through my skull was that the flowers had to have a voice in my gardening; that I had to put the plants ahead of me; that gardening was about the individual plants far more than it was about me.

Third, that to tend to them I had to have at my disposal an assortment of tools, fertilizer mixtures, times schedules for watering and washing, natural insecticides and fungicides and any other -cides to be used at different times for different purposes; and that if I truly cared, tended, and nurtured ny plants, they would naturally grow, thrive, and bloom.

My fourth lesson was that in the immediate and long run, the critical element to my success as a gardener was that *I* had to change *MY* cavalier approach to gardening; that it wasn’t enough for me to want to be a gardener; I would have work hard to become a gardener; that “being a slave to a garden” was far more a state of mind that it was an actual situation; that *I*, therefore, had to change MY attitude towards myself, my efforts, and the plants; *I* had to change the purpose and course of MY efforts; *I* therefore had to change my responsibilities and performance.

And finally, maybe the most important, I learned that the perfect flower does not exist and that I should stop gardening as if it did and stop being disappointed if it did not appear in my garden.

I think these gardening offer lessons for us to bring into the classroom. After all, I don’t do much gardening in my yard if not much growing, thriving, and blooming takes place. And, I don’t do much teaching in the classroom if not much growing, thriving, blooming, and learning takes place.

Make it a good day.



It was an interesting walk this frosty, misty morning. At 5:00 a.m., the comforting, quiet solitude in the dark, icy, crystal clear air was broken only by the muffled crunch of pine needles and the harsh grinding of fallen acorns under each of my steps. As I sledded over six-miles of slippery pine needles that blanketed the darkened streets like brown string and darted between the myriad of huge pine cones that lay along the route like obstructing boulders, I thought about Susan. A day hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought about her. She really has gotten to me. Because of her, I see more clearly than ever that teaching is a verb, not a noun; that teaching is being, not merely doing; that teaching should be filling, not draining. Because of her, I hear a little more, laugh a little more, smile a little more, and try a little more. I have been reviewing the students’ journals this past week a little slower, a little more closer, and with a little more reflection. I have been revising my syllabi with greater care, more sensitivity, and a deeper awareness. She has made me greedier than ever. I want more real moments like that. I like that feeling of sharing, fulfillment, and accomplishment. I tell you that there’s nothing like it. It’s like experiencing spiritual ecstasy. I want to hold on to that warm glow, and I don’t want it to be a rare occasion.

Students like Susan are what Walt Whitman was talking about in his SONG OF MYSELF when he wrote some of my favorite lines: “Every kind for itself and its own….a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars, and the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren, and the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest.”

Thinking about Susan set off a flooding mental chain reaction of images and memories. With the reposing signs of the early south Georgia winter all around, I found myself swamped by warm summery thoughts about my garden. There were too many to talk about at one time. So, I’d like to talk first about dandelions of all things, and about an incident that occurred on my front lawn late last summer.

I had been mowing the grass as nonchalantly as I could be. It is the least favorite of my hobby. To take my mind off this uncreative and dull activity, I was looking around at the colorful array of my garden and admiring the fruits of my hard- earned labors. Then, lo and behold before me challengingly pranced in my manicured lawn, a vegetative pest–a lonely dandelion. Angrily, I turned off the mower. I whipped out my ever-present weed puller from my back pocket with the smooth speed of a gunslinger, stomped towards this invasive disfigurement of the serene beauty of MY lawn, dropped to my knees, and vengefully stabbed the ground in front of the dandelion with the puller. Just as I was readying with triumphant finality to pluck out this marring plant, a neighbor drove up, stopped, and commented something to the effect, “It’s hard work keeping your garden looking neat the way you want it. I always admire your garden when I drive by. Everything is so beautiful and in its proper place.” I stopped snarling, put on a smile, got up, and walked over to the car. We briefly chatted. As she drove off, I turned to complete my task. As I approached the vulnerable dandelion, I hesitated.

As I turned back to attack that weed, my neighbor’s words,”the way you want it” and “in its proper place,” made me hesitate. I now noticed more the majesty of the dandelion’s silky geodesic dome than its disruption in my smooth green carpet of creeping fescue grass. I think her words had hit a sensitive nerve. It was the end of the summer term and I had gone out into my yard as a respite from struggling to assign individual grades to a video tape the entire class had decided to do as the final exam. I had been awed by the courage of their collective decision to scrap my final exam questions and devise a question they thought was more appropriate, dazzled by the cooperation displayed among the triads, surprised by the trust that most of the students had demonstrated in each other, impressed with the creativity and ability that went into making such a substantive project. At the last moment, the students of this class with whom I seemed not to be making contact, had in their own way, at their own time, unexpectedly and wonderfully blossomed into a magnificent bouquet.

With this on my mind, I laid my weed-puller gently on the grass, sat cross-legged next to the dandelion, and started talking to it. Resting my chin in the cup of my hands, I stared, and whispered to it, “Who are you, really?” I always talk to my plants, but this was the first time I’ve talked with a weed. To so many people, that cut-and-dry ruination of their agricultural endeavors isn’t worth the effort. BUT, then I thought, what if I took that unsightly weed of a dandelion and planted it in the meridian of a super highway. It would become an essential part of a beautification program. And I thought more: take that ugly weed, plant it in a forest meadow, and it becomes a magnificent wild flower; take that loathsome plant, place it in the hands of a child, and it becomes a pretty, delicate, poetic “love-me-not” plaything; take that lowly weed, give it to a vintner, and it becomes a delicious source of wine; take that useless weed, place it in a shaman’s pouch, and its root becomes a medicine for gastric ailments; take that nasty weed, give to a chef, and its stem, leaves, and flower head become mouth-watering parts of a salad; take that worthless dandelion, put it in Walt Whitman’s hands and it becomes a glory of creation, a miracle, worthy of adorning “the parlors of heaven.”

I looked around at my garden with its flurry of color, variety of sizes and shapes, mixture of smells, assortment of grasses, flowers, bushes, trees. Each plant has a name; each has its needs. And I said to myself, and now to you, are my spiny cacti less than my thorny roses; are my daisies worthier than this dandelion merely because one is planted where I wanted and the other is not? Are my hybrid daylilies with their name plates stuck in the ground more important than my nameless blue Stokesia? Are my tagged bearded Irises more beautiful than my untagged amaryllis?

So, I did what I felt I had to do. I got up, put the weed puller back into my pocket, started the mower, finished cutting the grass, and left the dandelion alone to garnish my lawn.

What does this have to do with education? Well, instead of gardening, read teaching; instead of garden, read classroom; instead of dandelion, read students. What do each of us see when and if we stop and look at that dandelion called a student?

I think the answer is more a reflection of us, of our priorities, our expectations, and our perceptions. I think the answer is more a reflection of our private world of meaning conceived out of our personal experiences, self-awareness, and personality. I think the answer is more a projection of our personal thoughts, attitudes, emotions and needs than it is a proper description of the student.

Unless we stop and look at the dandelions as something other than annoying weeds we’ll ignore their grandeur, and unless we see and feel in ways so varied and so full of changeable meanings about our students, we’ll miss the Susans. We have to learn to see that all individual students, like all individual plants of different species, are all beautiful. They each have a right to grow into whatever it is they are capable of becoming, and I am responsible to be nothing less than a nourishing, caring teacher as I am a gardener for each and every one of them. I mean what kind of gardener withholds tenderness and yells at any plant before it has a chance to grow, “You will not bloom!” Should we as teachers, then, presume that the whole of the personas of the Susans coming into our classrooms rests in the ability or otherwise to write and speak and pass tests and get grades, and scream at them before they have an opportunity to broaden their horizons, “You will not grow?” That would be a shame for them as well as for us. I know now that every time I see a dandelion I will think of the students and myself; and whenever I see a student I will think of the dandelion and yourself. And I will ask, “Who are you really?”

Make it a good day.



It’s late in the afternoon. It’s the end of the quarter. I’m in my office. My eyes are blood shot, my muscles ache, and my mind is mush from struggling to engage in the torturous and very uneducational process of assigning grades. I’ve been having trouble concentrating. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Susan.

She had poked her head in the doorway this morning and had looked down at me. There I was, sitting cross-legged on the floor, cursing under my breathe, surrounded by cluttering piles of journals, grade sheets, self-evaluations, student portfolios, folders of comments on students, final exams, and final projects.

“I’ve got a present for you,” she said with such pride in her voice.

I beckoned her in and pointed to the floor. I cleared a place for her. She delicately stepped over one or two heaps blocking the entrance way to sit down. I gave her a Tootsie Pop, and we chatted for a while about the class and how much history she had learned. About fifteen minutes later, she got up.

“Where’s my present?” I asked in mock annoyance.

“It’s in my journal,” she impishly answered. Then, with a “happy holidays” on her lips, a broad beam of a smile, and a confident swagger she disappeared.

I opened her journal and read her last entries. I quietly closed it, cleared everything around me away, leaned against the wall, unwrapped a tootsie pop, quietly closed my eyes, and felt an overwhelming sense of fulfillment envelop me. Occasionally, I opened my eyes, looked at her journal, and then turned my head to glance at the crowd of toys –the bottle of bubbles, the stuffed monkey, the pin game, the giant dice, the M & M dispenser, the pop gun, the model Harley, and so on–that celebrate my desk and one corner of my office. It was a hell of present she gave me. I’d like to share it with you:

You really got my attention….You did something tremendous for me. You made me, forced me, to get the courage to see inside myself and believe in myself, to stop thinking of what others perceive me to be, but be what I am as a human being. I realize now that I have many hidden talents and great potential, but I was afraid at the beginning of the quarter to see if I had because so many people have told me in the past that I didn’t and I was afraid that I would not find anything and see that they were right all along. I now value my opinions more than I value others’ opinions in reference to me. Because of you and your support and your words of encouragement, I got an A in my Speech class. But, I also got up the courage to apply for a job to help pay my way through college I would never have before thought I was good enough for. Well, I heard you whisper in my ear, “You can do that,” and I applied. I went on the job interview during the Thanksgiving holidays. The job was for an Extended Day Enrichment Program Supervisor and an Assistant. When I went into the room, I sat in a chair in front of a table where the people sat. I heard you whispering in my ear, “You can do it.” Those few words gave me confidence. I used my talent and spoke openly and professionally like I have never done in my life. I got the job as the Supervisor, not the Assistant!! I am going to help those children see who they can be just like you helped me find myself.

I suppose I could go on about value education, about coming out from behind the podium, about going beyond the students’ head into their hearts, about healing ailing spirits with the same compassion we would nurse a sick animal, about helping students become self-reflective and self-renewing and securing the courage to “break out, about helping them learn how to live lives of continual growth and development, about seeing them more as the future and less as the present. Maybe I will some other time. But today, Susan’s hug, quiet “thank you,” and that new found fiery pride in her teary, joyful eyes has just left me without words.

I guess it is the Susans who make teaching my spiritual nourishment. I can’t conceive of life without a classroom, and I can’t conceive of a better way of dying than keeling over at the age of 90 in a classroom during a knock-down-drag-out discussion. When that happens, I just want them to say of me on my headstone, as “He touched a student and changed the world.”

Make it a good day.