When I was an undergrad at SUNY Cortland, one of my Foundations and Social Advocacy professors asked us students to think of a metaphor to describe what it means to be a teacher. As someone who enjoys nature and digging in the dirt, I have always imagined that being a teacher is a lot like being a gardener tending her plot. The plants and flowers, of course, represent the wonderfully diverse bouquet of learners.
Gardening is forever a work in progress. It takes many seasons of trial and error to get things just right. Even then, you are never, ever done. Over the past 15 years, I have invested thousands of dollars, countless hours, limitless patience, and an unfathomable love into shaping and nurturing the plants and flowers in my care. My garden continues to improve with experience, an experience gained by researching my questions and curiosities, reaching out to more knowledgeable others, implementing proven techniques, and (frankly) not being afraid to fail.
Most importantly, however, I observe. Several times each week, I walk through my garden, closely examining leaves for signs of pest or fungal damage. I kneel eye-level to the soil to ensure that each small seedling is intact and growing strong, especially after a particularly windy day or heavy rain. I monitor for weeds that bully their way into the garden and threaten to overwhelm (even though I firmly believe that most weeds are simply misunderstood and shouldn’t be removed just because).
I give my plants what they need. When I first began gardening, I had only a vague idea about what I was doing. I have since learned that cold weather crops, such as salad greens, do not tolerate high heat or too much sun well. Tomatoes, on the other hand, are the opposite. They thrive when temperatures soar and the sun shines brightly. Lavender prefers well-drained soil, but lupine grow surprisingly well in water-logged clay. Daisies, black-eyed Susan, and coneflower tend to wilt during sunny afternoon hours. Panicked, I would rush to water them, believing they were on the verge of death. But then I learned that wilting helps conserve water. My well-intentioned hovering was actually causing more harm than if I had just left them alone to do their thing.
My garden is not picture-perfect. I have always preferred “messy” English cottage gardens to well-manicured lawns. However, that’s not to say my garden lacks order or intention. Over the years, I have purposefully designed every aspect to reflect the needs of the plants within it. For example, the shade-loving plants grow on the north side to capture the warmth of the morning light and cool afternoon shade, whereas those that require full sun face south. Perennial wildflowers thrive in the rain garden, while at the same time providing food and shelter for precious birds and pollinators. Hardy sunflowers draw pests away from more vulnerable plants while providing beneficial shade to more delicate flora. Even structures like birdbaths, feeders, and houses; insect hotels; arbors and supports; chairs and tables . . . all of these are chosen and placed with thought and care not only to their specific function, but also for their contribution to the garden as a whole.
For my 41st birthday, my older daughter convinced me to get a tattoo. “It can’t be just any tattoo,” I told her. “It must have meaning.” After all, I knew it would be my one and only. It had to reflect my love of gardening as well as this vision of teaching I’ve held in my mind for so long now. My daughter presented me with a simple design she created herself: a seedling with three small leaves and roots reaching deep into the earth. It was perfect. To me, this tattoo epitomizes the relationship between a teacher and his or her students. Teachers are the roots. They provide stability and structure and nourishment. Students are the seedlings. They begin life small and so very fragile. But with love and support, they grow. They reeeaach, reeeaach, reach for the sun.
And, over time, these young plants BECOME to reveal the beauty that was inside them all along, from the very beginning.