The letter from the chamber of commerce appeared in my mailbox on a Tuesday. The community-minded organization was donating a tree to the school for planting on Arbor Day. It wanted to encourage interest in the environment, and where else to start but in the schools?
I wondered why the letter was placed in my box-perhaps all the teachers had one. I checked. They didn’t.
“I thought you would like to have it,” explained the principal. “You’re into environmental things, aren’t you?” I’d thought everyone was supposed to be, but I could see he had fitted me into this particular slot for convenience.
“That’s fine,” I said. I knew he always liked that answer, meaning, “Yes, I’ll do it, and you don’t have to think about it anymore.”
The letter said the chamber would soon send a tree-planting kit. I couldn’t do much until it came, but I thought I could at least try to make the event a real “learning experience” for the children in my 4th grade class.
I told them about Arbor Day and the importance of planting trees. We went outside and examined trees. We drew different kinds of trees, both real and imagined. Scott drew a money tree. Jennifer drew something that looked like a boot with leaves growing out of it.
“That’s not a tree,” said James. “Trust a girl.”
“It is so!” The top half of Jennifer’s body bent toward him at a right angle, and she stuck her tongue out. “It’s a shoe tree.”
I took advantage of the “teachable moment” to discuss word meanings and how interesting they could be. “It’s still not a tree,” said James.
I contacted the water, gas, and electric companies to make sure our spades wouldn’t strike something dangerous when we planted our tree. In class, we made a map of the school yard-the grassy part-and marked the places to avoid. Robert showed a lot of interest in the positions of the gas lines. “Does that mean I could dig there and have an explosion?” he asked.
“That could happen,” I replied. “It would be very dangerous. I hope you won’t think of doing anything like that.”
I could see that was just what he was thinking. I know Robert.
“We could put it in front of the washroom door so no one could see in when the door opened,” suggested Mark.
“That’s stupid,” said Cathy. “You could climb up it then and look through the window.”
“We can be polite as we offer our suggestions,” I said hopefully.
Finally it was decided to plant the tree by the school’s junior wing, near our classroom, so that there would be shade in the summer when we wanted to go outside to read. “You have to realize that you may not see it grow that tall,” I said. “It’s probably only a sapling right now, and it will take a few years to grow.” This didn’t seem to disturb anyone very much. Summer seemed a long way away.
I was a little anxious because the tree hadn’t yet arrived. And Arbor Day was fast approaching. Mary and Karen had made up a little notice to read over the public-address system to explain what we would be doing and why, so that, as in all such projects, the “whole school” could be “involved.” Robert and Jeremy had made up a tree rap that they wanted to say as we planted it. They practiced a lot, especially during math.
Trees are for the earth, and earth is for the tree. Trees are for us all for everyone, you and me. Trees are for our life, man, so as you can see Plant a living tree, man, let the trees be.
The rhythm was a bit off, but no one minded. Jennifer said they should put something about women and children in there, but Jeremy said it was always “man” in raps, and anyway it was his poem and not hers.
The question of who should actually plant the tree was a tricky one, and various solutions were offered.
“Each person should hold the spade and dig a bit,” said Jennifer.
“That’s a good idea,” I said. “I like the way you want to share, Jennifer.”
“She just doesn’t want to do all the work,” said Robert.
I could see that the task would soon turn into a burden rather than a privilege. “It’s special work,” I said quickly. “We’re helping the environment.”
“Put all the names in a hat and choose,” said Tammy.
Most of the kids had tired of the topic by this time, so this suggestion was accepted by default. Amanda, Jennifer, and David were chosen. “We’ll get three spades from the storeroom, and you can each dig part of the hole,” I said. “We can all help press the earth down around the tree when it’s in. Then we’ll water it well to give it a good start.”
As I drove to work a few days before Arbor Day, I started working out what I would say to the class if the tree did not arrive in time. I thought of digging up one of the maple seedlings from my garden for them to plant instead. As a last resort, I could buy a tree from a local nursery. I’d speak to the chamber of commerce later.
I asked the secretary to watch out for the delivery. A day or two later, she knocked at my door. “I think this is for you,” she said. She looked amazingly cheerful for a Thursday morning, until I realized she was trying to hold back a laugh. My stomach turned a little, but I thought it was probably the staff-room coffee and told myself to stop worrying. She held out an envelope that had a small bulge. I took it from her quickly, thanked her, and closed the door. I think she wanted to stay, but I wasn’t going to let her or anyone else, especially the students, know what I felt as I looked into the envelope.
I put it on the desk and turned back to the class. They were watching my every move carefully. They always sense when you’re trying to hide something. “Let’s hear your news, Amanda,” I said. It was time for current events, and I knew Amanda had brought hers this morning. She walked up to the front.
“My mom helped me,” she said. She held up the news clipping and read the headline: “Rapist Charged in Child Assault.” The class was all ears. They knew about rapists. Their choices of news topics seemed to favor either sex crimes or disasters involving multiple deaths. Despite my efforts to direct them to other topics, these two continued to consume their attention.
At least they had forgotten the envelope. As Amanda finished and John came forward to read his news about massacres in Africa, I put the envelope on my lap below the desk top and looked inside. My worst fears were confirmed. Struggling to keep itself from expiring completely was a seedling with two tiny leaves sprouting at the top of a woody stem. It was about five centimeters long and had a few straggly roots clinging to crumbs of earth. It was, or was trying to be, the tree. I took out the single sheet of paper that came with it. There was no mention of the species, and the leaves were too small to properly identify it. There were only a few general directions as to how to plant trees and a long paragraph about the importance of the chamber of commerce in the community. This, I assumed, was the kit.
John finished his news. I thought we would go on to begin our work, and I would deal with Arbor Day later, but Jeremy had other ideas.
“What about the tree?” he asked. “Has it come? My mom wants to come to see us plant it tomorrow.”
I had, in a rush of enthusiasm, suggested that parents could come to the ceremony. I hadn’t expected anyone to turn up, but it was “policy” to include parents in special events.
“The tree?” I said, as if that was furthest from my mind. “Oh, yes. Thank you for reminding me, Jeremy.” I held up the envelope. “Well, as you all know, trees can come from very small things. A tiny acorn can be the start of a huge oak tree. A handful of seeds can be the beginning of a great forest. And I have, in this envelope, the seedling that will become a huge tree when you too are grown up and spreading your branches.” We hadn’t done too much on metaphors, but I hoped they would get the gist.
“We don’t have branches,” said Jeremy.
“It’s just an interesting use of words,” I said. “Ask your mom about it, Jeremy.”
“Is it in the envelope?” asked Amanda. Everyone leaned forward. Some stood up. Robert moved out of his seat toward me.
“Sit down, everyone, so we can all see,” I said. “I have to be careful because this tiny seedling is very fragile. I don’t want to damage it.”
The kids made various remarks about the physical characteristics of the plant; some suggested high-powered instruments were required to see it. I had to use all my skills of duplicity to convince them that what we had was nothing unexpected, that there was no reason to be surprised at the size of the tree, and that it deserved all the care and attention we would have given to something larger-perhaps more.
However, I realized that we could not plant it outside. The first time the custodian mowed the grass, it would be mowed, too.
“We’ll plant it in the worm bin,” I said, after we had all had a good look. “Just like putting a baby in a nursery. Then, when it has grown bigger, we will plant it outside just as we planned.” The worm bin was a large plastic tub that was once home to red wigglers. It was full of rich earth fertilized by whatever it is that worms do to fertilize soil. “We can still have a little ceremony because it is still Arbor Day, and people all over the country are planting trees, too.”
“Not in worm bins,” said Robert.
For the rest of the day, the “tree” stayed in a glass jar of water on my desk.
“I think we should give it a name,” said Amanda.
“How about Tiny?” said Mark.
The next day, we held the ceremony-after Amanda had read news about a serial killer. We used a trowel to dig a hole in the worm-enriched soil. The tree looked quite perky in its new surroundings.
Tiny, as it was known, became an active class member, taking part in all kinds of activities. Its growth was recorded daily. When the leaves grew larger, we were able to identify it as a mountain ash. Students took turns writing in Tiny’s diary, “A Day in My Life.”
Amanda cried when Jeremy wrote, “Amanda breathed on me too much,” but I said that we have to let people express their thoughts, and perhaps she did lean too far over the bin. It was like losing a friend when we eventually planted Tiny outside.
“I’ll come back and sit under it when I’m old,” said Jennifer.
Robert asked me if I thought I would be around when it was completely grown--on Earth, that is. I said I’d enjoy sitting under it in my wheelchair.
“I could bring you a drink,” he said.