Thursday, June 9, 2011


As I lean over to fill the butterfly garden fountain, I hear rustling and voices. I put down the watering can and pick my way around towers of ironweed and sunflower, emerging to see the wheat bed full of students. Harvest time at last. The golden bed has become a blur of color and movement as the students examine the ripened heads, pull them with quick, sharp tugs, and then move to the next group, half a dozen conversations going on at once. It's great to see them there, working so happily together.

It's been a tough year. The slack economy has taken its toll on everyone at Shamrock, cutting into family incomes, fraying nerves, threatening the jobs of some of the school's most beloved staff members. Death and illness have struck unusually hard at our staff's extended families, depleting the condolence fund for cards and flowers. For several years we've celebrated rising test scores, but this year we're fighting just to hang on to past year's gains.

And in the middle of it all, Parker's teacher Ms. Bonasera, departed for two months of pregnancy leave.

Until Ms. Bonasera left, I had no idea how much a teacher mattered to her students. For the past four years, from kindergarten through third grade, Parker's class had been the students who could do no wrong. All their teachers had raved about how close they were, how much they cared about each other.

But once Ms. Bonasera left, as Parker put it, "everybody started to go crazy." The substitute could not get the class to settle down. The first two weeks, they sat through silent lunches and cancelled recess. Then even model students began to misbehave. Students talked back. They walked out of class. Worst of all, they started fighting among themselves, sparking shoves, tears, insults and suspensions. Staff members tried class discussions, group-determined norms, individual conversations. Nothing worked.

After four weeks of trying to get the class on track, the substitute gave up. Three more weeks of substitutes followed, until Ms. Bonasera decided to come back from leave a week early. By then, the class was far behind where they should have been, and the next few weeks saw a mad rush to catch up before state tests. It wasn't the year that anyone planned for.

Still, through all that turmoil, the wheat kids sowed back in the fall kept on growing, unhindered by pests, outstripping all the weeds that, in the chaos that followed Ms. Bonasera's departure, no one thought to pull. They can see this project through to completion.

On a small scale, I feel the way I did in the months after 9/11. Parker was a baby then, and even a tragedy of such monumental proportions made no difference in his life. It was tremendously comforting to watch him grow and develop like any other child, untouched by the event that had shaken everyone around him. Babies, wheat. Things happen. Life goes on.

Tops done, the students start to pull the stalks, faces clenched as they heave, laughing as the roots give way. The heat from earlier in the week has broken and the sun feels good. "I think this is the best teamwork we've used all year," one of them remarks. They'll put the husks in a pillowcase, beat out the grain and, if all goes well, end the year with bread, just like they planned.

As always with kids, you don't know what all these experiences will mean. You'd like to see them in terms of the neat lessons so often found in books, to think that because they came through a troubled time together, they'll value each other more. But in real life, that's hard to describe or to explain. You just don't know.

Summer is upon us, and will pull all of them in different directions. There's a lot of uncertainty ahead – a new principal, a new superintendent. A year closer to the turbulant seas of middle school and adolescence. But for now, they are together, playing, laughing. They have weathered this particular storm. I can't wait to taste the bread.