Sunday, April 1, 2012


The pair of white cabbage butterflies wheels in circles, spiraling up toward the cloud-streaked sky, descending to the green tangle of our emerging butterfly garden, tumbling over new-cut grass towards the school picnic benches, then veering back to the garden beds.


It's a gorgeous day – "abundant sunshine" as the weather reports put it, but not as hot as earlier this week. Winter-dormant plants are exploding from the ground, and the beds teem with life. The pussy willow we planted last year sports kitten-soft gray catkins and firework bursts of yellow. Robins, mockingbirds, chickadees and doves make their appearance, and the space around the garden rings with chirps and trills and snatches of melody. 

The wings of the cabbage whites have blurred gray edges, with black spots at the center. It's a little early for most butterflies, although I've spotted some tiny spring azures and a couple of yellow sulfurs in other beds. We don't have much in bloom right now, except the fourth grade's daffodil bed, and the cabbage whites don't seem interested in those. I wonder what they're whirling for – whether it's a fight, a mating dance, a frantic search for food or just a way to pass the time.

I've come to dig out cutleaf coneflowers, who have taken advantage of our good dirt and started to colonize our beds. The plants are already a good three feet tall, and if left to their own devices would overspill the beds in weeks. We have too many other plants to give them that much space, so out they go. 

It's the first day of spring break, so the pathways around the garden lie largely silent, bereft of their usual parade of children moving from one place to another. The birds and bugs will have a week of peace before school starts up again. The work goes faster without constant interruptions, enthusiastic questions and the customary stream of greetings and hugs, but I miss them.

As I prepare to sink my shovel once again into the damp, dark dirt, a flash of movement catches my eye. A tiny shape darts out of a birdhouse and is gone, too quickly for me to identify. 

The birdhouse – a small, wooden box with a sloped roof – has been in the garden for some time, hanging from a wrought iron hook that has patiently performed a variety of tasks over the years. I can't remember who put it there. One thing I like about our garden is the way it collects inspiration ­– a turtle box, a birdhouse, mystery plants, all of which just appear, and make themselves at home.

It's dark inside the house, and I twist my neck back and forth, trying to catch the light. Then I see gray feathers and, just barely visible in the darkness, three small, white speckled eggs. A miracle. 

Happily, it is a teacher workday, and two of our first-year science teachers, Robin Tench and Laura Howden, are working in nearby classrooms. When they emerge, I beckon them to look, and they light up with delight. A little later, when head custodian Grady Houston wheels a trash can round a corner, I call him over too. He leans down, peers back and forth, then smiles the biggest smile of all.

This is how we've built our school, one shared moment at a time. Even as we've piled up data and projects and assessments, this has been the glue that holds us all together. To create the kind of place Shamrock has been, people have to care about each other in ways that show, in moments that buoy spirits and cement bonds.

I like working in the garden because it makes so many of these moments possible – always something new to discover and to share. I remember the day that students gathered to marvel at our first spicebush caterpillar, the morning they discovered gulf fritillaries everywhere. I think back to all the wide eyes and open mouths as students got their first looks at baby rabbits, blue robin eggs, seed-snacking goldfinches and parsley caterpillars, bright green and yellow striped creatures which when poked rear up and shoot out small, orange horns. 

And of course our school is filled not only with the miracle of nature, but that of children, unfolding around us every day. I love the way our teachers revel in the dozens of individual miracles that parade through their classrooms, the way I hear them the hallways swapping stories and laughter and advice, searching for the way to touch each one of their students, building the bonds that nurture not only children but each other.

The six years I've been engaged in this endeavor have been among the most rewarding of my life, a day-by-day amassing of encounters and experience, one after another, much like the way we filled our butterfly garden beds.

When it came time to fill the beds we couldn't fit a truck into the courtyard, so we had to dump the dirt out back and bring it in one wheelbarrow at a time. We called it wheelbarrow day. Parents, teachers and neighbors descended on the school to dig, wheel, spread and haul. We cooked food, made paper butterflies, held a raffle and had a great good time. Wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, the beds filled up. Moment after moment, we got to know each other better.

Three years later, the foundation laid that day endures, in the plants now springing up under the March sun, and in the friendships and connections that have grown as well. It's such a joy to share the results with newcomers such as Ms. Howden and Ms. Tench, to draw them into the circle of bird eggs and butterflies, moments and miracles, into the love that nurtures gardens and children and schools.

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