by Peter Richmond
I have no idea how old the rake is. Judging from the chips and wear and roughness of the wood on the handle, and the rust and weight of the 15-tined iron head, I’m going to guess forty or more years. My rake is like a weathered, grizzled old guy who seems to get tougher with age. If my rake were alive it’d smoke unfiltered Camels.
The hoe seems to be a little newer…maybe 30? Weathered wooden handle, nicely dinged, heavy blade. Maybe thirty years? There’s no way of knowing, short of carbon dating; they were both in the shed when we bought the house almost twenty years ago and the previous owners had passed away,
Once a year, when it’s time to plant the garlic — always the middle of October — I carry them into the vegetable garden and put them to work. Well, they put me to work. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the garlic-planting ceremony is always one of the highlights of my year.
Is it because the tools are so old and heavy and good at their job? And that I’m getting blisters exactly the way backyard farmers have gotten for a century? Absolutely. Do the heads of garlic keep getting bigger every year because of my age-old methodology? I;’ like to think so. No, I do think so.
The toughest part of the afternoon is the first act: attacking the jungle of weeds that have sprouted since the harvest last July. They’re thick and they mock: While you weren’t looking, after you took out your previous crop, we took over your space. You got a problem with that? Well, yes. And so the teeth of the tines wade through the invaders with carnivorous delight: rending, shredding, yanking, tugging. Again and again and again, the heavy iron sweeps, until all that’s left are the couple of dozen plants that refuse to give in — the couple of dozen of stalwarts with ridiculously deep roots for organisms that have only been round for three months.
That’s where the hoe comes in. No plant can stand up to the brutal, insistent, crazily satisfying chop of the hoe — the flat edge of the blade, the deep prick of the sharp corner. And before long, I’m facing nothing but a perfect, rich plane of dark, dark fragrant soil.
The rest of the job belongs to the trowel: only four or five years old, but with a thick steel scoop, of course. I punch about ten holes per row, seven rows, each seeded with the fattest cloves of the July harvest, then covered by the soil, and ready for the long winter sleep.
I’m not saying it won’t be nearly as cool next July when I harvest my six dozen heads — effortlessly, with one deep scoop of a pretty old shovel — and dry them on the porch, andthen bag them in the basement, where they’ll give us a winter’s worth of the fresh stuff.
I’m just saying that their flavor in all those dishes over the winter — in stir-fries; embedded in butterflied lamb; in souffles — will feel as if it’s rooted in a cycle for the ages. The planting with timeless tools will prove — in those explosions of flavor — the inarguable agricultural dictum: you reap what you sow.
Observation on Education 101, subchapter 107b: because education must be timeless for us all, and for those of us learning now to teach in ways that peel the IPod out of the hands of the next learners, the old lessons can still be passed on.
On a holiday back-road winding wander, we stopped at the wonderful Southern Vermont Museum of Natural History (Vt. Rte 9, east of Marlboro) this morning — basically a former failed mountaintop restaurant and tourist stop on top of a low mountain next to a highway with 100-mile views, but too out of the way for the former business plan to have worked. Enter a few visionaries who acquired the life specimen collection of one naturalist/ace-taxidermist Luman Ranger Nelson who, in the Twenties and Thirties, studied all the wildlife of New England, and set out to catalogue it, observe it, and well, stuff it.
The birds? Astounding. The bobcats? Cute and scary. The mountain lion? Possibly there because, no longer indigenous, it worked its way 2,000 mile east in search of…um, getting laid. The live specimens in the museum — the owls, the hawks? Injured by cars, but saved, they had to stay here because, if let loose in the wild, they would not survive.
A truly cool museum. Who knew that stuffed birds could be so artistic? Turns out that old Luman was an old-school taxidermist: he didn’t buy fiberglass molds of an animal and then wrap a skin around them; he built their anatomies out of wire and straw and sticks and whatever, and tweeked them til perfect, and then wrapped the skin around them.
But to the educational point. I asked curator Mike Clough how things were going, here atop the mountain, after a Special Ed class had moved on and we had the place to ourselves along with three Japanese tourists. Michael allowed as to how things were going amazingly. Six years ago, 600 young students were being exposed to the collection; last year, it was 12,000. How? Because he’s now talking exhibits on the road, and reaching out to kindergarten and first- and second-grade classes, kids not yet enslaved by Ipods. They dive into Clough’s animals, a few live, some stuffed…but basically entrancing and magical, thanks to old Juman’s artistry. Clough knows that reaching kids with curiosity about The World before the Intertubes suck them in is the way to keep curiosity alive….because there isn’t a single kid who isn’t entranced, instinctively/instinctually, by the natural world.
How am I sure? Because the day before, on another back road, we passed a roadside pond, late afternoon, and saw three kids — two girls, one boy, aged, maybe 7-9, on the bank of the water, with sticks, twirling the muck around, no doubt looking for something…alive. Remember that? Remember tidal pools? Or those deep woods where something under a peeled-back-rock revealed some organism scurryingly alive? Something as simple as a couple of ants carrying an egg sac? Because the disruption of procreation was primal? Or just because it was so cool to see another organism?
How better to teach, then, by ensuring that the world we are all exploring is not an analog…but…_alive_?
Funny how much Iâ€™m learning, and how quickly, inside the classroom and outside of it â€“ mostly in the other classroom: the outside world. Inside the classroom? The idealism is astounding. Encouraging, Hope-making.
The outside? Â Sobering and poignant. Moravian College and Seminary’s first fellowship in a Master of Arts/Teaching didn’t offer housing bucks, so I spent my first six thrice-weekly nights in a moldy, chipped, stained motel out on Rte. 22 Â that houses transients of many species, from the working girls to the workmen, all in search of a way to hang on in an economy thatâ€™s vaporizing when none have been educated in effective real-life-advancement ways. Sobering to see how much weâ€™ve let our middle-to-lower classes down.I wondered who had allowed so many people born with pretty much the same cognitive abilities that I possess were allowed to fall between so many cringe-worthy cracks. I wondered why a woman who would openly beat her child in the hallway (”Get the fuck back in that room!!!” followed by four eerily perfectly punctuated slaps) had not been diverted at some point, no matter what her own past, by a meaningful mentor; why a woman who had obviously not been born with such behavior embedded inextractably in her genes, had grown to angry motherhoodâ€¦with no one seeing, in advance, the landmines lurking in her development as an adolescent.
I checked out of Motel Hell. And now, three nights a week, I live in a new outside classroom: a comfortable bedroom in an almost-mansion: a five-bedroom beautifully wooden-beamed house built in the Twenties, in Bethlehem, owned by a well-educated graphic designer whose ex-husband is a PhD in metallurgy. One percenters. Their daughter is a senior at Colorado College. The pool has been covered by canvas now; it will be swimmable when spring term blossoms into May.
Coincidentally, this week, my co-renter, a guy in his early 50s â€“ he was living in another distant bedroom (I still get lost in the place) — spent his life teaching in American schools in Pakistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Heâ€™s about to get his PhD from Lehigh. His thesis is fascinating: In any walk of life, he set out to prove, True Leaders will attract the Best Workers â€“ but mostly in Academia. Every morning at 9, as I was returning after my 7:30 class for another cup of free coffee in the state-of-the art kitchen, heâ€™d just risen, micro-waved his oatmeal, and always had this cat-that-just-swallowed-the-canary look on his face: after a decade of working on the thesis, he has won. Heâ€™s going to get it, he says. In academia, his research proves it out: that the truly committed principals and supervisors â€“ the top 10 percent â€”will retain the top teachers, who will follow them anywhere, for those teachers stress again and again, in his research, that leadership is the key variable in the way they want their workplace to function. We know it to be true in war and sport. Now we know it to be in academiaâ€¦
â€¦but later that night, as we sip wine, watching the ballgame in the spacious TV room (the living room? the size of a warehouse) and discuss education, I keep being struck: Whereâ€™s the relevance to his decade of research? Where’s the news in knowing we’ll follow good leaders? Then I ask him what heâ€™s going to do next. He says, â€śI have no idea. All I know is that I spent ten years on this, so Iâ€™m going to finish it.â€ťÂ And why is he so unconcerned about his future? Thatâ€™s easy. He explains: If you do a decade as a teacher in Saudi Arabia in a private school teaching the kids of international English-speaking Big-Oil guysâ€¦the company for whom you worked provides health plans for the rest of your life.
And so then it hits me: I have re-entered a world â€“ not by day, in my classrooms, but by night — where those who are entitled, even if they are called teachers, cannot accurately be described as such if they spend 10 years on an Ed PhD they have pursuedâ€¦with no particular goal.
Funny how both of my outer-world lessons are making me look at myself, as my own writing class evolves in my new college. Out in the societal fringe, I wondered why the educational system had so failed my motel comrades. Then, ensconced in a spacious one-percenter home I meet a man who got a PhD…to get a PhD.
I have learned in six weeks of re-entering the academic world, but living outside it, that something in our educational system is askew. And that we have to go beyond the CCSS (thatâ€™s an acronym for how the states have now established core guidelines of success in high-school students that seem to hinder, not enhance, true education.)
We have to change the way each and every student thinks as they enter an educational system that they think has either trapped or entitled them.
So: this term: am I teaching the students how to write killer non-fiction narratives so that they can win awards, get paid handsomely by the New Yorker, boost their egos with best-sellers? Or am I going to be able to teach idealistic, eager writers to write in a way that, somewhere down the line, will make that motel out on Rte. 22 a little less destitute? More of a destination for people withâ€¦hope?
Can I do my job well enough so that the entitled, empowered PhD candidate realizes that, in the name of self-ego-empowerment, he has contributed nothing but theory â€“ and no real practical application on the ground, other than telling us that principals and superintendents have to be leaders, which true educators know intuitively â€“ and really ought to muck around in another field?
Back on the ground â€“ out on Rte. 22 â€“ we have work to do that matters.
So since the bank is close by I often just walk through the drive-through ATM, and yesterday as I was heading for it, but was still a good thirty feet away, a car pulled past me and drove into the slot. It was a black Malibu of indistinct year, with a few minor dents. I stopped walking and stood behind the car. The guy had parked a few feet wide of the ATM, and got out of the car. He was big. Maybe a grizzled 50 in age. Green tee shirt with the sleeves cut off, tattoos on left shoulder. Weathered tan face, chewing a toothpick, wearing an old cap with a brim. Not the kind of guy, by his looks, that I, with my Banana Republic long-sleeved tee-shirt, khakis and new New Balance sneakers would probably want to cross in any sort of confrontation. Plus I was in no hurry, and in a good mood. Whatevs.
Then he sees me, standing behind his car, waiting my turn.
â€śDid I butt in on ya?â€ť he says suddenly, s, with a look of concern.
â€śNo sweat,â€ť I say, smilingly. â€śIâ€™m not in a hurry. And anyway, itâ€™s a drive-through, not a walk through.â€ť
â€śWasnâ€™t brought up that way,â€ť he says, reaching for his wallet and the card, and, from the frown on his face now, bothered. From his car radio issue the sounds of an oldies Sinatra-type station.
He does his transaction, quickly. Then he gets in his car, and as I walk up to the ATM and he starts to pull away, I say, as for some reason I say to everyone these days â€śHave a good one!â€ť
His car stops. He leans his head out of the driverâ€™s window and looks out, but not at meâ€¦at empty space, as if talking out loud to himself. â€śDidnâ€™t mean to butt in. Wasnâ€™t brought up that way.â€ť
â€śReally, no prob,â€ť I say.â€ť
With that, he drives away. People can be cool.