Sprouting Plant Advocates

Every growing season our four children choose which crop will be theirs to plant and tend in our vegetable garden. It doesn’t make my work easier. But this tradition helps them understand how intrinsically connected we all are to sunlight, soil, and the lives of growing things.

Claire always insists on sugar snap peas. They grow quickly enough to gratify her restless nature and besides, they’re fun to eat fresh from the vine. Her three brothers aren’t as opinionated. They choose something different each year. Last year Benjamin had a great crop of sweet corn, buzzing with honeybees and taller than his pre-teen shoulders. Little Samuel’s green peppers struggled—perhaps too close to the shadowing tomato plants, but still they produced a gratifying harvest, heavy and large in his preschooler’s hands. Only Kirby’s chosen crop, watermelons, disappointed. He’d picked them out of the seed catalog based on claims of huge size and juicy red flesh. He took personal pride in the resulting vines stretching vigorously across the garden. Yet the flowers never fruited. Instead they turned brown and curled up.

This winter, before we’ve even ordered our spring seeds, Kirby’s second-grade class begins a unit on botany. He comes home and tells us that everyone got to write his or her name on a Styrofoam cup. Then they filled the cups with potting soil and each planted one white bean. Although he’s seen this miracle happen over and over at home he’s excited about the project at school. Daily he supplies progress reports while unloading his book bag containing carefully drawn worksheets with terms like root, stem, leaves, pistol, and stamen.

For nearly a week the cups show only dirt. Then one day Kirby eagerly hurries from the bus with wonderful news. A bean has sprouted! Emily’s cup is the first to show life. “It’s like a little bent green rubber band,” he exclaims.

Every day he reports whose cups are bursting with growth. It has become a competition. Emily’s plant, at first the class wonder, is now no longer the tallest. For a few days Jason’s plant is the tallest, then Kerri’s, then Christoper’s plant takes the lead. Only a few cups show no visible progress. Kirby’s cup is one of those. His enthusiasm is not diminished. He’s seen what happens when a seed awakens, splits its shell, pushes through the dirt, and stands upright. He trusts in the life force of each seed.

That Friday there’s a teacher study day. A three-day weekend with no one at school to water those little cups. I find myself wondering about the tender green beans lined up in the cold window, dry and struggling to live. I’m almost afraid to send my trusting son off to school on Monday.

But Kirby returns home with a shy grin, as if he can hardly believe a long-awaited hope has come true. “It’s this big!” he says, stretching his thumb and forefinger apart. Apparently his little plant mustered up some courage during the long weekend alone. Not only has it burst through the soil, it’s already competing with older seedlings in height.

A few days later I volunteer in the classroom and notice the progress of the seedlings. Standing up from cups – children’s names scrawled proudly across the front – they appear to have identities of their own. But they’re getting gangly, leaning on the window or neighboring plants. They need to be put into bigger pots or, if only they’d been planted at the right time, into a garden. It seems an ill-timed project.

The next day, coming in from errands, I’m disconcerted by a terse phone message from Kirby’s teacher. Something about non-compliance. The teacher wants me to call back to help her determine an appropriate punishment. I can’t imagine what might have gone wrong. I start to call her back, but then I hear the school bus rounding the corner. I’ll wait to hear what Kirby has to say first.

There’s a look children get that’s hard to describe. They appear so full they may burst, but they don’t know if they can let out what has them so overwhelmed. The adult world has them confounded. That’s the look Kirby wears. Misery, anger, guilt, petulance, and defiance as well.  There’s so much emotion on his face that I can only give him a big hug and ask him to tell me.

He can’t sit. He paces as he starts to explain. Today in class his teacher had each pupil take his or her plant, sit at their desks and…. for a minute he can’t go on. He tries again. Finally I understand. The ultimate purpose of the seedling is to serve as an example of plant anatomy. “She wanted me to kill it Mom!” he said, wide-eyed at the injustice of it.

It seems Kirby took the plastic knife he was given but just sat there. He wouldn’t take his plant out of the dirt, he wouldn’t cut it apart. While the other children followed instructions on their worksheets the teacher scolded Kirby.  Then took his plant and put it back on the windowsill where it sat alone, nearly tipping over without other seedlings to lean on. My son waited, knowing he’d done something wrong.

It’s too soon to plant the bean plant in the garden. Repotting might not give it a strong chance either. I have to tell him the truth about his plant’s chances. But I explain that I’m proud of him for doing what he thought was right. The world needs more people who listen to their hearts.

I call his teacher. I try to explain that my kindhearted son felt he was sticking up for a friend of his, that sometimes following the rules doesn’t always serve the higher good. The teacher doesn’t agree. The next day Kirby is punished. He is learning that rules, even the ones we feel are wrong, bear consequences.

Although his bright green plant isn’t likely to survive, I suspect that, this year, Kirby will decide to plant green beans in our garden. He’ll grow them in memory of his friend and of the fallen green comrades who gave their lives for second-grade science.

First published in Green Prints, a loooong time ago!

7 thoughts on “Sprouting Plant Advocates

  1. Never in a million years did I think my friend,Laura Euphoria, would succumb to the “Haul one out and dust it off” urge. Although I loved it. And that teacher should be shot.



    Liked by 1 person

  2. So wonderful! My two year old has been an eager hand in the garden this year….mostly plucking off leaves and uprooting seeds but he’s full of wonder about the whole process. We’re working on respecting the little plants and letting them grow but his enthusiasm usually gets the better of him. Your little Kirby sounds lovely! Such an awesome post!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Such a heartbreaking story; what a dumb teacher. I can’t remember from my own childhood. I know we did the bean-as-seed/blotter experiment, & the toothpicks supporting the partially submerged potato. I certainly wasn’t as sensitive as your son, & can’t remember if anything was planted. What I DO recall is that at 10 or 11 years old I was inspired to plant a potato in a spot I dug up in our suburban lawn. (We didn’t do vegetable gardens). How thrilled I was later to dig up some small potatoes which we ate! At the age of 40, when I bought a house, I finally planted a veggie garden. Flowers, too. Thanks for your story!


  4. the teacher knew only rules of her school…but the worst rules she broke were the ones of —nature,..each plant has its’s time. empathy– each child has an inner spirt of adventure..success—.each endevour has it’s own special out come…..each supported task has it’s own joy That teacher broke all these rules

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree with everything that is stated here. However, the unit was probably ill planned time wise because the teacher has a District telling her WHEN and HOW she is to teach something! And while I admire and agree with his philosophy about wanted to save his little, live plant, .MOST students out there do NOT believe they have to follow a teacher, or ANY ADULT’S directions. You don’t KNOW how awful it is in schools these days….even for teachers! The disrespect, the arguing back from students, the disregard for anything they are asked to do, the defiance, the screaming students so AT teachers…..so until you understand THAT, don’t call her a dumb teacher! While his case is by no means ANY of those things, when directions in a lesson are given, students are expected to follow them. Do YOU follow rules and laws that you don’t like? Or do you not? It’s a tough lesson, but it’s a fact of life! People often have to comply with authority. I understand his heart and it is precious. Just don’t be so quick to nail and criticize the teacher. While this was a pure and simple gesture, in the eyes of the other kids, it was defiance. Is that the word you want to stick with him in the students’ minds? “Boy, he didn’t give in to THAT teacher!!” Would that make you proud to hear the kids say about the situation? Disobedience is disobedience, pure and simple. Has he ever not complied with something you asked him to do? Was that all precious and ok, or were there consequences? Consequences are a teacher in life, whether they be fair or otherwise…..they’re a part of life. Children who never experience them grow up to be adults that always want their way, are spoiled and feel entitled.


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