I was right about my garden. It bounced back. Daily nurturing is essential to any profession of care giving. Water the soil, provide sufficient supplements, weed the earth, and positive growth occurs. Ask any teacher how they finally “got through” to a troubled youth and the answer will be an outgrowth of a relationship that they built over time, carefully and intentionally. Unfortunately, not every plant thrives after planting. I’ve seen it in my garden. I’ve seen it in my high school English classroom. You couldn’t have told me when I started either pursuit that I would come to both expect and accept that reality.
When my petunias died, I could explain the failure to a lack of experience, belief in a hope that they could survive without full sunlight. I planted them and watered them, but they needed more than I was able to give. They were doomed from the start. In my first year of teaching, when one of my struggling students was expelled for bringing a knife to a gang fight in the lobby, I could explain the failure for the same reason. I’d invested in him with long talks after school, encouraging him and listened to him. I believed him when he said he was going to find a way to get out of the gang, but he needed more than I was able to give. Breaking free of gang ties was beyond my ability to rectify.
Yet, even when you gain experience and provide the most optimal settings for positive growth, some plants don’t live to see the light of another day. My pink geraniums stood high and strong until a summer storm broke them. One semester, a bright young man who excelled in my class frequently came to me for counsel and comfort. The day he admitted he was contemplating suicide, my heart broke. I contacted his parents and his counselor, as was required of me by law. One afternoon, a friend of his called me at school to tell me the boy was on the roof of his apartment building threatening to jump and his parents were nowhere to be found. I called the police and met them over there. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes as the police coaxed him down… or his vocalized anger at my betrayal of his trust.
And sometimes when you’re providing care, you take well-advised risks. Mrs. Washington told me that marigolds would survive in the shade even though they were sun-loving plants, so I planted six mature marigolds in my garden. Five of them still delight me with their little yellow heads bobbing up at me. One of them died, perhaps because the impatiens’ roots overpowered its own. I’ve come to see the troubled teens in my classroom as a similar game of roulette. You show up each day with a smile, you are consistent and reliable, you coax excellence out of them that they don’t expect from themselves, and you hope they’ll be in the five out of six who overcome the odds and thrive. What I’ve learned from my losses is that I can’t consider each child as a personal failure. There are forces beyond my control, and if I took it personally, I might not be so willing to take risks. And public education needs risk-taking teachers desperately.
A caregiver is human. Humans make mistakes. Deductive reasoning stands. My first hanging baskets of impatiens lasted only a few weeks before I overwatered them. When they died, it was easy to attribute the fault to myself; they’re soil was still wet. One of my eleventh graders consistently defied authority, and one fed-up day, I called him out in front of the class. He was irate and became belligerent. Soon after, he dropped out of school completely. I’m not so self-consumed that I attribute that to me, but the combination of multiple teachers treating him the same way was enough for him to give up. I bought new impatiens that yet thrive… because I take caution when watering them. That same student eventually returned to school, and I was given a second chance. I became a mentor to him. Beyond all hope, he wound up passing a few classes and even building relationships with some of his teachers. We make mistakes, we learn from them, and we do better. That’s human nature regardless of deduction.
Whether it’s in our personal lives or our careers, when we’re making an investment of time, emotion, and energy, we often don’t see the results immediately. I was certain I had sentenced my knock-out roses to death by not transplanting them from pot to soil soon enough. After the transplant was complete, I stared at their browning leaves and concluded failure. Weeks later, they’d bounced back to life with stunning knock-out blossoms. This is the primary reason I have a Facebook account. After graduating, I accept friend request from former students. My messenger history is overflowing with messages from kids-now-grown, many variants of the same: “Hey Ms. P., I’m sorry I gave you so much trouble in English. Thanks for believing in me. You wouldn’t believe where I am now…” They follow with updates on career and family success stories that are enough to make me believe in miracles.
Tonight, it’s the cyclical nature of change that most weighs on my thoughts. My evening glories reached great heights, their climbing vines making measurable progress daily. When Kyle helped me paint the front porch, we had to unwind them, and I worried the shock would affect them. It did. It took several days for the vines to reestablish themselves. They appeared healthy for a couple of weeks until yesterday when I noticed yellow leaves at the base and had to remove a plethora of dead vines. The bulk of the plant appears strong and healthy, so I have to believe this is just a part of their growth cycle.
The greatest personal investment we have as humans is in ourselves. If we’re not strong and healthy, how can we care for others? We tend to our own souls. We reflect and reevaluate. We assess our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health and make changes to the way we live. New Year’s resolutions may or may not be carried out, but it’s the cyclical nature of change that we resolve personal conflict on a day to day basis. Like my climbing evening glories, we react to negative changes in our environment and quite naturally have good days and bad days. Change is real. People are real. And deductive reasoning aside, people need change to be real.
Dating in my early thirties isn’t as carefree and fun as dating in my early twenties. While riding a three-wheel bike together up and down the boardwalk of Virginia Beach, I was aware of a nagging anxiety beneath the excitement of my third date with my eHarmony nuclear engineer. He continued to show himself to be a kind, sweet, quality man, so what was my problem? Given time to reflect and reevaluate, I admitted to him yesterday that I was simply terrified of dating again! I never went on a third date at age twenty-one thinking about whether or not I would spend the rest of my life with that person. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a man when I don’t even know his favorite food or color yet. I went on to explain some of the struggles I’m facing in my life and was honest with him about my fears.
Today, when we referenced the conversation on the phone, he concluded something profound. “There’s beauty in weakness,” he said. When her plant appears weak, a gardener still sees the beauty in the life she’s planted, still hopes for the growth it will see, still believes that life can flourish.
The troubled teens in my classroom care. The friends and the family members who are struggling. Even ourselves on the bad days. There’s a beauty in weakness. In being vulnerable. In need. We invest in others. We invest in ourselves. We see success, loss, and failure. We make mistakes. We learn. We change. We grow. And regardless of the environment, level of experience, or forces beyond our control, humanity furthers itself by caring for its people.
There’s a beauty in weakness. It gives us all a chance to see what we’re made of… and believe in what we might be tomorrow.