We learn some lessons in the odd moments between efforts to remember. I once worked for a tough and wise old woman who had a beautiful garden and a greenhouse full of orchids. She’d grown up in Hawaii and was now living in retirement after decades of teaching. She lived in Northern California in the hills above the Napa Valley, just a half mile through the pines from my house. I was twelve when she hired me for the summer to “help” her in her extensive garden. She paid me two bucks an hour and taught me a lot about gardening and learning.
Here are some lessons she taught. First, a plant is a lot tougher than it looks. Take grass, for instance. You can freeze it, burn it in the sun, tramp all over it, drop all manner of junk on it, and scuff it up all day—and it still comes up through the cracks in the sidewalk. Give it a bit of water after a long drought and it’s there and green in a couple of days. Not given to sentimentality my boss attributed this to its will to survive. “If you really want something,” she said, “you’ll put up with a lot to get it.”
One morning when we were yanking out ivy from around the base of an oak tree, she paused, wiped her brow, and said, “A plant out of place is a weed.” I could see how that applied to ivy and trees—vines can kill a tree in time. But later in the day, when I was weeding out a rock garden on the side of the hill I came across a fragrant lavender plant springing up amongst the ice-plant spilling over the rocks. “What about this one?” I called. “Rip it out,” she said. “If it’s not ice-plant it doesn’t belong.”
Later in the summer she actually let me in the greenhouse while she tended her orchids. She had a sumptuous collection, gathered from exotic places all over the world. Each was labeled, given a space, and carefully monitored. Every one of them got exactly what they needed to flourish. She knew their differences, their quirks, their reactions, and she treated them like individuals. I knew she was leaving in a month and would be gone for six weeks. And I knew she was counting on me to care for the orchids while she was gone. I watched while she moved quickly and decisively from one to the other, clipping here, watering there, sniffing and peering under the blossoms on another. I wondered how I was ever going to learn enough to keep them going, much less to flourish. “It takes time,” she said, as if she were reading my thoughts. “Time and patience. Let them teach you. They’ll tell you what they need.”
I learned a lot that summer about caring for a garden and in the years since I’ve reflected on the lessons my gardening sage gave me. Students, like grass, are resilient and adaptable. Give them what they need and they’ll overcome almost any obstacle. But there’s no need to put more obstacles in their way just to see if they’re tough enough.
A plant out of place is a weed and should be torn out by the roots. On this one I respectfully decline my sage’s advice. Perhaps, if we really must have uniformity in a garden, this is an option rather than a necessity. But applied to students? No. A student out of place is probably a first-year student. Like grass they can be resilient but like orchids they need time and patience in order to flourish.
And finally, we can learn what students need in order to thrive—if we’re patient and pay attention. We need patience and time because there aren’t many rules that apply to everyone in every place and time.
We learn best by doing, said John Dewey, an idea my boss refined and focused. She explained the concept while she demonstrated and then stepped back; now it was my turn. I worked at it, sometimes making mistakes, sometimes getting it. If I got it right I had to explain the process that worked. If I got it wrong I had to figure out where the process had broken down. Watch . . . listen . . . do . . . explain. Repeat as needed.
Oh, and by the way—I didn’t lose a single orchid while she was gone.