My first plant was a lima bean planted in a paper cup in third grade. I don’t remember the specifics of the assignment except that I was a disorganized eight-year-old in a disorganized family. I forgot to tell my mom that I needed to soak the bean before planting it, but it didn’t much matter because my bean went into the dark closet, where I learned seeds were loathe to grow anyway. So the plants on the sunny sill popped up, first peeking little green arches and then heart leaves. The seeds in the closet stayed tucked beneath the dirt and dark.
In retrospect, while I see that there is value to control groups and third grade scientific inquiry, I feel defensive of my spacey and disorganized eight year-old self and her failure of a seedling. I sort of wish the teacher had taken on the burden of the control group, so that little girl (and her control cohort!) could have had that experience of her very own wonder and hope.
How could this be anything but a parable about privilege and risk and resilience? I can’t help but draw the parallel between this little elementary experiment and the reality of institutional discrimination and disparity. Some seeds are planted in good soil, get enough water, and sit on a sunny sill. Some go into the closet–maybe soaked a bit the night before, maybe brought out for half the daylight. The objective of the lesson was, of course, to point out that plants need a combination of circumstances to thrive.
That little girl was not herself a bean in the dark. She was a bean in the partial shade, and sometimes the ground was a little too cool. But the soil was fertile and a slice of sun hit her just right, and she happened to be a particularly sprouty type, it turned out.
It’s interesting to do social work, with its strengths-based ethos, in the school setting. I grew enough into the teacher role that I absorbed the language of “at risk,” but it wasn’t until my MSW program that I was able to fully contextualize that label. A kid isn’t “at risk” because of her personality or bad parents or low ambitions or propensity to misbehavior but because of systemic realities that can amount to being sown in rocky soil or being put inside a closet with no light. What schools often seem to miss out on is the other side of risk, which is resilience. And when we label “at risk” kids without also digging around for the ways that they are sprouty and programmed to thrive, when we don’t assess for and emphasize and GROW those things, we often undermine the ability of children to soak up what is fertile or find their patch of sun.
This year, I am tending my first real class of seedlings. When I chose the cucumber sprout who would continue on into the next round, I laid the rejected snipped stem aside, sadly, to a spot in the basin that had collected a little water. A few days later, I noticed that she was reaching up toward the light and had rooted in the margins. I couldn’t help myself–I planted her and put her in the window.