Thursday, March 08, 2012

Those Trees I Planted

Recently, AML wrote a comment about my “Onalaska” post:

AML wrote...
Every tree has a life to give and has a reason to leave. So planting more trees will help make the world green and wonderfull.

Few would want to argue with AML, and as I worked on the story that was eventually used in part by the author of “Onalaska,” I thought many times about the mighty and beautiful trees that were killed off so that his country might have houses and baseball bats and pianos, and whatever else entrepreneurs might use to create jobs and produce things that people wanted and needed.

And I also thought about the title of this blog, “Planting Trees.” I called it that not because I was thinking of elms and maples and cherry blossoms, but because I was thinking of putting ideas into the heads of young people. My trees were a metaphor for giant redwoods and palms and walnut trees--big ideas in the minds of our next generation.

After I retired from industry, I really went to work. I went to the local school district and said, “I want to be a substitute teacher.” I had two college degrees but they still made me take a test for aspiring teachers. It was absurdly easy, and after the local police checked me out, I found myself in a classroom.

Standing in front of 35 kids every day from seventh grade to high school age kids, I found that I had a very high office. Yes, I had taught three semesters of a management course in college, but I did not like doing it. About half of my students were graduate students and half were undergraduate students. The experience was kind of frustrating for me.

But when I found myself in front of an algebra class, or a science class in public school, I was really at home for two reasons. One reason had to do with Democracy. Public schools are where Democracy is ingrained into the minds of our young people. I supported it every way I could. Sometimes this meant protecting possible gay children and always it meant protecting small girls from being trampled by big boys. It often meant discouraging rumors and false stories about one race being superior to another. It meant telling girls that they could do math just as well as boys (which is absolutely true).

It never occurred to me to present just one side of a story, no matter what I personally felt. I might miss some “trees” that way.

The second reason I felt at home is that I was able to plant other trees. When there were breaks in a lesson, I told funny stories about my own family life when I was a kid with two older, meaner brothers. My own children were grown, so I talked about them and their injuries. These tales reinforced the idea of a strong family which protected its members and shared its sorrows as well as its joys. These were “trees” also.

Planting trees in public schools this way allowed me to explain science and math in new ways as well as telling true stories about our country’s history that reinforced the American culture.

The kids asked for copies of my stories so I wrote first one book and then nine more. Parents asked for me when they found that a teacher was going to be absent, and asked for me to tutor their kids. I didn’t need the money and my health was failing, so I had to slow down over time and then finally quit altogether.

During this time and even after I came to believe that it would serve the students and teachers well if more older people volunteered to be substitute teachers. Older citizens had something important to say about what they had observed over the years.

As for me, I knew that teaching was one of the most important jobs I ever had. I was allowed to plant many trees for about five or six years. Fortunately, I was teaching in one of the best schools in one of the best school districts of the state of California. It was an honor to be included as a teacher with the REAL teachers in that district who were full time professionals.

I retired from a job in industry where I managed the people who managed divisions of manufacturing companies. I was, by all accounts a professional manager. And yet, nothing was as fulfilling as those years I was allowed to stand in front of a classroom of kids from all over the world and plant American trees along with Algebra, Science, and Social Studies.

So yes, AML, planting more trees will help make the world green and wonderful.