When I was a newish teacher, I decided my classroom needed plants. It was my second year in the same school, and by a miracle of public education, I was assigned my own room, rather than hauling my stuff from one room to another to teach wherever there was an available room as I had the year before. I rejoiced. I bought fru-fru for my bulletin boards, including some red-eyed plastic rats and grimacing skeletons to decorate the board where I pinned work handed in without a name on top. That board was called “The Pit of Despair” and was a hit with the kids; teenagers are hilarious like that.
To balance the seemingly endless months of dead, bleak, stick your nostrils together cold winter days, I decided to install some living things in my classroom. Plants seemed the likely choice, since the kids couldn’t feed them bits of eraser as they’re apt to do with fish, or try to smuggle them out in a pencil case to race down the halls during lunch like they might be tempted to try with rodents. Plants were also quiet; I could certainly use more quiet.
I headed to Wal-Mart and purchased eight or nine plants, with pots to transfer them into instead of leaving them in those tacky, flimsy plastic dealies the hang out in at the store. My room had truly fabulous full sun from dawn each morning until about two in the afternoon, so much so that I didn’t turn my lights on most days. It felt like a greenhouse; I expected to have no problems at all, and pictured lush expanses of greenery pouring over my bookcases and trailing along my windowsills. I imagined a rainforest in which we could read Shakespeare and polish our essays. Some mornings, I gave those plants a morning pep talk before the kids showed up. We were only a few weeks of steady growth from victory, kids: time to max out our photosynthesis and reach for the stars.
As much as I believed in my plants and sang little songs to them when I didn’t think anyone could hear me, they failed to thrive. At first I thought they were just needlessly afraid of teenagers, like the old folks at the mall near my school who duck into the Zellers restaurant before our kids arrive to buy poutine in the food court. There were moments when I even suspected the students of somehow sabotaging my botanical efforts. Sadly, by the end of October, all my plants were dead but one.
Then I realized that as much as I encouraged my plants to grow like weeds (sorry, I had to use the phrase) I’d forgotten to water them. Unfortunately, I was too busy educating the eager youngsters and preparing them for their undoubtedly successful futures to remember the most basic aspects of plant care.
The cheese standing alone sputtered and flailed, dropping leaves and crumpling for a couple of weeks, then settled and took off. It was one of those philodendrons that fill the walls and ceilings of Greek restaurants, and soon it was growing across push pins on my bulletin board. The thing was vibrant and healthy, and went crazy in the ideal sunlight.
Excited that the plant gods had finally smiled on me, I bought replacements for the successful plant’s fallen comrades, and soon the classroom garden I’d envisioned for so long began to take shape. I couldn’t figure it out though: I remembered to water them once a month at best, and my room was steamy hot with the old boilers pumping away every day of the winter. By all educated assumptions, they should have been crispy and dead within a week, but they thrived. Since I know better than to ask too many questions when I’ve been blessed, I just sang a little louder to my plants and felt very lucky.
By Easter, I was starting to think I’d actually inherited the green thumbs that landed on every hand in the family but mine. I called my momma and told her what a wonderful plant farmer I was. During the spring break, I spent a day at the empty school catching up my marking and writing report cards, and my plants looked as fantastic as ever. I anticipated even better growth as the daylight hours increased a little each day, and felt very proud of myself for finally learning to keep plants alive.
Suddenly, a key turned in the door and the weekend and evenings janitor for my wing of the school bustled through with a wheeled cart full of cleaners and tools. He nodded to me and busied himself spritzing and wiping my desks. After dry mopping the aisles, he polished my whiteboards and seemed satisfied with his work. To my surprise, though, he grabbed a spray bottle off his trolley and started liberally squirting my nearest plant.
“Whoa!” I cried, thinking that this guy was just a little too thorough for my tastes and that the chemicals were sure to kill off my cherished champion plants. “Please don’t use cleaners on my plants! They’ll die!”
He kept spritzing, but turned his head to look at me incredulously. “This is water. I always mist your plants.”
“I, uh– ” I tried to absorb this information, “you always mist them?” I was stunned.
“Oh yeah,” he nodded. “I felt bad for them. They were always so dry, so I started watering them and spraying them down a couple nights a week. Been doing that for months now.”
“Um, thanks,” I stumbled.
“They sure look good now, don’t they?” He misted the rest of my plants, humming a song that may or may not have been from a science fiction film. Then he grabbed a little plastic bucket, disappeared to the hallway for a few moments, and came back, sloshing a little water on they floor as he strode through my classroom. He tipped a healthy splash into each plant pot, then loaded his supplies back on the cart and disappeared into the empty hallway.
Thus ended my months of very proud indoor gardening. It turns out my thumbs are grey after all.
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