When the time came to relocate the three unsightly boxwood bushes squatting on my front lawn, just about the last thing I expected was half the neighborhood children to descend upon the event. Descend they did: not like locusts but like worker bees.
It was just after 2:30 in the afternoon on the first warm Saturday in March. The roving band of eight-year-olds playing football and stickball reformed themselves into a small cadre of busy hands and feet, eager to wield trowels and shovels and generally make themselves useful. Before the end of the day, they had helped us exhume three bushes; dig three holes in which to replant them; and rake and sweep the dirt off the front sidewalk. Two kids even stayed around until nightfall, helping us clean the dead leaves out of our side alley.
Allow me to mention that there was no money in this enterprise. No treats nor bribes of any kind were in the offing (until eventually, when got late and me and my husband got hungry, we ordered pizza and invited the kids to stay to have some). By way of motivation for their largess, the most I can do is point to the treatment these children received when they rolled up on our lawn and the opportunities they were given when they stayed and made themselves useful.
It all started this way: one girl, let’s call her Tonya, asked me, “What are you doing?” I replied, “I am transplanting these bushes to the far side of the yard. That will make way for me to plant some more interesting things here next to the house.” I asked her if she thought these bushes were attractive. Tanya replied that they didn’t look particularly interesting; in fact, they looked “spiky.” I told her that that was a visual illusion caused by the fact that I had just trim them. I invited Tonya and her companions to feel the light green leaf tips that were just coming out.
“Pretty soft, right?” I asked, as the children ran the tips of their fingers over new growth of the bushes once, then again, surprised at what they were experiencing.
“You going to move those yourself?” A slightly larger boy, let’s call him Jamaal, asked.
“You want to help me?”
” I don’t know…” was his reply. “I was told that you could get worms by touching dirt.”
The doctor in me reared her head for a moment. “You should wash your hands after touching dirt.” I kept her from adding, ” or, anything, really.” Instead I said, “Why don’t you use this trowel?”
“What’s a trowel?” Tonya and Jamaal nearly said in unison.
Saturday afternoon in the garden rapidly grew into an on-the-fly lesson in horticulture; botany; engineering (when Tonya asked if my watch was expensive and I mentioned it wasn’t pricey but it was solar-powered); and geography (don’t ask me how this came up). Before this afternoon, none of the five children present had ever wielded a shovel before. Most had never planted anything before, or seen anything planted, outside of school. Only one of them, Tonya, had seen something planted in school (but she had to stay after school to see it). Yet even the littlest, let’s call him Drake, was having so much fun moving dirt from point A to point B with a shovel that I walked down the street to the community garden to see if I could borrow an extra one.
As I walked, Tonya came with me. She wanted to know everything: what the community garden was for; what people grew there; what they did with what they grew there; why there was hay on some of the plots but not others; and what was compost? It was almost as if I was speaking to somebody who hadn’t eaten in weeks, but who was suddenly invited to a large buffet lunch consisting entirely of food they had never seen before. She wanted to try it all but first she wanted to know what it was. I promised that we got back to the house I would show her the two different ways I was composting so that she could better understand.
In my backyard, I first first took Tonya to my tumbling composter. Sliding back the black lid, I advised her that it might smell a little funny. Then I urged her to look inside and tell me what she saw.
“Eggshells… orange peels… leaves… and parts of… a Christmas tree?”
“That’s right,” I commented as I held my hand over the steaming aperture. “All of that is turning back into dirt. Feel – it’s making heat as it changes.”
“How is a Christmas tree becoming dirt?” Holding her hand over the vent, she was clearly dubious, but willing to entertain a reasonable-sounding response.
“With the aid of lots and lots of bacteria.” And then we had a lesson in microbiology. I concluded by saying, “All the dirt you’ve ever seen started out as something else. Do you want to see my other compost pile, the one near the back of the yard?”
I practically had to run to keep up with her. When I got there, I peeled back the bricks that we use to keep the tarp down and showed her how the kitchen waste in green bio bags was mixing with the brown yard waste and turning into black dirt.
She nodded once, and then again before saying, “What more can you show me?”
Oh my dear…where to begin?
These kids are smart – and clearly curious. They also just as clearly have no one to whom to direct these questions – or, perhaps, no context in which to ask them. Unlike many urban environments, all the houses in this neighborhood have yards. There’s a large community garden, the cost of membership to which is $15 a year. There’s a large park across the street from my house. When the children asked me what I was going to do now that the three bushes had been moved, I pointed to the ground-up tree-parts in the park nearby and said, “That’s mulch. Do you know what mulch is and what it’s for?”
Our yard project took at least twice as long as it would have otherwise. It was also at least three times as fun as it could possibly have been had we done the work ourselves, unaided by these very determined kids who, like ants, were blithely wielding shovels a good percentage of their own weight. There were only two downsides to the day. The first occurred when I arrived at the community garden and found one of my neighbors unpacking her hatchback, preparing to work on her plot.
“When you’re done, can we bar your shovel for a little while?” I asked, after saying hello and introducing her to Tonya.
“Sure…” she said, a little more slowly than was normal. “Will you be… supervising the use of the shovel?”
“Oh yes,” I replied, motioning to the group of kids down the street still helping my husband get the second bush out of the ground. “A bunch of the neighborhood kids are helping us move some shrubs. We could use all the extra tools we can get.”
“I see…” And then she looked at Tonya for a long while, and it occurred to me for the first time that Tonya and I are not the same color on the exterior. “I’ll bring it by…when I’m done here.”
Suffice it to say, that neighbor never came by with her shovel.
The second downside was less pointed, but nonetheless piquant. At the age these children are now, I remember knowing much more about plants, and sunlight, and tools, and rivers, and continents, and the world in general. I was still in public school time, but my own parents took a very active role in my education. They didn’t so much tell me about the world is ask me about it; instructing me to go find the answer and teach them back every time I hint an, “I don’t know” (which was REALLY often). When none of the kids helping us garden could identify more continents by name than North and South America, I wanted to run in, grab a map, and start pointing and asking, “Which one is this? And this one?”
My house isn’t set up for teaching young children…but I begin to wonder if it should be. When they left after spending their first
fair-weather Saturday of 2017 helping two strangers do hours of heavy yardwork, the last question Tonya and Jamaal asked was, “When will you be doing this again?” I begin to get the sense that living in a neighborhood full of children is about more – should be about more – than waving to them on the street, throwing their toys back over the fence, and avoiding them when I’m riding my bicycle. I feel a responsibility towards these kids now – not just because they helped me, but because somebody should be helping them get a better grasp of the world in which they live. I hope that somebody is, but that somebody clearly isn’t enough for these kids. Maybe “somebody” never is.
When it comes to showing children around the world, maybe the people responsible are closer to “everybody” and “anybody” than to “somebody.”