Renewal and Reformation in the Meadow Garden – An End Note by Sheila Pai
The heat rises wet and heavy off the freshly watered soil and verdant leaves as the sun bakes into my shoulders. The insects buzz wildly, a cacophony of communication. I catch a flash of white as the spotted fawn springs away. The vibrant hues of green permeate my pupils while the stunning growth from the last three days fills me with wonder and awe. Plants know how to grow!
As I work in our community’s Meadow Garden during the first summer for The Farm at AFS, I feel my spirit coming back into fullness. My heart and thoughts wander back over memories from what has been my hardest and most invigorating year at AFS. Like the plants in the garden, we struggled to push through hardships and strove for the light. Indeed, looking around the garden, I could see the metaphor extending out over our year and forward into our future. After all we have been through, the call is here for our renewal and reformation, as individuals and as a community.
Upon entering the garden, I first see the bamboo stakes drive upwards, anchoring into the stability of the earth. These are the truths to which we must hold, to which we are bound. In the Upper School, student voices emerged stronger than ever this year. Students led assemblies, did presentations, ran workshops, shared in MFW and met with teachers and administrators. BSU student clerks met with the History Department Chair and the Head of School to discuss changes needed for all students of color academically and in terms of mental health. The truths of the unseen burdens many carry, the toll oppression takes on children and families, the ways the pandemic environment disrupted our functioning and connections – these are all truths that were laid bare. We put a stake in the ground this year around well-being and community, opening us up to conversations we had not had as fully before and growth that was not possible in the past.
Back in the garden, tying up the wayward tomato stalks to the stake reveals the marigolds, basil and other herbs planted underneath. These companions are known to be a synergistic community, integrating with and benefiting all, rather than simply occupying the same space. With all the disruptions of social distancing, masks, and hybrid learning, community took effort this year. After weeks of online learning, coming back onto campus meant the possibility of togetherness. Over the course of the year, the tensions, misunderstandings and withdrawal that can happen when trying to connect through 2-D screens and toneless text gave way to eyes crinkled at the edges with smiles, chatter coming back to classrooms, teachers and students meeting together and laughter filling the Student Commons during the weeks-long, student-created ping pong tournament that closed out the year. What I saw and felt so clearly this year is that connection is an absolutely vital part of learning and that we are, in fact, better together.
As I did one last walk through of the garden, picking off the beginnings of basil flowers and pulling up stray weeds (shout out to the summer volunteers doing incredible work on a successful garden!), I saw some of the cucumbers near the sprinklers were getting too much water and not enough sun, leaving them smallish and struggling. Plants, like humans and children especially, need the appropriate set of nutrients in appropriate amounts to thrive. I know from my years as a teacher that when you meet the needs of students they can grow and thrive in ways that surprise even the students themselves. This year, parents, teachers, and administrators felt challenged to meet the needs that we saw in increasing clarity. With improved understanding, the long-standing inequities and inefficiencies that could be veiled became glaring needs to be addressed. These needs existed before the pandemic and will continue to exist. Just as in a garden, much examining, adjusting, learning, experimenting, understanding and change needs to happen to ensure the plants (and people!) get what they need to thrive as the plants themselves grow and change.
Closing the gate on the garden, my thoughts move ahead to the coming weeks and the coming year. The current year has continued to be about renewal for our community as we learn to be together more fully again. It will also be about reformation, however, as we work to hold the truths, come together and meet the needs of all. Like a skillful, wise gardener, we need to continue tend to growing life with presence, responsiveness, humility, curiosity, courage and commitment. In doing so, we can cultivate a thriving community, teeming with life and responsive to the needs of all.
For now, I’ve left the rejuvenating garden, but my hands and heart are full of goodness as I embark on a year of community connection.
Go well, friends,