Year of No

Sometime this past winter I started referring to the 2015-16 school year as the Year of No. Nothing went easily. Sure things seemed to fall through without explanation. Support I’d assumed would be there didn’t materialize. Many of my students seemed to struggle more than usual. My after-school program planned to install three academic gardens. Then two of our major funding sources, organizations that had been deeply committed previously, told us no. When an individual whose support we counted on declared our school gardening program neither academically rigorous nor rooted in environmental education, I gave up. I interviewed for a transfer to another school, ready to spend the next years running a learning center for middle schoolers. But, the middle school said no.

The months flew by as they always do, and we woke up one day to find ourselves limping toward the end of the year. For my part, I headed into the last two weeks with laryngitis and a cold that left me unable to hear unless I tilted my head at a 90-degree angle to the right. We had found other sources of funding for our garden projects, and one of our initial supporters had returned. A gaggle of students had shown up during winter break to clear bushes from the campus, lay down dry creek beds, and establish native California plant beds in the icy rain and winds. One of our vice principals threw a barbecue for us when we finished.

In the spring, our gardens blossomed, refusing to fall victim to the California drought, nourished with water from the rain recovery system my students had built. In mid-May, I pulled out the essays my special education students wrote on the first day of school. We laid them out next to their recently completed “Romeo and Juliet” essays. Perhaps we didn’t reach the writing levels I had hoped to meet, but the growth was obvious to everyone in that classroom. Meanwhile, the after-school kids planned their annual farmers market. This year community businesses and city officials asked to participate, and the local waste management company hosted a neighborhood cleanup. The public library requested we include them next year.

In May, students who worked 400 hours of community service, far more than the mandatory 25 a year, wrote their reflections in hopes of earning cords to wear with their graduation robes. One found its way back to me, written by one of my after-school regulars, an honors student headed to a California university to study psychology and biology.

These are the reasons teachers return, even after a Year of No.


“A Snipbit from my ‘Exceeds 25 Hours’ Reflection”
By Paul Malonzo (reprinted with permission)

It’s a little sad to say that I’m a senior, and won’t be there to tend to the plants, so small as they take their time to grow. But, it’s not for the school, or the community, that this club helps. It’s for the students who have joined us, or at the very least appreciate our endeavor to make people feel a little closer to nature, as I’ve heard from my counterparts, and the inner depths of my own cynical mind.

Peace and comfort wasn’t as far as I imagined it to be. “Down to earth” is defined by Google as “being practical or realistic.” Take it as you will, School Admin. I look at this both literally and figuratively.

It was when I had my hands down in the earth, I would actually grin, unlike the many times where I had my head way up in the clouds, as if that’s the only place a dream could exist.

Truthfully, I just didn’t give anything enough time and care to really see reality flourish into anything more meaningful than a romanticized version of it. The earth gives so much to us, yet we fail to give anything back. A beautiful flower cannot grow without its roots. We are only laying the foundation for what we hope will blossom with the generations to come.

For someone who was particularly concerned about getting a little dirt on his hands and clothes, it took me a while before I decided to sit in the grass with the others, scooping large amounts of soil with either hand as I made beds for potted plants. To my horror, I could feel miniscule particles of the soil under my nails, which wouldn’t come out until a few minutes at the sink. As you can see, the garden didn’t exactly have a banner that spelled out, “Welcome, Paul Malonzo.”

This brings me back to the start of it all: a summer in 2012, a series of long walks, and my best friend. Back then you wouldn’t have seen me smiling as I do now, because anything back then was a part of an elaborate masquerade. The world didn’t seem fair since I longed to escape reality and fell short from the open arms of my dreams. I was a walking mass of gloom and doom, convinced of defeat. You must understand that I wouldn’t have gotten through, had it not been for my best friend’s help. She had a passion for nature.

A few years later, I knew I wanted to revisit that, to understand that feeling as I watched it through her changed eyes. About two weeks had passed since my first day at Garden Club, and I, in my hand, held a young sprout. I began to understand. Nature always catered to me and my needs within the palm of its hands, but the world isn’t the same once you’ve held the start of new life in yours. For a dreamer who always had his head up in the clouds, I found a new home down on earth. Woven into the same underground network that the plants shared, I was rooted…I was connected.