The destruction last week of a very significant part of the
garden created by students at King Middle School is sad indeed. It is now too
late to save the land or the testimony it bore to the work of hundreds of
students at the school. But at
least it is a story that should be told, and perhaps we can learn something from
The particular part of the garden that has been bulldozed to
create a new access road is the steep sloping bank where the garden meets the
vast expanse of asphalt that typifies this and many other schoolyards across the
nation. It was a narrow spit of
land with a mature arbutus (strawberry tree), a large California Oak, and a
number of smaller oaks and toyon.
The arbutus was one of the most beautiful examples in the Bay Area and it
provided fruit, shade and shelter for birds and students alike. For the
conservation of these trees alone, the land should have been spared the
bulldozer and the addition of yet more asphalt. It is a poor lesson to teach children,
that these beautiful trees, irreplaceable in their lifetime, are not worth
But the real significance of the place for me, and my sadness
at its destruction, is that it was the location of a great deal of energetic and
high-spirited work and play for the hundreds of 11 and 12 year old students who
built the garden at King over the past five years. I watched the students reclaim this
particular part of the garden, cutting back and uprooting the invasive
cotoneaster, terracing and replanting the bank with hazelnuts they had grown
from cuttings. The huge acacia tree that was crowding the oak was gradually
harvested and provided the material for building the Ramada, the circular shade
structure the students built as their meeting place for the beginning and end of
the garden class. Students figured
out how to demolish the heavy steel railings that marked the upper edge of the
bank. They planted, made pathways, bridges, walls, and wove a huge bird’s nest
large enough for four or five students to nest in. Students were trusted to use
axes, pickaxes, sledgehammers and crowbars to go about their jobs, and never
once did a serious accident occur in all the thousands of child hours they
worked in the garden.
But perhaps the most sacred aspect of this place and the part
that will stay longest in my memory, and probably the memories of many students,
was the digging of the acequias (a drainage/irrigation channel) that became
affectionately known as the Middle River.
The students dug it along the contour of the slope to drain the water
from the Upper River they had dug across the plateau of the garden. Never have I seen such a splendid
playful application of youthful energy by so many young people over such a long
time. The combination of water,
mud, and high spirits, of dams, floods, jokes and earnest hard work was
something our children experience too rarely. Now their work is brutally
This place was, in short, the location of a very special sort
of collective activity. It is very rare in our culture for young people to be
given the chance to create something tangible, to care for the earth, to choose
the task they would like to do, and to learn to work together in a team. There were of course students who were
not very interested, who hung out and watched or who had conversations, some who
hindered or just got in the way.
But the learning was incredible.
It was not the kind of learning you could test anyone on. Sometimes it was a chance to learn what
you could do, what resources and intelligence you could muster, whether your
friends would be supportive, whether you could work with someone you didn’t
like: to learn what kinds of interaction were constructive, and how things could
fall apart. It was also a chance to
find out about some of the elements we depend on to live on this planet - dirt, rocks, water, and plants.
We have very little notion of the sacred, or what is worthy
of preservation, and who needs to be remembered. The story of the Edible
Schoolyard has been told many times in the media, with it's focus being the
founder, Alice Waters. However, Alice isn't the only hero in this story,
although she has rightfully earned the community's respect for her vision and
work. There is another story that should be told, and many young people who
should be remembered and honored.
The best way of honoring them would have been to respect the work they
had done and to preserve the place they had nurtured and helped create. Many of them come back to the schoolyard
after they have left the school and have a deep sense of pride for what they did
collectively. This is not always apparent while they are attending the
school. Now they will come back to
find that what they did was not considered worth saving.
This will not surprise them. For the most part the adult
world is not seriously interested in who young people are, nor in respecting
what they think, feel or are able to create. We are far from creating a culture
in which young people are fully respected.
I’m sad because in a small way the garden at King has always tried to
show that respecting the earth and respecting children are fundamentally part of
the same process. Small wonder the favorite word of today’s youth is “whatever”.
It’s a way of defending themselves against the pain of a lot of disrespect.
Former Garden Manager,
Martin Luther King Jr.