The Garden Teacher- Part 1

Remarkable things have been happening behind-the-scenes here at Veggielution. In this bi-weekly blog series, our Youth Educator Janaki takes us to an elementary school on San Jose’s East Side, Aptitud Community Academy, where Veggielution has directed a grant-funded school garden program for 4 years. Highlighting snapshots and stories from her year as “The Garden Teacher”, in this final year of a grant cycle with no prospects for renewed funding, Janaki reflects on the struggles and transformations of a School Garden, and the mirroring, interconnected realities of the community and society around it.

It is three o’clock and school has just gotten out on this warm Wednesday in March. I have wrapped up an afternoon of lessons on soil and seeding for 65 5th graders. As students gleefully depart their classrooms for the blacktop, I pack up trowels, seeding flats, and clipboards left over from the day’s lessons and wipe down the outdoor chalkboard. I am in the Aptitud School Garden on San Jose’s East Side, where Veggielution, just one mile to the west, has been supporting a comprehensive School Garden program for approximately 250 students for the past 4 years.

Arturo (actual name has been changed) rambles over with his backpack to greet me before he begins his 20-minute walk home.  At the ripe old age of 11, he carries himself with a quiet calmness and maturity. He is a past participant of the School’s “Garden Club”, a weekly after school program provided by Veggielution. Arturo is a burgeoning gardener at home-- and quite the foodie. Today I motion him over to the raised bed where the green onions are growing and break off a leaf for him to sample. He inhales the scent, and immediately closes his eyes and smiles happily. “Cebolla verde!” He begins talking a mile a minute.

“You know, my mother makes the best tacos with this stuff. First she puts the meat on, and then chops up the cebolla verde in small pieces, and some radish, and sprinkles it on top.” He motions expertly with his hands to demonstrate. “Mmmm! It tastes so good! She would love this. Can I take some home?”

It was a small example of the beautiful cultural food ways that have traveled from Mexico and found a home here in East SJ. A transference of the appreciation of vibrant, fresh food between parent and child. Garden-based education can be powerful—not only for the avenues of expression and growth it provides students, or the positive nutritional benefits, but for how it can encourage and even validate a cultural experience that is so often marginalized by those with more money and privilege.  

“Of course you can take some home. Thanks for asking. Tell your mother to come visit the garden sometime. I would love to meet her.”

“I don’t know, she’s a very busy lady,” Arturo says. “She always has so much work-- cooking or cleaning—there’s always something. But okay, I’ll try,” he says unconvincingly.

Arturo and I have developed a rapport over the year, where he occasionally visits the garden to see what’s growing, or to just sit on the bench and chat. Arturo has a slight speech impediment which has made him the target of bullying by certain classmates. A smart and generally peaceful child, he has brushed it off as best he can. But occasionally he channels his inner tired 65-year old man who is saddened or exasperated with the state of humanity, and I make sure to lend an understanding ear.

One time as Arturo was walking home after school, he turned a corner and encountered a crowd of police vehicles blocking the street on his route home. From far off, he saw big guns and heard yelling. “Oh great,” he thought. “Here we go again. How am I supposed to get home now?” He reversed course and wandered around the neighborhood for an hour until the police departed. Arturo had been witness to neighborhood disruptions like this before--this was gang territory, after all. It was a far too common sight in the residential area that is a 1-mile radius around Aptitud.

Another time he wanted to check some books out from the library but discovered that his library card was missing from his wallet; the card appeared again two days later. Arturo’s family occasionally took renters in for the extra income, and he suspected that it might have been they who had taken his card. So Arturo started sleeping with his wallet by his head. One night as he was sleeping he felt a shuffling; by the time he gained awareness, a shadow was darting out the door and his library card was gone. He had been given library leniency twice when he appeared without his card, but the third time, he was banned from the check-out. “It’s so disappointing. I can’t check out library books anymore,” he said glumly as we chatted on the bench in the garden. “Other things have disappeared too since they moved in. What’s worse is they pick on my little brother.” His family finally decided to show the renters the door, but lost the extra income that came with them.

Arturo is a child so bright with appreciation, curiosity and thirst for knowledge, and he is dealing with challenges that are not meant for children. At the very least the School Garden provides a brief respite from those challenges. There are countless other incredible youth like him that have come through the garden-- for classes, during recess to help out, or on their own after school. It is a safe place to just be. Even the students whose challenging home life causes them to struggle behaviorally or academically in the classroom find a place to shine in the garden when they demonstrate keen observation of soil critters, hard work with weeding, or detailed focus of planting. The beautiful and diverse community around Aptitud has its very real struggles: high rates of diabetes, poverty, and gang violence. The school district here, with its very limited resources, already struggles to support the needs of its students and teachers; naturally (or is it unnaturally?) school gardens are not in the budget. Gardens by themselves cannot reverse our society’s oppressive systems perpetuating these struggles, but they can be healing and powerful in so many other ways. Don’t we all deserve compassion, health, safety and self-worth regardless of what side of town we live in?