Friday, November 27, 2015

On Farming and Teaching

Both of my grandpas were farmers. They held other jobs in their lives, did other work with their hands, but in their hearts they were always farmers.
By the time I came along they were no longer working 40 acres with a mule and a plow, but they both had gardens, wonderful gardens. Maybe there was something about rising out of bed before the sun came up, or smelling the dirt in a freshly plowed ground, or seeing a red, ripe tomato hanging on a vine, but until the end of their lives they loved to pull on their overalls, put on their caps, pick up their hoes and plant themselves into those gardens among the vegetables, fruits and land.
“Being a farmer takes lots of hard work and lots of humility,” both of my grandpas told me at one time or another as I followed them down the rows. “It takes lots of hard work because each morning from spring ‘til fall you rise before the sun, walk the rows with seeds, hoes, and buckets in your hands, plant those seeds, hoe the weeds, and fill the buckets with tomatoes and squash and green beans and strawberries. You plant, hoe and pick until the sweat from your body mixes with the dirt and you become a part of the garden itself.”
They were farmer poets, my grandpas were, some of the last of those wonderful farmer poets who walked the farms and fields of the South.
“And it takes lots of humility because no matter how hard you work, you can’t make the brilliant green bud pop through the deep brown dirt; you can’t make the bright flower fold into a baby tomato; you can’t make the rain fall to help the corn grow.
Nope, when you close your eyes to the day, you can only know that you have given as much of your heart, mind, soul and body as you can to the ground, and that you have received the produce as a gift.”
As I rise before the sun and make my way toward my elementary school I often think of their lives and their words. Like being a farmer, being a teacher takes lots of hard work and lots of humility, too.
I remember how hard I worked with a 10-year-old kid named James. He was in the fourth grade but could read only 20 words correctly per minute on a second-grade level. He was growing up in a desperately poor household. As Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund reminds us, his economic poverty made him less healthy and less likely to graduate from high school than his non-poor peers. He had a tough row to hoe.
He could neither read well nor write a complete sentence. He could, however, tell a story. He was a natural-born storyteller. He often met me at my classroom door with twinkling eyes and a beaming smile. “Mr. Barton,” he would say, “let me tell you what happened to me yesterday.” He would tell those stories with wonderful expressions, exciting verbs and colorful adjectives. “You should have seen me in my football game! I nuked a player this way... I jostled a player that way... and I left the rest of the team behind like I was a lightning bolt!”
At the end of the school year, after I had poured all of my knowledge and teaching abilities into him to help him become the best reader and writer he could become, he wrote this poem:
Anger is red and black,
It smells like gunpowder,
It tastes like bullets,
It sounds like a shot,
It feels like a sharp knife,
It lives in fear

I took his poem back to my classroom. I closed the door and sat facing the window that looked out over the grounds that provide so much order and safety in a world full of chaos and danger for the children we teach. I wept for the hardness of our work as teachers, I wept for the hardness of our students’ lives, I wept for the beauty of watching a child learn to read and write, I wept for the beauty in James’ heart.
But just as I remember the hardness of my work as a teacher, I remember the humility I felt because of a 10-year-old kid named Alexia. Like so many of my students, she speaks Spanish at home and English at school. She is a beautiful, wonderful, ingenious immigrant child.
She knows that I am trying to become a genius about whales this year. My whole school knows I am studying them and writing about them. I am even nerdily wearing Vineyard Vines shirts to school each day because they have whales on them. Because she knows this, she drew and colored a picture of a blue whale for me. It is breathtakingly beautiful. I am framing it so I can keep it and show it forever.
I was sitting at her table, working with her group, and she told me, “Mr. Barton, you said one day that you can’t hear as well as you used to hear. Well, if you ever lose your hearing, then I can sign for you.” I said, “Really? Do you have someone who is deaf in your family?” She answered, “No, but I wanted to learn so I taught myself on YouTube.” Then she signed for me.
And I smile for the humility of our work as teachers, I smile for the gifts our students bring to us, I smile for the whale Alexia created for me, I smile for my grandpas, for they were right – when I close my eyes to the day, I can only know that I have given as much of my heart, mind, soul and body as I can to the ground, and that I have received the produce as a gift.
Precious gifts.
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Maria and the Shape of God's Heart

Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest and the founder of Homeboy Industries in East Los Angeles, Calif. He lives and works in his economically poor and gang-riddled community building kinship and making connections with the people around him.
He affectionately calls his parishioners “homies” and they affectionately call him “G-Dog.” I highly recommend his book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” if you, too, are interested in building kinship in the world.
In the book, Father Greg tells the story of taking two homies to the White House as a part of then-First Lady Laura Bush’s Helping America’s Youth campaign. On the flight home, one of the homies talks to a flight attendant and tells her about what his life had been to this point, about going to the White House, and about what his life was becoming.
His story made the flight attendant cry, he tells Father Greg in surprise. Father Greg says to him, “Well, mijo, whaddya ‘spect? She just caught a glimpse of ya. She saw that you are somebody. She recognized you as the shape of God’s heart. Sometimes people cry when they see that.”
As an elementary school teacher and a writer, I often recognize my students as the shape of God’s heart, and write about them through tears of wonder.
One of those students is Maria. She is seven years old and in the second grade. Her parents fled the aftereffects of a brutal civil war in El Salvador and found a new life on the farms and in the fields of South Carolina. She is like those farms and fields, with dark skin the color of the ground and a garden of a heart that produces love and joy. I have seen her hold the hand of a frightened kindergartner in the lunch line during early morning breakfast time and offer her shoulder to a crying friend who scraped her knee on the blacktop during recess. She is a beautiful child.
I can see her smile from all the way down at the end of the hall from the front office. Sometimes, I can hear her steps from there, too, because on special days she wears tiny high-heeled shoes with her flowery dresses and I can hear the click, click, click as she makes her way toward me over the tiled floor. This always makes me stop and smile.
One day I realized I forgot to send my money through the mail to the water company to pay my bill. I stopped by the office to make my payment in person after school. Apparently three-fourths of the residents of Greenville County forgot to send in their payments, too, because the place was full of people, standing in the doorway, meandering their way to the payment counter, people everywhere.
In the middle of all of that humanity I heard a click, click, click. I looked around and there, coming around a desk, was Maria. She was pushing a stroller with a tiny baby inside of it. I could barely see her over the handles of the stroller. She was leading her mother, who was holding a toddler in her arms.
She saw me. Her face lit up with her Maria smile. She let go of the stroller for just a moment, wrapped her arms around me and said, “Oh, Mr. Barton! Buenos tardes! I am always so glad to see you!”
She took hold of the stroller again and I lost her among the faces of the people around me. But I heard her sincere, serious voice rise above the noise.
“Excuse me,” she said, “But could you help us pay our bill?” And there was Maria, seven years old, translating for her mother, helping her family, sharing her life with our world.
Oscar Romero, former archbishop of El Salvador who was martyred by the bullet of a right-wing assassin in 1980, once entreated us in a sermon to try to organize life according to the heart of God. My little Maria does this every day, as do so many of my immigrant neighbors in my school, community, state and country.
Just as Maria’s family was a refugee from a war-torn land, many other refugees are trying to find a new life and a deeper hope in a place that will welcome them with an open heart and a helping hand. I hope you see their faces, listen to their stories and see them as the shape of God’s heart when you hear the words “refugee” and “immigrant” in the coming days. I hope you see Maria.
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