Saturday, May 3, 2008

No child left inside

Two months ago the Chicago Tribune ran a glorious article about children finding a peaceful oasis in the rooftop garden. Friends wrote to tell me the article made them cry. It brought tears to my eyes, too, but not because of the tender image drawn by the Trib writer.

Tragically, the same day the article ran, a 16-year-old male youth was gunned down just two blocks away from that sky high oasis.

A sliver of ice ran through me.

The next week I attended a discussion about the No Child Left Inside initiative. Many of the attendees had a slew of inspiring ideas. Yet I couldn't answer one question:
What to do when it isn't safe outside?

Driving home that day, I heard breaking news reports of a student being killed by a classmate at Crane High School, only blocks from where I spent the day brainstorming about how to get kids outside to play. Our slogan pitches -- Get OUT! and Be a Player! rang hollow.

I have been wanting to post about this for some time but could not find the words.

Until this week when my favorite gardener showed up at the rooftop garden.

Only a few months shy of 100, my green guide walked through the neighborhood where pockets of violence mar the sidewalks flanked by long-time residents, who call this half-block street home.

She didn't have a police escort or the blessing of her 70-plus daughter or 60-plus son, who thought she was better off inside. She didn't call ahead or rely on the buddy system. Certainly wasn't carrying a GPS-enabled cell phone with a finder chip. Nothing made me think she knew where the police cameras were in the alley. She didn't know if I'd be there or not. She hadn't been over to the garden in more than a year. Her broken hand and hip, my broken elbow ... icy steps, cautious family members. Time had passed.

But when the 99-year-old with a green thumb arrived unannounced Thursday afternoon, I was in shock. Here? Now? How? I was waiting for my 3 p.m. gardeners to arrive but I had no explanation as to their whereabouts.

I ran down to meet her, enjoyed a bone-crushing hug, saw her infectious smile and was called "Ma'am" for the first time in more than a year.

"I wondered what you were up to in the garden," she said, as simply as she always does.

We went to the rooftop garden. Talked about collards. Ours went to seed last summer and I've been asking everyone about what happened. Told her about our Earth Day Greens Cook-Off contest and learned how she cooks greens.

Then we went out to the garden, with dark skies hovering and a cool wind on its way. We harvested a nice bag of collards, a handful of chives, the remnants of the winter spinach, a few small heads of lime green lettuce. Each earning accolades from her.

Then a question: "What's that purple flower?" I had to look myself. Astonishingly, she was asking about flowers more than 50 feet away from us. I couldn't believe she could make them out.

So we made our way over to the hyacinths. "Never smelled them before ... oooh, are they beautiful," she cooed.

Just then two 6th grade girls bounded out to tell me they were late for class because they had been at the Chicago Botanic Garden. They were bubbling with recollections of what they saw on their first trip to those acres of green.

Three generations of gardeners: The tender young shoots, me in the middle (the sturdy stem?) and the deep-rooted gardener. Despite our age differences, we got on just fine. All eyes were filled with awe -- at youth, at age, at being together.

The girls needed to get to dance class, and I wanted to walk my hardest worker home.

My astonishment at her visit still hadn't been quelled. I swooped in with helicopter parent questions about her one-block long trip along the alley, past a deserted lot, stepping across broken glass, behind houses in need of more than TLC. How? When? Why? Whaaat???

She patiently filled in the blanks but really had only one answer:

"I needed to get to walking," she giggled, while holding on to her three-pronged cane in her hand that "opens and closes but can't hold much anymore". She went on to say she wants to get back to gardening and exercise classes. "I'm tired of being inside."

I looked in to her cloudy eyes, surrounded by her beautiful, rich skin, and felt blessed, relieved, giddy.

No child of any age should be left inside.

My silver lining, at last.


eva said...

marji- what a beautiful story. despite reflecting on the difficulties and dangers of living in the big city, telling about that woman makes me miss chicago more than i have in a long time. especially the south side, which i love yet may be leaving. who knows. anyway, i hope you keep at the blog, it is was great to read this wonderful post!

Ser said...

Like Eva, I ached for Chicago--and especially my job teaching south side folks--when reading this post. It is so beautifully written. I'll be coming to Chicago in a couple of weeks actually, May 16th-18th, right after Jenny gets there. I'll be staying with her, so I would love to catch up with you then.

Nancy said...

I was just at a Student Conservation Association conference; everyone was talking about no child left inside, and even without knowing about the shooting, I was thinking about you and that rooftop oasis.

Sturdy stem you are, no question.

Jenny said...


This is a beautiful post . . . I'm eagerly awaiting your essay for ATC.

Miss you,