Spring Sap

Apr 14, 2017

Credit April Lidinsky

When your parents name you April, and your birthday is smack in the middle of this luscious month, you just can’t help but be an optimist. I have always been more Dylan Thomas than T.S. Eliot.  My whole childhood, when teachers turned the classroom calendars to “my” month, my heart would swell like the crab apple blossoms tapping on the windows of Green Mountain Elementary. Of course, I knew all those Aprils on bulletin boards weren’t about me, but as someone who loved school, and all the celebrations at the end of the academic year, I felt lucky to be blowing out birthday candles in a month that celebrates everything I love: thawing dirt, earthworms, the first flowers, and the launch of academic awards season.  I am, in short, a spring sap.

As a kid, I loved playing school, and I’d bet my first cup of morning coffee that lots of you did, too.  Picture 5-year-old me, with unraveling brown braids, self-importantly sitting at my pretend teacher’s desk, swathed in one of my mom’s full-skirted cast-offs from the dress-up hamper.  I’d pretend to grade papers, using a Brick Red Crayola to mark X’s on scratch paper — imagining the power of grown-ups to say when kids are wrong, wrong, wrong!

Now that I am a teacher, I know how wrong I was.  I know comments on papers are really about bringing out what students are doing right. This time of year, that work feels so heavy with promise …  and worry.  Finals week looms, and students are exhausted and slap-happy, under-slept and raw. In advising meetings, when they sit in my cluttered university office, I ask them, gently, about the classes they plan to take next. Even a neutral question feels loaded.  I sit with my notes open, and ask, “Are you thinking of Biology or Chemistry for your science lab requirement?” or “Do you know what minor you’d like to declare?” And sometimes tears actually squirt out of students’ eyes — cartoon-like — and they wail some version of “I don’t know!” As if I’ve just asked them: “Who ARE you?  What are you going to DO with your life?” I get it. It’s the season of vulnerability, of just-unfurling.

I got to usher in springtime early, a few weeks ago, with my first trip to Portland, Oregon, for a conference. It rained or poured during most of my visit, but I still walked the streets, my eyes hungry to devour early spring — green on green on green as only Portland can pull off — bright moss on every surface, and rosemary bushes as tall as I am, brushing my shoulders as I walked by, their aromatic needles punctuated by clusters of tiny purple blossoms.  That infusion of green helped me endure the wait back home in Indiana … and this week, finally, the pointillist pinks and whites of the flowering fruit trees appeared, a lacy haze of color to accompany baby green leaves, and the first pops of dandelions.

Walking to and from campus each day, my cells seem to expand amidst all this foaming beauty. It’s the objective correlative of my swelling pride in our students as they pull toward the end of the school year, about to receive awards, certificates, or just the relief of completing All The Things … or making their best attempt. And all I want to do is cheer them on.

Our grown-up children have turned us onto the hilarious podcast by the three McElroy brothers,“My Brother, My Brother, and Me.” (A word of warning: “This show is not for babies,” as they say.)  In one episode, they launch a wacky theory that cars need more than one kind of horn … not just a critical horn, the “danger” horn, but also a “good job” horn. Here’s how they put it: 

"Third horn, though, third horn is the 'Great job!' horn."

"Oooh, nice."

"And you do this if somebody does like a dope break and like stops from hitting the car in front of them, which like slammed on their breaks and you'd be like, 'Oooh, man that was a close one, GREAT JOB!' And you just hit them up with that and they say, 'Oh, thank you.'"

This time of year, I just want to walk around beeping that horn.  Great job, you tired, yet triumphant, students!  Great job, magnolias!  Great job, perfumed and vibrant hyacinths clustering by doorways, and great job organizers of the upcoming March for Science!  Great job, potted pansies, just-opening tulips, and great job Michiana PlayMakers, whose all-female production of Vindication, about the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, launches its run tonight at LangLab in South Bend. Great job heirloom lettuces, popping up on the sunny south side of our house, and great job this week, full “pink” moon, filling us with light, animating a world, inside and out, so full of bloom.