On a recent Saturday, I helped build a new “outdoor classroom” at my son’s school, . When I volunteered, I pictured myself shoveling dirt in a t-shirt under one of those bright skies that whispered of summer the previous week. Instead, there was a biting wind, drizzle and, at one point, actual snowflakes.
But I was pleased to join in. Because I returned to full-time work a few months ago, I haven’t spent so much time at PS9 recently, and I hadn’t heard about the plans to build an outdoor classroom until I got an email from Penelope, who used to be president of the PTO, asking for volunteers. Somehow, in the three or four months since I last attended a PTO meeting, the gardening committee had successfully applied for a $4,500 grant from Lowes, reached out to the St Mark’s Avenue community garden for advice and support, and enlisted Penelope’s husband and father-in-law to design and oversee construction.
I was excited to hear about the gardening committee’s work. It fits in with a growing focus on health and fresh air at the school—from the to the efforts of the wellness committee to get grants for gym equipment and salad bars. And in this era of standardized-test-obsession in the US education system, giving students a chance to grow plants at school seems a little beacon of Scandinavian-style sanity. Both my kids love getting soil under their fingernails—and living in an apartment without so much as a fire escape for potted tomatoes, they don’t often get the chance to dig and sow.
Once again I was impressed at the energy parents contribute to gaining every possible resource for the kids in our budget-challenged local elementary school. But more than that, I was intrigued by Penelope’s father-in-law. Plenty of grandparents go the extra mile, playing dress-up with their grandchildren or babysitting for whole weekends. But how many can build a garden shed?
Eric was cheerfully at work with an electric buzzsaw when I arrived, slicing up cedar planks for the shed and for the series of raised and low wooden beds that the kids will fill with plants. Some fathers were putting the final bolts in a couple of brand new picnic tables that had already been built.
A mother I’d never met called Martha asked me to help her collect large planks of reclaimed timber from the front of the building. Martha’s a landscape architect and one of the parents on the gardening committee. She deftly measured and drilled the planks to make raised beds, while her baby looked on from her stroller, bundled into a snowsuit.
Another parent brought bagels and took children in to the gym to warm up. Our principal, Ms D’Avilar, came by to marvel at the golden garden shed taking shape before our eyes. “Look at you!” she called to me, “I’ll tell your son his mom was sawing wood!” I wasn’t strictly sawing—I was helping Eric maneuver planks through the buzzsaw, but as my furniture-assembling skills begin and end with Ikea, she was right—my son would have been proud. As we worked, Eric told me he’d been a cabinetmaker by profession and built his own house. The smell of cedar filled my head with happy thoughts of my own grandfather, who also loved working with wood. To create tangible things—pieces of solid furniture—must be a good way to spend your working life—and perhaps explained the sunniness of everyone’s mood, as they hammered and drilled in the freezing sleet.
By the time I left most of the wooden beds had been built and Eric’s son Theo had driven off to buy more cedar planks to complete the shed. Martha had taken her baby home and all that was left was a core group of dads with drills, putting finishing touches on the planting boxes. It was time for me to go back to my apartment and see if my son had finished his homework. Next year he’ll be in third grade and the testing will begin. Already, he’s started asking me: “Will it be hard?” …“How hard will it be?”
I can’t wait to see the finished outdoor classroom—especially in the sunshine, once the kids have filled those wooden boxes with plants. I just hope my son’s grade will be among the students who visit it and that they’ll take time, in between academics, to get good and muddy.