First, do no harm

land planarian

Land planarian. Pavel KirillovCC BY-SA

Granddaddy and I are walking around “the horn.” I am puzzling over why he calls this path “the horn.” When he says it, I know he means the journey from his house down the gravel road past the formidable, fairy-tale-dark woods with a tiny cemetery in the clearing, past unpainted houses in various stages of falling down, to the narrow paved highway and on around to the other side of this gravel road where, in a tiny screened-porch house, an old widow woman dips snuff, on past Grandma’s homeplace where her disabled brother lives alone and grows sunflowers that loom over my head, always turning their faces toward the sun, which is now obscured. It rained earlier in the day, breaking the blazing summer heat. The thirsty ground drank its fill; the rest of the blessed rain hangs invisible in the air, as heavy and warm as bathwater, and drips amongst the trees, where the birds are chattering against a background of crickets who think it’s night again, along with cicadas buzzing in such numbers that the earth vibrates with the sound. Granddaddy and I are on the last leg of “the horn,” passing his garden, a steaming, lush, leafy paradise that looks to me like an artist painted it with watercolors. We walk by the ditch bank where his scuppernong vines drape the trellis he built, past the line of pink crape myrtles curving along the edge of the yard, back to the sidewalk in front of the house where we started.

Granddaddy stops to get the newspaper from the box and I go on ahead— 

“Granddaddy!” I shout, for he’s hard of hearing, although Grandma says he hears what he wants to. “What is this?”

There on the damp sidewalk, headed toward the house, are three long worms, side by side. They are tan like earthworms, but many times longer than any earthworm I’ve ever seen. Maybe a foot long. Their skinny bodies undulate like snakes; they glide over the cement holding up their big, almost-triangular heads. 

Granddaddy comes near, leans down. 

I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “I ain’t never seen anything like them before.”

I’m stunned. Granddaddy has farmed all of his life, except for the years he worked at the shipyard. He knows everything about the outdoor world, has told many stories of the things he’s seen, like a fully-formed tree growing underground when he had to dig a well once. If he doesn’t know what these worms are, they are strange indeed.

I look up at his pleasant, wrinkled face, shielded by his ever-present cap. His crinkly blue eyes are thoughtful. I wonder if he’ll kill these alien creatures, chop them up with the hoe like he does the copperhead who dares enter his realm.

But he pats my back: “Let’s get on in the house, hear.” 

And so we do. I don’t see where these three hammer-headed worms go, and I never see them or anything like them again.

The worms resurfaced in my memory recently; I’d almost forgotten them. If the Internet had been around at the time, Granddaddy and I could have learned within seconds that these were land planarians—toxic predatory monsters that destroy the ecology of a garden by feeding solely on earthworms, the great garden benefactors that aerate the soil and add rich nutrients. Planarians aren’t native to the United States; they hail from Asia, so a remaining part of the puzzle is how they ended up in the far reaches of rural, coastal North Carolina.

This story isn’t really about the planarians, however. It’s about my grandfather, infinitely wise despite having quit school in the third grade to work on the family farm. A man who used the phrase “the horn” which I have just now learned is a mathematical synonym for a cornicular angle, which, yes, describes the country path we walked (new question: How did he know?).  My grandfather saw something he’d never seen before, these three worms. He analyzed them carefully. He let them live, not knowing they could do harm to his garden. Which ended up being the best choice, for if he’d smashed them or chopped them up, every piece would have grown into a new planarian. He would have thereby ensured the destruction of his garden and its bounty, which benefited his whole family. He would have, essentially, spread the poison.

The lesson I take away from this long-ago surreal encounter is First, do no harm. In pretty much any situation. Analyze. Evaluate. Proceed with caution and discernment. Consider long-range ramifications; if they cannot be known at the moment, forbear. Poison is often invisible; be wary of tapping into it, spreading it.

Point to ponder: What are the planarians of your own life and work? What threatens to destroy what’s valuable? To answer that, you must define the garden, the earthworm, and their relationship. I speak as an educator. As a wise old farmer’s granddaughter. For me, metaphorically, the garden is not humanity itself, but something which springs forth from the human spirit—organic, beautiful, beneficial. In a sense, teaching (or writing, as I clearly do that also; think about your own work and how it applies here) is about being the earthworm, aerating the growing ground, devoting yourself to developing the richness and nutrients needed for the collective good of those who follow, that they might also produce that which is beautiful and beneficial. Harm comes in the form of anything that would limit, stunt, or destroy this exploratory, creative, thriving growth process. Planarians attack and destroy their own kind for their own benefit. We don’t always know them when we first see them, for they resemble that which is good.  Not everything has a noticeably triangular head. Watch, analyze, evaluate, discern over time. Avoid blindly buying into the toxicity, the very thing that counteracts and defeats all your best efforts, and multiplying it.

First, do no harm.

Turtle meditation

It’s almost summer here in rural North Carolina, which means two things: tobacco is lush in the fields, and turtles are busily crossing the roads.

Which also means that turtles are frequently run over by inattentive drivers.

There by the roadside, these wounded creatures die. Sometimes they leave a trail of blood on the pavement where they dragged themselves to the other side. Any roadkill is disturbing to see, but something about the inner pinkness of the turtle showing through the broken shell pieces troubles me immensely.

Maybe it’s because the shell, perfectly designed to protect the turtle, failed to do so.

But turtle shells are not meant to withstand the weight of a vehicle.

The pinkness represents vulnerability to me; I automatically begin thinking of other vulnerabilities due to failures of structures meant to protect or to edify.

Brokenness occurs on many levels in societies. Governments fail to protect the people, businesses fail to protect employees, family members fail to protect one another.

As an educator, an instructional coach, I see how expectations grow greater all the time and how the weight rests heaviest on teachers. I worry about the cracks, the brokenness, the damage – for, you see, the children are the most vulnerable part, the part we cannot afford to lose.

Any alleviation of this weight, any solution to such brokenness, lies first with the drivers.

Whomever and wherever you are.

Pay attention.

Reflect: Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote: “All things great are wound up with all things little.” Consider the brokenness around you. Repairs and healing will not be complete in a day. Where’s a small place you can begin, in a small but positive way? Positive results only come from positive words, ideas, and actions – and awareness. 

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A time to break down, a time to build

Old hotel

Old hotel. PhillipCC BY-SA

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven . . . a time to break down, and a time to build up . . . . 

Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3b

Along the country byways where I live, there are lots of old houses and barns in various stages of falling down. There’s an odd elegance to the sway of a gray weatherboard structure still holding its own, somehow, after decades, maybe even a century, of standing. Eventually, the wood returns to the earth, and the earth, in time, takes it back into itself.

I don’t know why I love dilapidated houses and barns so much, beyond their elegiac grace. I do not know why I find pictures of abandoned structures like schools and churches so compelling. Eerie and haunting, too, but mostly intriguing. Perhaps it’s due to my love of story, my wanting to know who was there, when, and why the places were abandoned – where did all the people go? Is there no one left who cares any more?

I only know that there’s a time to break or tear down, just as there is a time to build.

This doesn’t just apply to old, unsafe buildings.

It might apply to us, as we age. With time our bodies break down, albeit slowly, as they are not meant to keep going forever. Sorry, I do not have a build parallel for this.

It might apply to systems, procedures, approaches that once worked and don’t anymore – a time to examine, evaluate, break down and build anew.

Which begs the question: When is it time to break down? To build?

When the structure is dangerous, apt to cause harm, can no longer be used for the purpose it was originally intended, needs far too many reinforcements, has limited or no more effect, the time has come to break it down.

It’s the inevitable, really.

If a purpose remains, and a structure is needed, it can be built fresh. Stronger, more durable, more appropriate, more effective, more creatively, sometimes even simpler than what was there before.

Take stock around you. What’s falling down? What needs to go? What needs to stay, be scrapped, be rebuilt altogether from the ground up? If it’s not working, why, and where should you begin?

And do you mean for what you build to last for a day, a year, or a lifetime? The planning and the vision make all the difference. The foundation is the most essential part.

Consider who you’re building for, and why.

You’ll find the way.

It may be time.

The value of value

Rose & shadow

Rose and shadow. ankakayCC BY

We have a new principal at our school.

On his office wall is a certificate presented to him by his previous school: “Most likely to make you feel appreciated and valued.”

That word, valued, set my thoughts firing like electrical arcs in a dozen directions.

The first thing that came to mind, strangely, was an image of light and shadow. From an artist’s perspective, in artist terminology, value is the shading that gives depth to a two-dimensional object, almost magically transforming it visually to three dimensions. Values make an image pop, bring it to life.

A fascinating concept for a leader of a school, or any leader, isn’t it – to be an artist of sorts, to harness the light and the shadows of the given entity, to have a vision, to go beyond the surface and bring depth, meaning, and make it work. Artistically speaking, that’s the value of value.

Another image was immediately conjured – the vast machinery of systems. Have you ever had the sensation of being a tiny cog rotating in a mind-boggling conglomeration of structures that do not fit well or operate properly together, with old, vintage pieces welded precariously to shiny new ones, like something out of steampunk? As the cogs we cannot even see the full extent of the machinery looming far beyond us; we can only feel the unwieldy vibrations as it lumbers on. That’s often how education feels today. In truth, it’s not the structures that hold things together and keep everything running – it’s the cogs, the teachers. Teachers are the most crucial pieces – and the end product isn’t the perfectly standardized student. The students aren’t end products at all – don’t we want them to keep growing, learning, discovering, contributing, as long as they live? That’s something no machinery can produce.

Which gets back to value.

To value something means to hold it in high regard, to recognize its worth and usefulness. We value things that are important and beneficial to us.

My thoughts branch out into a hierarchy of what-ifs:

What if systems valued schools more than data? What if they scaled back and simplified rather than adding on?

What if principals communicated their value of teachers through their actions instead of words?

What if teachers made all students feel valued – and valued their differences? And taught students to do the same?

What if everyone realized that these are matters of the human heart and spirit?

I can see the light and shadows separating already, magically transforming things, creating a depth that’s been needed for so long.

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