Tending the Flowers


July 1, 2014


Photo of two World War 1 soldiers with flowers
Flowers as symbols of life and hope

This summer, we observe the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. My grandfather fought in that war. One of my most prized possessions is a commemorative picture of him (he’s on the right) and his friend, taken just before they left for the front.

What always struck me in the picture are the flowers that my grandfather placed in his uniform and cap, as symbols of life and hope. My grandfather was one of the “lucky” ones. He was the only one of his compatriots to survive an attack on his trench. The Russian army captured him, and he spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp. It is estimated that 9 million soldiers, and countless additional millions of civilians, died in the war.

During the war, flowers also came to symbolize the end of innocence and of a generation of youth lost to the world of possibilities. On the 50th anniversary of the war, British poet Philip Larkin observed in the last stanza of “MCMXIV”:

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word—the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Summer has come to Portland, and like many others, our family will be sure to visit the spectacular and well-tended Rose Garden in the West Hills. (By the way, the garden was started in World War I as a place to protect rose varieties grown in Europe!) We will also enjoy seeing flowers bloom in our yard. As gardeners, we have to nurture our flowers. Too much or too little sun, wind, water, or nutrition will determine whether they will thrive or wilt.

Students are like flowers. Each is unique, each is beautiful in his or her own way, and each needs our tender, loving attention in order to thrive. Some of our flowers may be growing in the most challenging circumstances and need extra support. For one example of how to this is being done in Oakland, California, see Jeff Duncan-Andreade’s Roses in Concrete project that works to provide 360-degree, 24/7 support to urban youth with a focus on their families and community.

As educators, we have to be sure to tend to our “flowers” all year round. Each summer, however, the academic growth of students may be stunted as a result of insufficient attention, support, or opportunities. To mix analogies, many students experience “summer wilt” when school lets out. According to research, most students lose two months of math proficiency during summer break—almost a full quarter of the school year—and kids in poverty also lose two months of reading. Sadly, by the time they reach fifth grade, low-income students often find themselves a full grade level behind in literacy.

Summer is a special time of the year for educators, when we get to recharge and grow in new ways. Because of summer wilt, this season may not be one of growth for all of our students. Programs that bring students on campus for meals during the summer and library reading challenges are a good start, but what else can we do? I’d love to know how you are helping to make sure that students thrive all year long.