Caitlin Flanagan is right: I am an educated, middle-class woman whose school voluntarism is “a locus of (my) fathomless energies.” When I see students whose support system, for a myriad of reasons, has failed them, I want to do something about it. And I am one of the Alice Waters groupies Flanagan talks about in her January 2010 Atlantic Monthly article, so when I want to effect change, one of the places I turn is the Life Lab garden Flanagan writes is “cheating our most vulnerable students.”
Flanagan points to classroom-centered programs like Cal Prep that draw low-income students into the arena of higher learning, and there are few people who could argue with the success of such a program. As an English teacher with a daughter in public school, I am painfully aware of how little the current standards for high school English prepare our students to write college-level essays. But the teach-to-test, No Child Left Behind method has so far failed in our public schools; I once watched students in a middle school Life Lab class fill out nutrition workbooks designed to increase their “literacy.” How could a workbook have been a substitute for digging up and tasting organic carrots they had planted themselves?
Flanagan argues that the only way to effect educational change is through books, but I have seen enough students to know that each person is ignited by a different fire, whether it be academic or athletic, artistic or ROP. I once tutored a student I’ll call Daniel in high school Algebra. At least I would have if he had shown up. With an antiquated textbook, an overcrowded math class, and no electricity in the trailer where he might otherwise have been able to do his homework at night, Daniel had little motivation to learn Algebra. A year ago Daniel died at age 25 in a homeless camp. If during his high school years someone had shepherded him to an ROP program, things might have turned out differently.
Jorge is a student I know who, like Daniel, was adrift in the public school system and saw little reason to attend class. It was the physical work of his Regional Occupation Program in Agriculture that turned him around. “I love being outside,” he told me. “It’s my favorite way of learning…I’d rather do heavy work outside than work in the classroom.” Jorge wasn’t just returning to the fields to labor with food, as Flanagan claims; he was learning about nutrition, agriculture, and the environment.
“I’d rather have my family eating something fresh and homegrown” he said, “than food that comes from far away and is expensive.” Jorge was educated in the garden, not the classroom, about locally grown food, and that education spurred him toward community college. Next year at Cabrillo College he plans to take “a bunch of agriculture classes… Sustainable Landscaping… Green Roofs, Solar Panels, Water Catchers… to learn how to install solar panels. Or learn how to make them, that would be even better.” Jorge’s high school education only began with laboring in the garden; from there it progressed to the science behind sustainable living.
Rather than keeping them in the fields as Flanagan claims, laboring with students in the garden attempts to free them from a sedentary lifestyle of teach-to-test curricula, fast-food style school lunch, and too many hours in front of the television or video games. As Kurt Michael Friese points out in his response to Flanagan’s article on Civil Eats: “Throughout most of human history the rich were fat and the poor were skinny, yet today in America it is quite the opposite. Fixing that requires direct experience and interaction with our food, something no schoolroom lecture can provide.”