Posted by: Aunt Magaidh | October 26, 2009

Corruptible little seeds

You never know the effect you have on others.

I once had a conversation with a friend around our little campfire.  We were in Death Valley in the autumn and talking about whether I had really thought about how my actions affected others.  My friend had been working with at risk youth, trail building in the back country of Northern California.

She and I had both been counselors at an environmentally focused day camp in the late 70s – she the senior leader, me the junior counselor.  She and the other senior leader had trained all the junior counselors in environmental education materials that we incorporated into the weekly themes.  One week was water, another wind, another the life cycle.  Our field trips were always interesting: a creek walk through the urban runoff system starting in the hills of Oakland and going down to East Oakland near Seminary; Alameda Beach for examining tides and marine life;  visiting the sculptures in mudflats in Emeryville …at what turned out to be high tide.

The kids were great – all bright and shiny and full of curiosity.  Each age group had its own focus.  There were few rules: don’t physically discipline the kids, safety first, and best of all “play hard, play fair, nobody hurt.”

One of the most poignant memories of that time was when we were working with kindergarteners when our field trip was making rubbings of headstones in an old cemetary in East Oakland.  I remember a 6-year- old coming over to me and quietly asking if dogs were allowed in heaven.  I knew that I was on shaky ground talking about religion, that I had no idea what the family believed.  But this kid really needed to know because the death of his canine friend was still very fresh.  I asked him what he thought.  He said his dad said that dogs weren’t allowed in heaven and that only people went to heaven, but that didn’t seem fair, that his dog should be able to go to heaven.  I then asked him if his dog had been a good dog.  Yes, he had been, always willing to play and didn’t nip.  I told him that maybe there was a dog heaven, kind of the ideal backyard where his friend could play and have lots of food to eat, and that maybe he could consider his dog going there.  He considered it seriously, quietly, and seemed to brighten just a little bit.  Then off he went to play tag with his campmates.  I made sure to tell the kid’s dad about our conversation, saw that dad register some surprise that his son had been so upset.  I hoped that it would open some dialogue between them about their spiritual beliefs.

That summer we taught the kids about the water cycle, composting, transportation systems, solar energy, the web of life.  We watched clouds and fog.  We explored the quarry above the park, we traipsed through the runoff tunnels that linked the creek to the flatlands.  It was 1975.  We were talking about ecology, environmental responsibility, and interconnected ecosystems.  I’d like to think that all those kids – about 150 of them – went back to their houses and out into the world to preach the ideas they’d learned.

In 2003, I taught organic gardening at my daughter’s elementary school.   There were four classes that I worked with – kindergarten to 4th grade.  We talked about the way our families grew food as I showed them how to plant snowpeas and tree collards.  We talked about bad and good bugs as we laid stepping stones.  We talked about pesticides and watering as we pitched snails into the street just past the garden fence.  I know that those 120 kids took  what they learned back to their houses and talked about being environmentally friendly gardeners as they showed their siblings,  grandmothers, uncles, and mothers and fathers the plant dance.  Ah, there is nothing quite like setting enthusiastic, highly judgemental young people amok in the community with the tools of a grassroots revolution.

When I was an AmeriCorps tutor/mentor, I was once told that we never will know how our words and encouragement will play out.  We were told that our willingness to keep showing up and trying to talk to those hard-to-talk to kids could make all the difference.  That we should expect our advances into the teenage mental space to be pushed away a thousand times, but it might be that that kid needed that one thousand and one times before they accepted that offer of help.

I’ve been blessed to see an effect.  There was one kid that I would always ask if he needed help.  He always said no, didn’t want to be seen with me, had to maintain his cool exterior.  All year he resisted me, but I made sure to ask him all the time, just so that he would know that I saw him.  It was the following year when I saw him while I was crossing the campus doing my own program that I went and asked him how his year was going. He said okay.  I said good, and asked him if he had taken the SAT yet.  He said no.  I told him that he needed to register for it and talk to his counselor about getting the fee waiver set up.   He rolled his eyes and said yes, he’d go look into it.

I saw him a month later and asked about the test.  He said that he’d signed up but that they didn’t have his name on the list when he showed up.  He was ticked off  (insert your favorite stronger word…) and said that he didn’t need to take the test.  I argued with him.  I told him that he had brains and that he needed to take that test.  I made him promise to go to the counselor and sign up again, and to make sure to call the test people to confirm he was on the list.  I told him that he couldn’t give up, that he had to take a stand and assert himself, despite the system.   By the end, he was willing to try, but I’m sure he was just humoring the “crazy lady” who harassed him about the test every time she saw him.

I saw him a couple months later to ask if he’d taken the test.  He said yes  and that he thought he’d done okay.  I told him that he needed to start looking at the local colleges.  That he needed to keep up the momentum.  He rolled his eyes, but I got a small grin.

It was 3 years later that I was walking through the local Ikea and heard my name called. It was my high school student.  He was all bright and shiny.  He was standing tall.  I asked him how he was and he told me about the job and about expecting a little girl.  I asked if he was going to college.  He said yes, studying automotive mechanics and was almost through with his degree.  He said it with a gleam in his eyes.  I was so proud of him.  I told him he needed to finish so his little girl could be proud of him.  But the best part was I saw him being proud of himself.

So, no – we don’t know where we will have an affect in the world.  But we should strive to make it a positive one.

Go out there and make a difference.  Go plant some seeds.




  1. I couln’t agree more. Just before leaving for college, my father sat me down for a “you’re a grown-up now” conversation. He said “make a positive difference in the world” no matter what you do. I have carried that through my entire life.

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