on April 10, 2012 at 11:00 am
The contentious closing of Hill Middle School last fall left many Novato families feeling a profound loss. Change is always challenging. The closure tested our resilience and ability to move forward as a community.
Yet change can also be a catalyst for growth. We may kick and scream in the face of it, but ultimately we must learn to adapt and find elements of good that spring from the ashes.
Such is the consolation I found recently when I visited the school garden project on this campus. As of last summer, Hill Middle School became the new home of the Marin Oaks Continuation High School and NOVA programs. Despite this change, it is comforting on some level to find that the garden remains — a steadfast reminder of the cycle of life and renewal that a new season brings.
The garden was not always as it is now. Were it not for the passionate spirit of Hill science teacher extraordinaire Nicole Calmels it might not exist at all. A Novato native and former Hill student herself, Calmels was the catalyst behind resurrecting the neglected garden space. She began by putting out an APB for parent volunteers, which was answered by master gardener Annie Spiegelman.
The two combined their considerable energy, enlisting other parents to assist with the resurrection. John Buckley, a Hill dad with a construction business, donated lumber for plant beds. Other volunteers cleared vegetation, installed drip irrigation, donated plants and trees, and put in countless hours of time tending the space. The result: a flourishing garden enjoyed by students, faculty, and parents alike.
Then Hill Middle School closed.
The closure could have signaled the end of the garden project. But instead, something wonderful happened. Along with the move of Marin Oaks and NOVA to the Hill campus came a new crop of students to tend the garden, and new sources of funding to keep it going.
Enter Richard Waxman, executive director of the LIFT For Teens program, a nonprofit focused on engaging low-income and at-risk kids in healthy activities. Waxman established the Healthy Campus Leadership Council at Marin Oaks which promotes good nutrition, physical activity, and making positive life choices.
The garden was the perfect teaching tool for the program, and has been the cornerstone of its success on this campus. Every Tuesday morning before school a handful of dedicated students meet for an hour of Garden Club before their academic day begins.
I arrive recently on a cold, overcast Tuesday morning to meet with Anita Jones, a master gardener volunteer who, along with long-time garden advocate Annie Spiegelman (aka the "Dirt Diva"), supervises the Marin Oaks garden club program.
Coincidentally, it's the first day of spring.
I make my way to the rear of the campus, discovering the fenced garden lot adjacent to the field. The gate is open, welcoming me to the space. Inside I find Anita at a rustic wood work table, busily preparing the morning activity.
Today the students are planting seeds in some of the raised beds on the plot: mixed wildflowers, star jasmine, calendula, cosmos, organic Bronze Mignonette lettuce, and blue-curled kale.
"We love these kids!" Jones tells me. "The fact that they come consistently before school to be a part of this garden speaks volumes. For many of them, this place provides positive reinforcement they don't get in other areas of their lives." Anita notes that garden club affords students one-on-one time with an adult when they're not in trouble. "It's a safe place where we meet them as they are."
She is the garden club's mother hen, supplying additional motivation to students in the form of warm homemade banana chocolate-chip muffins to fuel their morning activities. Today, however, there is a "muffin strike" in effect — the result of garden tools carelessly left outside.
As we await the students arrival, I take in the garden: a large, arched metal arbor provides support for entwined potato vine cover; two apple trees and one olive; a box of perennial strawberries making a comeback; big bushes of flowering fava beans overtaking one bed, while others lie barren awaiting the vegetables that will be planted here.
Soon we are joined by two students, the only garden club members willing to brave the elements on this morning as rain continues to threaten.
Lauren Parsons, a senior who aspires to attend UC Davis and study veterinary medicine, is a regular at garden club. She tells me working in the garden helps her wake up in the morning. A talented artist, Parsons finds inspiration in this space and shares a mural sketch she hopes to paint for the garden.
Huy Nguyen, a sophomore, saunters in a few minutes later. He is understandably bummed about the muffin strike but takes the news in stride with affable joking. He grabs a seed packet and joins Lauren who is already in the process of making trenches in the dirt beds. Together they begin sowing seeds.
As the students engage in their activity, teacher-advisor Craig Kodros arrives. An avid gardener himself, Kodros believes the simple act of working in the garden provides students with a much needed respite from daily demands. "Kids these days are mostly plugged-in," he observes. "They spend a lot of time inside on computers or gaming."
He thinks gardening affords students the chance to have an authentic experience with nature. He also knows introducing them to gardening as teens will likely lead to a life-long love of gardening as adults.
Spiegelman, avid school garden advocate and local author of "Talking Dirt," echoes this sentiment. "Garden Club makes a difference for these kids," she tells me with infectious enthusiasm. "The garden responds when you give to it, and it gives back. Students start their day grounded here. They connect with the earth and develop a basis for making healthy food choices."
At the end of the hour, students and advisors gather together for a moment of meditation. They sit in a circle of chairs in a corner of the garden, eyes closed, to observe one full minute of silence ... a rare moment carved out in an otherwise non-stop day.
I join them in the stillness, suddenly aware of all the sounds I am normally too busy to notice: birds chirping, a dog barking, a distant train whistle, a worker nearby hammering on a rooftop. We breathe deeply and listen, all lost in a shared moment of solitude.
Then slowly eyes open. Kids rise and go to class. The school day officially begins. The garden will be there for them next Tuesday — a haven, a sanctuary, a place of certainty in an uncertain world.
*The Marin Oaks Garden Project wishes to recognize and thank the following businesses for their donation of resources: Waste Management Earth Care, www.wmearthcare.com; Point Reyes Compost Company; Baker Creek Seeds in Petaluma, Marin Native Plant Society, Marin Master Gardeners, Tree Pros in Mill Valley, and The Gainer-Jones Foundation, www.gaines-jones.org.
Current garden wish list: new wheelbarrow, new wheels for wheelbarrows, pruners. If you would like to donate items to the Marin Oaks Garden project, contact Annie Spiegelman atwww.dirtdiva.com.