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Chestnut Grove Elementary School

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Good Clean Dirt

I deeply respect fingernails with red clay etched deeply in each permanent crack. Fingernails like that don’t come from bagged salads and corn in an aluminum can. They are created by prying stubborn weeds from between rows of squash, pinching hornworms from tomato plants, digging holes deep enough for baby sprouts to flourish, and twisting the stringy ends of green beans into a large pile separate from the rest.

Hands with fingernails like that work at McDowell Farm School—the enchanting retreat where 27 gifted students from Leon Sheffield, Eastwood, Chestnut Grove, Somerville Road, West Decatur, Frances Nungester, and Austinville elementary schools convened on May 2-3, 2017.

I respect mothers who let their 5th graders go away for two days and a night so they can leave behind the cracked sidewalk outside their homes and instead relish the honest-packed soil under rows of fading fence line.

I respect members of the Alabama Farmer’s Cooperation who donated scholarships to partially fund children who might otherwise not have gone while their classmates learned how to slop pigs before bed, check for snakes in the chicken coop, and scrape every last bit of food off their plates after dinner. These farmers are people who know what it’s like to pluck a carrot straight out of the ground by its tasseled top and lick juice from their lips as they bite off the tip, dirt still clinging. They wanted to give students that Vitamin A experience for themselves.

I deeply respect teachers like Janell Hill who leave behind their own babies to take someone else’s on a farm trip. She gives up her mattress for a cabin cot in a room smelling of 17 other bodies. She buys a loaf of goat soap her students made with milk they collected that morning. She cherishes her gift of teaching saying, “It’s just innate in folks,” and brushes away her pride, but can’t make it leave her eyes. She talks as easily of teaching a child how to crack an egg as she does reading Rick Bragg memoirs and parenting struggles.

What the teachers and staff gave those 27 students was invaluable, and it came from near their hearts. “I grew up with cows and chickens,” Janell says, “and now I get to expose my students to that.”

Janell tells me that the 27 children selected for the first-time-ever trip had to write an essay explaining why they should be the candidates of choice.

I would’ve liked to read those essays.

In their childish contrivings arguing just how suited they were to go on that field trip, I doubt there was ever a mention of how they would relish the opportunity to learn deep-seated responsibility and wellness.

But they did.

Each student climbed back on the bus on May 3rd knowing exactly where bacon comes from, how to consolidate food waste, the difference between bagged salad under supermarket misters and the beautiful rosettes of crispy iceberg lettuce still sparkling with morning dew, and how to grate enough carrots for a moist carrot cake.

“We took them out of the norm,” Janell says. “We taught them how to stretch a concept like responsibility and apply it to real life.”

Responsibility means staying up after dark to repair a falling sty railing using light from a flashlight beam. Responsibility means replanting just as many herbs as you use, so that the next person will have them too. Responsibility might not mean much to that 5th grade class right now, but I think in a few years they’ll look back on those days they spent hoeing the garden at McDowell Farm School and marvel at how much they really learned.

And I respect that.