Every morning before school, ten fifth-grade boys gather outside. They sit in a circle of stumps, sharing breakfast in the cool morning air.
“Today, let's talk about leadership.” Marie Culver looks at the boys, but they do not meet her gaze. She waits. “Anjel, tell us about being a leader in the classroom, because I know you are a leader out here.”
Anjel stares into the distance, thinking. What does a kid like Anjel know about leadership? He's small. He's Hispanic. He has braces. He looks like the kind of kid more concerned with getting through a day of middle school without getting bullied than he does a leadership guru. “Well sometimes," he says, "if someone doesn’t understand something, then I help him out.” He shrugs his shoulders. Leaders don't get their own way; they exist to serve.
Just then, Troy appears, his head down low. He's sad. Why? His bus was late - which is interesting, considering he used to constantly skip school.
They are mulching today. Anjel leads the way. “I have a sense of urgency!” he declares.
“We all do!” the boys shout back.
“Not as much as me.”
Marie Culver laughs. She is a Gifted Resources Teacher at Seatack Elementary. She started the Garden Breakfast Club, a hand-picked group of ten fifth grade boys who work every day in their school's community garden.
By returning to the soil, the boys have grown in virtually every sense. It’s an exercise in patience, waiting for the flowers to bloom. It’s refreshing and energizing, being in the midst of nature. And as rowdy boys, they have an excuse to move around, to shout and joke around, but still be productive. It’s teamwork.
Ben says, “When we work together, it’s like we are brothers. We all encourage each other to do the right things. We get to grow a lot of food for the school. We all come in from outside, we are all ready to learn. Gardening is a different type of learning for all of us.”
As physical as the task may be, it also affects their emotional and mental state. Marie Culver works as their mentor.
Xavier remembered, “Mrs. Culver has helped me to stay calm when I get mad. If I do get mad and I don’t control my anger, she will sit with me in the Lorax Circle and we talk about it.”
It’s a safe place in a neighborhood that is not so safe.
We watched the boys hustle at 8am, shoveling dirt around, working to get as much done as they could in the half hour they had. This community garden isn’t their only project, however. The school also proudly hosts the first ocean friendly garden in Virginia.
“We have it all going on here... It is about nature and getting kids to have a relationship with nature,” Marie Culver told us, “Now there’s like a sense of urgency that they want to make sure everything is taken care of... I want that for them, when they are a part of nature, not to be afraid of it, but to embrace it.”
Their session came to an end. Marie encouraged them to pick some herbs to wake up their brains before leaving – they had a big science test next class period.
This is all part of a school, after all. To some, then, the biggest part of it is, “How are their grades doing?”
Mrs. Culver reported later, they crushed the test.
See them in action in the film by plantPOP.
For more information, visit these links or message Marie.