How A Bunch Of Daffodils Broke Up A School Fight
May 2, 2017
By Lauren Steussy
When Bronx teacher Stephen Ritz stood in front of his first class of rowdy teenagers 33 years ago, he knew he needed a way to make school relevant to their lives. Ritz, the author of the memoir “The Power of a Plant” (Rodale, out now), soon learned the solution was to be found in nature. The 54-year-old pioneered the use of classroom gardens to get at-risk kids to care about school, and move onto successful jobs. Ritz, whose TEDx Talk on growing hope in forgotten communities went viral in 2012, has planted rooftop gardens, hydroponic gardens and vertical gardens with his students, and started a nonprofit geared toward learning through plants, Green Bronx Machine, in 2012. Now a teacher at community school 55 in The Bronx, Ritz tells the Post’s Lauren Steussy about a pivotal moment in his teaching career.
At any moment in a classroom at the troubled Walton High School, the wrong look from one student to another would be enough to set off a skirmish. The school had 48 safety officers and 18 deans of discipline. As a special-education teacher, I inherited a class of the most dysfunctional students in the school — 17 overage, undercredited teens reading at second- and third-grade levels. So in fall 2004, I wasn’t surprised when I saw one of my students rising out of her chair in a rage and heading toward a boy in her class. She would have killed the guy, if not for what happened next.
The boy ran to the radiator and grabbed something beneath it, pulling out not a weapon, but stems — with beautiful yellow flowers bursting out of the top.
The class gasped as if he had pulled a rabbit from a magician’s hat. The boy was waving these little flowers at the girl as if he were surrendering.
The science teacher in me had to figure out what the hell just happened. I had received a package of onion-looking things about six weeks before, and threw it behind the radiator, long to be forgotten. But those onion-looking things were actually daffodil bulbs, sent to us by New Yorkers for Parks with an invitation to volunteer at their fall park beautification program. The heat and steam from the radiator had replicated warm, moist soil, causing the bulbs to bloom.
My pupils were exhilarated and inspired by the accidental science experiment. The conflict between the two students was instantly forgotten as they grabbed for the beautiful flowers. More than half of the class showed up to the beautification event on a Saturday morning.
The class went on to plant 20,000 bulbs across The Bronx in a single school year. There was a real sense of accomplishment. The community embraced them, and they felt good about the work that they did. We even got an award from the City Council, and it inspired me to incorporate gardening in my curriculum.
By planting rooftop gardens in between algebra lessons and history homework, my kids have learned to care for themselves and the community.
One of my most successful students, Miguel, now works as a coordinator at Ernst and Young, tending to the needs of 300 coworkers with the same careful attention he paid to Walton’s plants. Working with nature taught him responsibility and set the foundation for understanding all kinds of ecosystems, whether environmental or corporate.
“I take care of everything,” Miguel explained to me. “I’m solving problems all day long. I like that.”
Gardening showed Miguel and others that you can show up in a place that looks ugly and abandoned and, with diligent work, turn it into something beautiful.