Biographical Fiction posted December 16, 2017

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A story about my budding love of teaching and potted plants.


by Isabel Ezrati

As I drove north in the spring, the air got colder but I could still smell the damp earth drifting in through the vent. I didn't want to move to New York City. I wanted to stay in the mountains where the dirt on my feet was welcome and gave a little with each step. I was going to interview in Vermont, and the mountains grew taller around me as I sped north, the world still dark.

I'd loved going to school in the Adirondacks, camping and spring days spent running in the grass; brown feet and soft mud enhancing the thrill of a joint. I didn't want to move to pavement where the dirt only lived in the air, settling on metal door jams and wooden window sills. I wanted to stay with the constant faint aroma of the soil, comforting and grounding. The original plan was to graduate college and move to the City where I'd be close to family, friends, and my boyfriend. But as I looked for teaching jobs, I always lingered on the boarding schools in the country, their green mountain ranges and the pictures of playful moments in the snow tempting me to dive into the monitor. I broke up with my boyfriend and chose a small school on a mountainside three hours from anyone I knew and loved.

That summer I began my new job in New Lebanon, NY in the porous Shaker buildings of a school near the Berkshire Mountains. I was to be a French teacher, although I wasn't one yet. The old buildings had settled into the rolling hills, picturesque in their simplicity. I floated through opening meetings. Rule books and obligations slid in front of me as the time passed with case studies, role plays, and protocols. The landscape was familiar and foreign -- upstate NY from a whole new perspective. I was a teacher, not a student anymore.


When I was finally allowed some time alone in my classroom to prepare and arrange things, I sat in the teacher's wheeled chair and gazed with glazed eyes out the window. The room sat in a corner on the second floor. The Shaker windows lined two walls, exposing the room to constant sunlight. A metal and plastic teacher's desk faced the small piece of wall in the corner. A thick layer of dust covered its surface, and a black plastic organizer held two pencils and a pad of post-its. I turned around in my upholstered chair to survey the room. To my left was the door that led to the hallway and next to it was a small blackboard that sat behind a semi-circle of empty student desks. Vacantly, those desks and I stared at the large blackboard on the wall facing us. A narrow faded poster of the Eiffel Tower lined the small space between it and the window. On the sill to my right sat a dead potted plant. It was brown, dry and droopy, its long leaves shriveled.

Since writing my syllabi was too daunting a task, I took to cleaning, and the first thing I did was get rid of that sick plant left to die in the corner of the room. The leaves were completely coated by what looked like a sticky thick net of spider webs, and I picked it up and carried it outside of the room, careful to hold it as far away from my body as possible. I set it at the top of the step just outside the door to throw away when I left at the end of the day. The cleaning itself proved a difficult task. The trays at the base of the blackboard had what looked like years of chalk sediment and clearing it out blew wafts of colored dust into the air. I tore down the lackluster poster of one of the Seven Wonders of the World. With wet paper towels, I wiped every surface. The dust rose up in clouds and then settled back again behind me. At the end of the day, I felt I'd accomplished nothing but killing time. Still without syllabi, I packed to leave, having at least completed the task of tossing the gross dead plant.

I stepped out of my classroom, new keys in hand, and set a large black backpack of books next to the door as then fumbled with the lock. The building was dark and quiet. As I looked for the right key to turn the bolt, I began to hum.

A throat cleared behind me and I jumped. There was a woman who stood leaning on her small cart of cleaning supplies with one plastic gloved hand. "I'm Pam" she said reaching out with the non-gloved hand. I shook it "I'm Isabel" I said still out of breath. With her head cocked to the side, she smiled at me. She had long reddish hair, which was no doubt not her natural color, and she wore it down in tangled beach waves. While her big smile showed the gold fillings and stains that collect over a long hard life, she still seemed young and beautiful. Her t-shirt hung loose on a svelte frame and showed off an elegant set of color bones. Her face was heart shaped with large brown eyes where her eyelids sat half mast. Her mouth had settled into a small crooked grin. She looked at me like she already knew my secrets but liked me anyway.

We made small talk for a moment. I welcomed conversation with someone who wasn't faculty, and when I gazed down at that sticky mess of a plant on the step, she asked what I was going to do with it.
"Well, I think it's dead, I said, do you know where I can throw it out?"
"It's not dead I don't think," she responded and reached back to her cart for a spray bottle. She started to spray the leaves, crouching next to the pot and carefully removing the thick webs with her gloved fingers. She moved like she wasn't a day over 16. "It just has Spider Mites, she explained. You can cure it by spraying them with soap and water. It'll come back. It's a nice plant. I can take it if you don't want it" she said as she looked over her shoulder at me with a shrug.

Mildly embarrassed at my callous efforts to dispose of what might still be alive, I feigned concern and said that I would care for it at home and bring it back when it was recovered. Pam then proceeded to instruct me on leaf cleaning and parasite management, and I half paid attention, having resolved to toss it anyway. But somewhere in her advice, she piqued my curiosity and I wondered if it was indeed possible to nurse it back to health. Recalling my interview with the previous teacher, I remembered her habits of canceling class and the way she slouched in black pants and sweaters covered in dog hair, letting me know that her kids were great and I'd have a lot of leeway in the French teacher position. Suddenly it bothered me that she had just deserted this vulnerable plant to die. I was grateful that Pam wouldn't let me toss it. As my train of thought ended, so did her tutorial. Now most of the gross sticky webbing was gone, and I could stomach the idea of putting the plant in my car for the short ride down the hill back to my apartment. Pam then handed me her soap spray, having taken my intentions in earnest.
"Here, take it" she said.
"Really?" I said, wondering if this was stealing school property.
"Oh yeah" she said with a shrug. "I've got plenty of them."
Then she gave a soft cackle and with a wave and a smile she made her way down the hall. I stood there for a while looking at the plastic spray bottle in one hand, the sad, wet plant on the step, and all the bags I had to carry back to my car. At that point I felt I had no choice but to follow through on what seemed a silly task, considering all else that I had to do. So with me the plant came, to my new unfurnished apartment, and for a long time it sat on the floor near a window where I sprayed and watered it when I could.


The syllabi eventually got written in a panicked fury that ended at 2am the morning of the day classes began. My teaching was an ongoing unsuccessful experiment of trial and error, mildly guided by a textbook I often misread and misunderstood. My classroom was an unsettled climate of chalk dust and ADD chaos. Every day ended with a catatonic stare at the floor and a sudden panicked rush to Cross Country practice where I was chronically late. In fact, I was chronically late to everything.

My students came with their own sticky mess of webs. Some were smart but obstinate, the result of parental conflict and rejection. Others were anxious and perfectionist, obsessed with their performance and terrified to make mistakes. In between I imagined were various learning and emotional struggles: dyslexia, ADHD, attachment disorders, dysgraphia and more. The levels in my classes felt almost arbitrary as their French educations were so disparate. French II spanned anywhere from those who could not remember basic pronouns to students who had mastered both present and past tenses. While I found talking at the front of the room a fairly easy adjustment, teaching any of these kids was more elusive.

After about a month of constant engagement with boarding school duties and activities, I found myself with nearly a whole weekend off. While I tried to will myself to focus on my lesson plans, I could not settle down. My apartment was on the third floor of the largest girls' dorm just down the hill from the main building. I could hear the girls running and laughing in the hallway on that Saturday afternoon. It was a gray day and had started getting colder, which brought them all inside. My place was in much better shape than in my first week when I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of my bedroom. Faculty families had lent me some furniture, and a trip to the Salvation Army gave me the rest of the essentials. My bedroom had two dressers now; one was a tall light wood chest with golden knobs, and the other a beautiful antique the head dorm parent wasn't using. It sat on the wall next to my bathroom door, a dark wood piece with old fashioned brass handles and an elegant mirror attached to the top by two long arms. As I used and unpacked my makeup and jewelry, those pieces had gradually spread across its surface, giving it a femininely festive look. My bed was a loan of a high quality mattress the head dorm parent needed in her last pregnancy. Someone else had lent me a low basic futon frame to keep it just off the floor. A tall lamp sat on the floor next to it, no bedside table necessary. My books and journals piled up at its base. I'd indulged in a set blue velvet curtains which gave my bedroom a sort of opium den feel.

My living room consisted of a small kitchen on one wall, and a dark wood, drop-leaf table framed by four matching chairs that lived just across from it. Yet again I was at a corner full of windows, and on that afternoon, I appreciated the warmth of the sunlight. I sat on a blue velvet love seat, which was catty-corner to a rocking chair I'd bought at a farmers market. As I laid back on my couch, letting the books fall to the floor, my attention turned to the sad plant. It now sat on a small table in front of the window directly across from me. The leaves were less shriveled and it showed no sign of webs, but if I waited too long to clean it, they would eventually come back. The parasites were persistent. Despite regular watering, the plant showed no sign of growth.

I pulled out my computer and googled spider mites. Much to my surprise, an enormous collection of articles and entries appeared on my screen. Apparently Pam had sorely underestimated the challenge of this task. Each entry began with an acknowledgement of how tenacious this infestation could be. Intrigued, I kept reading. I learned that they can get into the roots and the soil, and sometimes repotting doesn't do the trick. I got a list of various insecticides and home remedies beyond soap and water. I decided that the plant's only hope was a new pot and soil, so I googled Home Dept. I wrote down the directions, grabbed my purse, and left on a mission.

I returned with a new hunter green plastic pot with saucer attached, and a heavy bag of potting soil, which was the smallest I could find. Having decided that it was best to do this messy project outside, I left the two items next to my car in the gravel parking lot and went upstairs to get the plant. It was surprisingly light and easy to carry down the four flights of stairs. I set it down in on the ground in front of my trunk and suddenly realized I had no idea what I was doing.
Resolved to finish my mission anyway, I decided that potting a plant was just as simple as pulling it out of its original soil and placing it in a new pot with new soil. And that's exactly what I did. All looked well until I watered it. As the water poured into the dry soil, it deflated like shrink-wrap around the roots and then sank down beneath them, leaving it uprooted on top of a pool of dirt soup that slowly drained into the saucer and overflowed into the gravel. Baffled and frustrated, I plopped down on the ground and fought the urge to cry. I sat there until I felt the wet of the earth soak through my jeans. Then I went back to my apartment to call the one person I knew would know what to do: my mother.

I don't know why I hadn't thought to call her earlier. I guess I felt attached to this plant, like its misery was uniquely mine to resolve. But the truth is that I come from a long line of skill-handed women in dirt. Both of my grandmothers had green thumbs. My father's mother Edythe had a collection of potted plants that amazed anyone with expertise on the matter. She could grow prize-winning African Violets in plastic pots and never made a fuss or considered the accomplishment much of anything. Plants just flourished with her touch. She'd run her hands gently along to leaves to remove dust and dead pieces, placing her stilettos carefully between the vines as she went from plant to plant with a small silver watering can. My mother's mother Winona was a pioneer woman who survived the dust bowl at a young age and boasted the best vegetable garden in the neighborhood as an adult. My mother's garden was a top priority for as long as I can remember. She discussed the importance of where to place the roses so they had air circulation, which plants needed shade or partial light, and how best to water them. She worked full time as an investment manager in the city during the week, but her weekends were dedicated to her garden. The phone rang three times before she picked up out of breath.
"Hello Isabel!" she said "I was just in the backyard."
I cut to the point, impatient to get back to the abandoned plant sitting in the parking lot. I explained my efforts and their confusing results.
"You have to press the water into the dirt" she explained. "Take a plastic bag, put a couple of large handfuls of dirt inside and then pour some water into it. Squeeze the bag until the dirt absorbs the water and is completely wet."
"Ok thanks!" I said, ready to hang up and run back downstairs.
"Also" she said before I could hang up. I was already irritated with her advisory Kindergarten-teacher tone. Her mother was an early educator for her whole career, a great point of pride for both of them. "You need to put in a layer of drainage at the bottom."
Worried that I didn't have the tools for it, I said "really?"
"Yes" she said in a firm tone. "It's not hard, find some rocks or pottery shards and layer them at the bottom, then place the dirt on top."

Armed with new knowledge and a hammer, I went back downstairs. Standing at the trunk of my car, I assessed my options. The sun was beginning to set and I could feel my hands getting numb in the cold mountain air. I had no gloves appropriate for the job and was losing light fast. Then I remembered the mostly abandoned bathroom in the basement. In it were a few stalls and a set of four showers. In stages, I began moving all my equipment into the tiled room. I settled everything outside of the nearest shower and began to toss handfuls of soil into a plastic bag. The dirt blew up into my face and coated my hands. Despite my efforts to be neat, I was soon surrounded by sea of soil. Before placing the new earth into the pot, I went to set up my drainage. With filthy hands, I began to hammer at the terracotta saucer from the original pot, creating sharp shards with each hit. The bangs echoed off the walls. A few hits later I was almost done when a student tentatively turned the corner. She stared at me, toiletries in hand and a worried, confused look on her face. I can't imagine what she must have thought looking at me, the new 22-year-old French teacher dorm parent, squatting on the bathroom floor with hammer in hand, surround by piles of dirt. I smiled like this was normal.
"Just repotting a plant" I said with sing-song enthusiasm and vague impatience.
"Oh" she said standing there in her towel bewildered.
"Am I in your way?" I asked, gesturing the hammer at the open showers, hoping she would leave.
"No" she said. "I think I'll just go upstairs."
"Okay!" I said and then resumed my banging.

When it came time to replace the pot's contents, I picked up the plant and examined its roots. It was covered in a layer of dry dirt, and it occurred to me that I should take advantage of the shower in front of me. Perhaps the parasites still lived in the roots and leaves. This was my opportunity to give a thorough washing of its entire system. I held the plant at arm's length and turned on the shower with the opposite hand. The pressure came hard and fast and I turned it down for fear it would blow off all the leaves. Once satisfied with the stream, I brought the plant underneath the water, letting it pour into the hard-to-reach crevices. To wash all the roots, I traced my fingers between them. It was then that I realized just how much damage the parasites had wrought. The thin roots were brittle and broke to pieces at the slightest touch. The large roots were hollow like straws and full of debris. The whole process sprayed me with dirt and water, but I kept at it, stroking each root until assured that I had washed it clean of the infestation.

I turned off the shower and examined the plant in silence. It looked even sadder with its ravaged roots dangling underneath my grip, the leaves heavy with water. Without pot and earth, it was quite puny and vulnerable, like veins without flesh. I slowly crouched with it and placed it carefully into its new pot. Gently, I restored its body with fresh damp earth. Wiping the plant and pot clean and dry at the sink, I looked at my completed work with satisfaction. There it sat in its new dark soil in the smooth hunter green plastic pot. With it totally clean and lights overhead, I could examine it closely. The plant stood a little taller than a foot with rough tan bark on its stem, about two inches in girth at the base. It branched off into a tripod that held a collection of long leaves. Each was narrow and came to a sharp point at its end. They arched up at their base near the stem and then dangled like locks. Along the two edges of each green leaf was a thin strip of magenta purple. I learned later that it was this edging that gave the plant its name: Dracaena Marginata.


The next week my professional development began in earnest. I observed other teachers in their classrooms and learned about differentiated instruction with the other new teachers in the Director of Studies' living room. We all asked polite questions from the deep sagging seats of her brown leather couch while nibbling on cheese and crackers.

The information made me crave more, and, to get a better sense of my students needs, I went to the admissions office and asked to read their files. Of all my classes, French II was the largest, most energized, and most challenging. I read through their dossiers hoping for illumination. Carol, a slim redhead with hazel eager eyes, had come from a large public school where she developed anxiety despite her strong performance. Ryan, a big guy with an even bigger personality, suffered a family tragedy and failed ninth grade; he came to boarding school to repeat the year in a supportive environment away from home. Sam, who had bouncy raven hair and a wardrobe of mostly shades of pink, had ADHD coupled with a distracting need for attention, which made it hard for her to learn. John, a good-natured skinny boy who liked to play class clown, had Cerebral Palsy which made him the constant target of ridicule at his old school; he had spent the past year hiding in video games, his grades dropping precipitously. Anita, a tall girl with short jet-black hair, ivory skin, and a septum piercing, had dyslexia and just spent the summer in rehab; she was repeating her junior year in boarding school with her parents' hope that distance from her boyfriend would get her back on track. Katie, a quiet girl with freckles and dirty blond hair, was constantly afraid at her former school. Her single mother had gotten a job in the Dean's Office to afford tuition. Chris, the boy with stringy brown hair always draped in front of his eyes, was escaping his parents' messy divorce, and, according to the school counselor, his dad had raved that his last vacation was wonderful because Chris couldn't come; Chris was standing right next to him. While heartbreaking, the files offered no direction for teaching, except the reassurance that I shouldn't take their behavior personally and the good sense to address it with compassion.

My lesson plans grew more interactive and to my astonishment the students responded to clear structure and expectations. I learned how to offer different level s of questions, giving struggling students the opportunity to participate as well as offering a challenge to more advanced ones. I began to address them as individuals, knowing who could answer which questions best. Every class became a collection of many different individual conversations over the course of the period instead of one monologue antagonized by questions. Yet although my lessons were improving and the students responding, the room still hummed with insecurity and uneasiness. Adolescents, especially this group, are a self-conscious kind, and language learning requires at least some moments of carefree abandon. I didn't just want them to fill in the blanks or give the right answers. I wanted them to experiment and test their limits. Finding joy in learning a foreign language requires you to forget yourself, to try on something new.
Then one day it magically happened. We were reviewing clothing vocabulary, pointing at pictures in the textbook and repeating the same phrases with different words swapped out. I pointed out that many English speakers use the French phrase "prêt a porter," and got distracted fussing and quick glances at the clock as a response. The room twitched with fidgeting boredom. Suddenly, without thinking, I told them all to stand up. Shocked, they took a moment to process my request, which was helpful since I had no idea what I was going to do next. All I knew was that I needed to remove them from the constraints of their seats. They needed to spread out. Then it hit me. A fashion show would be a perfect skit for this unit! I told them to bring their textbooks, notepads, and pens and follow me to the big assembly room. Fortunately, it was empty, and they all settled onto the tables and chairs and looked at me with stunned curiosity, their nervous energy dissipating into the large open space.

"You're going to do a fashion show, I said, in three groups."

Then I broke them up into groups and told them to choose one person who would be performing the catwalk. I gave them a minimum number of sentences and told them to use the text to figure it out. I anticipated some complaints and grumblings. The obstinate ones would do it for their image and the anxious ones because the structure was too lose, but, to my surprise, they all split up into their unexpected pairings and immediately began to work with focus. The fashion show itself was even more surprising. Carol, the nervous perfectionist, decided to walk and simply smiled when Ryan stumbled over their script. Anita and John took turns reading while shy Katie did a quick trot up and down the aisle. Sam, my attention seeking minimal speaker, did not opt for the catwalk, but gave Chris the floor while she quite eloquently described his look. His chin lifted enough that his hair fell away from his face and he managed quite a convincing swagger, especially after he removed his coat and flipped it over his shoulder at the turn. I couldn't help applauding after each. Their creativity and syntax was strong. I was tempted to believe that perhaps, they had been learning all along. The bell rang, and we all ran in our different directions, pleased but disoriented by the experience.


Every once and a while, I'd see Pam at the end of the day. She'd give me a wave and a wink, almost like she knew I was starting to find my groove. One day in December, she stopped me as I pranced down the stairs.
"Hey" she called, "how's that plant doing?"
In a rush I simply said "great!"
Her smile showed all her teeth and crow's feet. "Great" she nodded.
"Thanks" I said, not quite sure why I was thanking her, and I ran down the stairs. The semester had ended and I had to finish two more advisee letters before I went to the faculty holiday party. Back at home, when I finally finished writing, I laid back on the blue velvet loveseat and looked over at the plant. She actually seemed to be the same. Her leaves, while now clean, had not grown since the repotting. Her color had not increased in intensity. I swung my legs over and stood up to examine her more closely. I turned on the lamp but still noticed no difference. I recalled those sad ravaged roots from the day I washed her and wondered if they would let me just pull her out of the pot. My fingers settled at her base near the soil and attempted to pull up. It wouldn't budge. I tried again, this time wiggling from side to side. The trunk did not give a millimeter. My plant was settled so firmly in her earth that the only thing that moved was the pot itself. I hadn't noticed the change but then realized that her growth had been deep and ongoing. She had focused all her energy on growing roots.

Share Your Story contest entry

This is a memoir I began in my first creative writing class at Gotham Writers Workshop. I'm happy to share it as it is an important memory to me and a wonderful metaphor to explore. Names have been changed and omitted to protect privacy.
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