Three years ago, I rescued a sad looking plant from a neighbor’s kitchen window sill. It had been a bright red gerbera daisy, blooming and filling her kitchen with color. But after a few weeks of inattention, the plant began to wither and droop. The soil in the pot got dry and crusty, resisting the water that my friend poured on it, in hopes of reviving it. Eventually, she just gave up and the little plant languished, almost dead.
Being the hopeful gardener that I am, I attempted a rescue. First, I removed the plant from its pot, soaked it in a bucket of water for a few hours to allow the water to thoroughly saturate the soil, spread the pot-bound roots a bit, pruned back the dead and dying leaves, and then planted it in my terrace garden. The soil there was rich and moist, full of good compost. The spot was sunny but somewhat protected from the wind. It enjoyed the advantage in the wintertime of a microclimate created by the dryer vent which blew gentle zephyrs to warm the air near my little gerbera daisy.
With all this attention, my rescued plant flourished. I was even rewarded that winter, much to my surprise, by the most cheerful, brightly blooming red daisy you have ever seen…in December! The plant was happy. Its atmosphere was conducive to growth. Yes, the daisy endured the occasional covering of snow and the intense heat of summer. But I watered it when necessary, added compost once a season, picked off the dead flowers, and cared for it.
For two years it flourished…until this winter and early spring. I have been busy. I have rarely spent time in my garden. I have rushed past on my way out and barely given it a glance. About two weeks ago, as I whizzed by I did happen to notice out of the corner of my eye, lush green growth in the corner of the terrace where my little daisy lives. Wow, I thought. That daisy is really growing. It’s huge and so green. I’ve never known it to put out so many new leaves like that. But I kept going. I didn’t stop to look. I didn’t pay attention. I just wondered why I hadn’t seen any flower buds yet….
…til last weekend when I finally got out in the garden. First, I took a walk around to survey the mess from the winter, the piles of leaves never cleaned up from the fall, the weedy growth in a couple of garden beds. And then I checked on my daisy. In a flash of recognition, a real “duh” moment, it hit me. That lush plant wasn’t my daisy at all, but a huge, thriving weed! In all my rush and inattention, I had failed to notice that what was growing up was a weed. How could I have mistaken a weed for my daisy? Well, to be honest, I hadn’t looked carefully enough to see the difference. Pretty sad. Pretty inattentive. Not the way to garden.
I donned garden gloves, found my hand digging tool and went to work. I carefully dug down to remove the weed, deep taproot and all, and found underneath all that lush, weedy growth, my little daisy, struggling to send out new leaves. It was there and new growth was appearing but it was small, choked out by the large weed that had invaded its space. With the weed gone, I carefully cultivated around the daisy, top-dressed with compost, and watered. And now I wait, hoping for flowers.
Why do I tell this story? In the spirit of Miss Mason, I go out in the garden and learn far more than how to grow plants. I learn about life and education. My little daisy story is a parable that illustrates a few key Mason principles that have become precious to me through the years: Education is an atmosphere, the habit of attention, and finally, the principle which has perhaps influenced the learning life in my home more than any other, masterly inactivity. Let my daisy illustrate each of these ideas.
Education is an atmosphere. As parents/teachers we have the responsibility to foster an atmosphere in which learning thrives. A healthy atmosphere is not contrived, artificial, or haphazard. Rather it is be rich with living books, sunny with the love and tender attention of teachers, protected from the blast of dulling busy work, and warmed by ideas of substance. The snows of difficult, challenging work are not to be avoided, but welcomed, relieved by the zephyrs of rest and outdoor time. Once rescued from the pot, revived, and planted in a better spot, my little daisy blossomed. Children who have withered in unhealthy home and school environments, can blossom again, too. Atmosphere is key.
Education requires the habit of attention. Charlotte Mason wrote, “First, we put the habit of Attention, because the highest intellectual gifts depend for their value upon the measure in which their owner has cultivated the habit of attention” (Home Education, p. 138).
Usually we think of the habit of attention as it applies to our students and this is necessary, but today I am thinking of it as a necessary quality to be developed in parents and teachers. I had failed to pay attention to my daisy. The habit of attending to that little corner of the garden was lost in the busy-ness of my days. A weed grew up. Have you allowed weeds to grow up in the lives of the young ones in your care by failing to attend carefully to their growth? Parents and teacher are responsible to watch, listen, notice small things, hear tone of voice, understand body language, to really know their children. We cannot do this unless we develop the habit of careful attention to them. We will be aware of and understand their needs and struggles. We will be quick to notice the weeds sprouting in their characters, to see the wayward habits that threaten to choke out their growth.
A balancing principle, masterly inactivity. Every good quality has its negative side. The habit of attention in parents and teachers, without the balance of masterly inactivity can become stifling. Over attention is not life-giving. Take my daisy. If I had planted it in its spot, cultivated the soil and added fertilizer every day, dug it up to check it’s roots, watered it constantly… well, you get the picture. It would have languished under so much attention. The habit of attention must be developed by us as teachers even as we seek to foster it in our children. But then we must learn to step back and trust ourselves, our children, and mostly God. We, as parents and teachers are invested with authority by God. Our job is to use that authority wisely.
On this subject, Miss Mason wrote, “We ought to do much for our children, and are able to do so much for them, that we begin to think everything rests with us and that we should never intermit for a moment our conscious action on the young minds and hearts about us. Our endeavors become fussy and restless. We are too much with our children, ‘late and soon…we are unable to perceive that wise and purposeful letting alone is the best part of education” (School Education, pp. 27-28).
Do you see the balance here? Do you see the wisdom of Miss Mason’s words? Do you think of ways that you need to pay attention better and areas where you need to step back? That dance will look different for each of us and we will at times, err on one side or the other. The goal is “wise and purposeful letting alone.” Those words seem like an oxymoron. But ponder them a bit. Wise…purposeful…letting alone. Not lack of attention or abdication of authority, but thoughtful, careful, masterly…inactivity.
Charlotte Mason wrote much on these principles and we are well served by reading her original work on these topics and applying her ideas in our particular circumstances. I am the mother of two college graduates, two current college students, and two high schoolers still at home. Your situation will look different if you have young children or if you teach a classroom of middle schoolers. Whether you are a homeschooling mother or a classroom teacher, whether your children are just starting their learning lives or nearing the time when they will launch out into the wider world, I encourage each of you to spend some time thinking on these principles. Consider the atmosphere in your home or classroom. Examine your attentiveness as a parent or teacher. Learn what masterly inactivity is and then strive to step back. Ponder, pray, and apply these principles. Then watch for blooming. I am watching, as a gardener and a mother, to see the results of sunshine, shower, and good soil in the blossoming of both daisies and precious children’s lives.
© 2009 by Beth Pinckney