Dandelions and oak tree - April 30 / Day 120

Today was my last day teaching spring semester classes at Framingham State: on Saturday morning, my students will submit their final essay portfolios online, then on Monday and Tuesday mornings, I’ll proctor their final exams before spending the rest of the week grading, grading, grading. Through long experience, I’ve learned that semesters move forward as inexorably as seasons: in some ways, it feels like the end of the semester has been a long time coming, and in other ways, it feels like the end of the semester has come (again) before I’m really ready for it.

Oak leaves outside my office

The last week of classes is always a bittersweet time. On the one hand, I’m always tired and eager for the (brief) respite that comes at the end of the semester; on the other hand, I’m always mindful of how much grading stands between the last week of the semester and Done.

When I taught at Keene State, the last week of the semester was typically when I’d find myself looking out my classroom windows at Old Silver, the sprawling silver maple I’d nicknamed the Failure Tree before he collapsed with an earth-shaking thud three years ago.

Pink dogwood flowers

Old Silver had a lot of help in his final years from the Keene State College grounds crew, who tethered his trunks together with wire cables, and I always took quiet encouragement looking out the window at him during the final weeks of the semester, when I was daunted by my paper-piles and unsure whether my students had really “gotten” anything I’d tried to teach them.

Old Silver stood alongside me for most of my teaching career at Keene State, but he never really listened to any of my lectures, preferring to figure out his own approach to “tree-ness.” Sometimes the most lasting lessons happen despite everything a teacher does—or fails to do—in the classroom, and the last week of the semester is when I find myself quietly hoping that my students got something useful out of my class, if only by osmosis.

Massive oak

I haven’t (yet) found an acceptable equivalent to Old Silver at Framingham State: I’m still getting to know the trees there. The closest candidates are the two massively sprawling oak trees on Larned Beach, the grassy patch of real estate between Hemenway Hall and Whittemore Library. Both of these oaks are estimated to be a couple hundred years old: one is hale and hearty, the other is dying after being struck by lightning, and both are slated to be felled later this month to allow room for new construction.

If you’ve been alive and paying attention long enough, one of the lessons you eventually learn (if only by osmosis) is that even the oldest and sturdiest trees eventually fail and fall. Some, like Old Silver, choose their own time, defying gravity with a little help from attentive groundskeepers. Others, like Framingham State’s two massive oaks, have their times chosen for them, progress moving inexorably whether you’re ready for it or not.

Two giants - May 2 / Day 122

Graduation prep

I’ve been inexplicably missing Old Silver, the towering silver maple that fell across the quad at Keene State College during Finals Week several years ago. When he was still standing, Old Silver was a sprawling, multi-trunked tree that needed wire braces to hold him together, but even those couldn’t save him from gravity in the end.

Graduation prep

Old Silver always cheered me on days when I felt like I was failing as a teacher, as often happens during Finals Week, when your paper-piles are tall and your patience is short. It was always a comfort to have a towering Gray Guy peering over your shoulder on days when you were stuck inside looking out with nothing but your grading to keep you company. There are plenty of trees on the Keene State College campus, but none of them holds the same place in my heart as Old Silver did. Old trees teach us how to stand tall, how to sway in the breeze, and ultimately how to fall. There are worse things you can learn in college.

Graduation prep

Today at Keene State, the grounds crew was setting up chairs for graduation: an annual ritual I’ve chronicled multiple times in past years. At the end of another long academic year, it’s a relief to see the clean, tidy lines of countless chairs arranged with meticulous accuracy. Teaching is a messy, inexact endeavor, but graduation ceremonies make a mysterious process seem polished and predictable with all their pomp and circumstance. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where Wisdom happens, graduation ceremonies provide a sense of closure by suggesting learning can and does eventually come to a full and finite fruition.

Graduation prep

Every year, I’m relieved to see graduation prep progressing because that means we’re close to being done with another semester, and this year, I’m particularly glad to see the term end. This semester has been emotionally draining in the aftermath of being cut to part-time, and I’m not ashamed to admit there have been days when merely commuting to Keene to teach two rather than three classes has driven me to tears. It’s not every semester that you question your career path, watch your dog die, and then reach the end of the term wondering “What’s next?” If Old Silver were still standing, I think he’d lean into the spring breeze and whisper that it’s okay to branch, to stretch, and ultimately, when the time is right, to fail and fall.

Wreckage

I can’t speak to the age-old conundrum about a tree falling in the forest with no one around, but this much I can say: when a tree falls in the middle of a college campus, it definitely makes a sound.

Split

Old Silver, the sprawling Silver Maple that formerly stood at one corner of Keene State College’s Fisk Quad and which I’ve fondly photographed and blogged over the years, came toppling down this afternoon while I was in my basement office in Parker Hall grading papers. I didn’t see Old Silver fall, but I definitely heard it: there was a loud grinding sound that made me look up from my grading, as if someone or something had slid off the roof of nearby Morrison Hall. What I heard as a sliding or scraping sound was actually the splintering of two of Old Silver’s sprawling trunks, and when I looked out my ground-level window, all I could see were the shocked faces of passing students looking in the direction where Old Silver used to stand.

This was the maple I’d sometimes refer to as the Failure Tree because of the comfort it always brought me at the end of a long semester when I sometimes feel like I’ve failed to reach my students. At the end of a long semester, I often feel like I want to collapse into a shattered heap, and the fact that Old Silver was still standing has often given me a kind of quiet encouragement. As long as I’ve taught at Keene State, Old Silver has stood tall, but only with help, its four sprawling trunks held together with metal cables. Sometimes, you need a little help keeping things together, and it’s nice to think there are folks out there who will lend either a cable or a hand.

Fallen

Today two of Old Silver’s tall trunks gave way to gravity; luckily, no one was sitting or lounging nearby at the time, and even more fortunately, Old Silver didn’t fall during graduation, when it overhangs rows of folding chairs. When one of my colleagues came down to my office to let me know of Old Silver’s demise, he noted with amazement that another of our colleagues occasionally meets beneath Old Silver with students in his Thoreau class for open-air discussions; can you imagine the life-long lesson you’d take from a class where a towering giant toppled right alongside your copy of Walden or The Maine Woods?

I’ve occasionally gathered with my Art of Natural History students beneath Old Silver; I and probably several of my students have sketched him with varying degrees of skill. “Some of my students were in the library,” another teaching colleague noted with amazement, “and they actually saw it fall.” It somehow seems appropriate that Old Silver took his dive during Finals Week, when so many of us feel like succumbing to gravity ourselves. Had Old Silver fallen in a few weeks, after most students have gone home, there would have been few witnesses to his demise. Instead, a throng of students watched as campus grounds crews first circled the area with yellow Caution tape and then began clearing the wreckage with chainsaws and a Bobcat forklift. By tomorrow, I’m sure, most of the arborial wreckage will be cleared, and students who weren’t there to witness Old Silver’s fall won’t believe how quickly it all came down.

Obstacle

It feels appropriate that I was grading papers when my so-called Failure Tree fell, as these were papers where I didn’t feel as if I’d failed my students. Over the weekend, I graded papers from my “Rivers and Literary Imagination Class,” and today, I graded papers from “The Literature of Birds and Birding.” In both of these sections of Environmental Literature, I tried to emphasize the way humans derive meaning from natural objects: looking at a river, we imagine the flow of time, or watching the migration of birds, we consider the passing of our own lives.

Old Silver was a natural object that I derived meaning from; Old Silver was both an actual tree and a symbolic one, a being that shared my campus habitat as I’ve tried to teach countless students over the years. This semester, I put a lot of time into helping my Environmental Literature students succeed with the very papers I was grading when Old Silver fell: my students and I spent an entire class period brainstorming potential essay topics, we spent part of another class meeting doing peer reviews, and we spent a good portion of a third class session doing revisions based on my draft comments, followed by a second peer review. I’m gradually learning that although trees sometimes fail for no apparent reason, success is never an accident. If I want to enjoy the papers I’m reading–and today when Old Silver fell, I was largely satisfied with the essays in my paper-pile–I have to take care in designing assignments and actively helping my students produce the kind of work I want to read. Good papers don’t just happen by chance.

Lift and separate

Students, like old maple trees, are prone to becoming prone: both gravity and inertia are forces of nature, and at a wearisome point of the semester, it’s easier to give up than stand up. Old Silver has stood for years with a little help from the Keene State College grounds crew, and I’m learning that students also need an occasional prop or prod. It’s easy to get discouraged when it seems like students just aren’t getting the lessons you’re trying to teach; it’s easy to think it’s somehow your students’ fault, or the fault of their previous teachers. Why don’t students come to us, we lament, already knowing the Big and Basic Lessons we see as being so vital? Why does teaching always feel like starting from scratch as we emphasize and re-emphasize the lessons we think our students should have already learned?

I no longer expect students to understand difficult ideas the first time I explain them, and I no longer expect students to master complex skills without repeated opportunities for practice. I no longer expect students’ previous teachers to have taught them the skills I want them to have…or, more accurately, I no longer expect students to recall the lessons their previous teachers taught. The business of teaching is grueling work: it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Sometimes it takes a whole lot of failing before you can succeed; sometimes your approaches to teaching–just like your students’ papers–need to be revised.

Loading zone

I’ll be eager to see whether the Keene State grounds crew fells Old Silver’s two remaining trunks: these might be stronger and more stable without the weight of their now-fallen companions, or they might have been structurally damaged by their peers’ collapse. Whether or not a remnant of this old tree can be salvaged, I feel Old Silver has ultimately done his job. Countless students and at least one instructor have been encouraged under his shade, and that’s all we really can expect from a tired old giant.

Click here for more images showing the collapse and clean-up of the Silver Maple I call Old Silver; enjoy!