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Charleston Gray

February 7, 2016

Applying fungicide to Charleston Gray

 

What do you do when there is nothing you can do?

Last September my son became interested in watermelon. A fellow student had given him some improved Charleston Gray seeds and we calculated conservatively that he could make $1,500USD if he planted all of them.

We worked out a business plan. He needed two shovels and two watering cans (check – I already had them). He needed wood ash to neutralize the pH (check – free from the cafeteria). Aside from his time, our only cost was a truckload of cow manure he arranged to bring from Charles Taylor’s old farm ($50). I told him to use the field behind my house and in October he started brushing. He even climbed the trees, trimming them with his machete so they wouldn’t cast shadows.

By early November he was ready to plant. He brought his roommates and together they sowed about four hundred seeds. A week later barely a hundred had germinated. In their enthusiasm his friends, not agriculturists, had planted the seeds too deep. So he went back and planted almost everything he had left.

He watered religiously every other day in what became a sort of two-hour ritual. At first they hauled water on their heads from the pipe behind my house then, when the campus water went off for a week, he dug a well in the swamp. (Yes, he dug a well.)

The vines started racing across the field and the first few melons started appearing. He was elated and proud, bringing his friends after class to see the progress. Then the watermelon I had planted in my small garden became infested with bugs. I warned him to keep a careful watch and taught him how to spray pesticide. Then, one by one, my vines stopped growing and just… died. I thought that I’d mixed the pesticide too strong or that I hadn’t applied enough fertilizer.

Then his started dying too.

“Sis RB,” he said one evening, “I’m really worried. Something is wrong.” He had been telling me about yellow leaves but I didn’t take him too seriously. I told him to google it or to talk to his pest management professor. (He didn’t do either.) I’d seen a few yellow leaves on his plants but it didn’t seem to be caused by bugs so I thought they might just be sunburned. “Maybe you need more nitrogen?” I offered.

But that evening his face told me it was something else. I walked back to his field and he was right. Something was really wrong. The same thing that had happened to my small garden was happening to him. Leaves were turning yellow then one day the plant was just… dead.

I searched extension sites late into the night and discovered nothing encouraging. Our soil was infested with a nasty type of wilt that was attacking the roots and destroying the plants’ vascular system. “Treatment: None. Outcome: Total collapse of crop.” The most encouraging advice was to grow a variety bred to be resistant—how are we going to get that here?

I didn’t know how to tell him… except to tell him. The next morning I called him over to my desk and showed him some of the pictures. “That’s it!” he exclaimed excitedly. “Now what do we do?”

I just shook my head. Total collapse of crop.

The next few days were like preparing for a funeral. I found some fungicide and showed him how to mix it in the sprayer. I knew it wouldn’t really help but I felt the need to offer something, a sort of palliative care for his soul. I followed behind him and rooted out the sickest of the plants because I knew he couldn’t bear to do it. Just like Ebola bodies, they had to be removed and burned before they could spread the disease further.   His pest management instructor came every day to share in our grief, taking photos and trying to offer suggestions to replant.

As I watched the disappointment, frustration, and anger wash over my son I struggled to find the words I knew he needed. It’s not your fault. There was no way for us to know. You didn’t do anything wrong.

He just shook his head. “It was all a waste. I will never plant watermelon at Cuttington again.”

As a teacher I knew it wasn’t a waste. I knew that, in a way, this was a better learning experience than a big harvest and a pile of money. I knew that after this he would be more cautious, more attentive, and quicker to react to the first sign of danger. I knew that he would be successful when he planted again and that victory would taste twice as sweet because of this disappointment.

Failure is part of life and even more so failure is part of science. We often learn more by falling than we do by climbing, but how do you help students embrace that? How do you normalize failure when it hurts so much?

Failure is hugely embarrassing for Liberians. So much so that teachers are all but forbidden to fail students. “If the result isn’t good, add a hundred to all the grades and divide by two,” a Ministry of Education official told us during my Peace Corps training. Students prefer to leave half an exam paper blank rather than guess on questions they are unsure about. (I have a new policy that you cannot leave until you’ve answered every question and they find it hilarious.) Failure is treated as a deep personal problem rather than a normal part of being human.

So, if that’s the case, what do you do when there’s nothing you can do? What do you do when you’ve done nothing wrong? How do you teach someone to keep digging for that silver lining?

I don’t think you can. But you can offer them your hand every time they fall and, when the time is right, nudge them back into motion.

My son still helps me tend the garden every evening, a habit we started when he was watering his melons, but he’s more serious than he was a few weeks ago. Our conversations are less about agriculture and more about life, dreams, and goals. He’s not ready yet, but I can tell he’s gradually healing and pulling himself back up.

And when the time is right he’s going to spin back into motion with force and determination. The only way to fail is to stop trying.

“Age wrinkles the body. Quitting wrinkles the soul.”

– Douglas MacArthur
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One Comment leave one →
  1. Jim Snyder permalink
    February 7, 2016 1:17 pm

    And now he will have an appreciation for how awesome science is.

    I really enjoy your writings!

    jim

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