My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. B., was one of the best teachers I had in elementary school, but she often intimidated me, and I’m pretty sure she intimidated the other kids, too.
One afternoon, she lectured for what felt like several cold, dreary months on the topic of winter wheat. The first time around, she said something like: “Winter wheat. Farmers plant it in the fall. It sprouts before the ground freezes. It waits out the winter, starts growing again in spring, and is ready to be harvested in early summer. That’s winter wheat.” Then, without missing a beat, she repeated what she had just finished saying. . . . And then she said it again.
After umpteen iterations of the story, which varied only in minute details, Mrs. B. pushed back her chair, stood up, and said:
“All right, class. What’s the name of the crop that Kansas farmers plant in the fall and harvest in the early summer?”
. . . . . . . . . . Silence. The class was as dormant as winter wheat in January.
“Which crop, class?”
I was tempted to wave my hand in the air and answer, but I was suspicious of her motives. What did she say? Which crop? Is she kidding? She’s been yammering about this all afternoon. . . . It’s gotta be a trick! She must be setting us up to make us look bad if we say “winter wheat.” I looked around at the other kids. They were all staring at their desks.
Mrs. B. tried again. “Who can tell me the name of the crop that gets planted in the fall and comes up after the snow melts in spring?” she asked.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Not a sound in response save the wood-on-wood squeaks of 31 nine-year-olds squirming in their seats.
Her voice turned shrill. “Class! You plant this crop after the other crops have been harvested. It grows in the spring and is ready for harvest in the early summer! What is it called, class?”
“Class!” She began to shriek, but caught herself and adopted a forbearing tone. “What crop? . . . I’ll give you a hint. . . . You can make bread out of it, and it sprouts before the ground freezes and then grows after the winter snow melts. What is it?”
Well, it was a nice try, but we were having none of it. Nary a peep from the peanut gallery. Even the chairs stopped squeaking. By all appearances, every one of us had suddenly fallen in love with the sight of our own desktops, and no questioning or cajoling was going to redirect our eyebeams in her direction.
Mercifully, the bell rang. Time to go home.
* * * * * * *
Fast-forward to a few days later. We had just returned from lunch and settled into our seats when Mrs. B. said, “All right, class. I bet you’ve heard people say, ‘The world is getting smaller all the time.’ What do you suppose they mean by that?”
“The world is getting smaller. What do you think that means?”
Silence. Squeak, squeak. Silence.
Uh oh, I thought. It’s winter wheat all over again!
I lifted my eyes to take a peak at Mrs. B. Until that moment, I’d always been so intimidated by her that I’d never noticed how short and slight she actually was. I wanted to raise my hand and spare her what must be a teacher’s recurring nightmare, but this time I didn’t have a clue what the answer was. . . . The world is getting smaller? I’d never heard anyone say that. Maybe one of the other kids knew. I looked around, hoping to see a hand waving in the air, but no such luck.
Ever valiant, Mrs. B. tried again: “Who can tell me why people say the world is getting smaller?”
I couldn’t take it. I’ve gotta say something, I thought. No one deserves a rerun of the winter-wheat episode. But what could I say?
Well, let’s see. What were we talking about before lunch? We were doing science, and Mrs. B. was talking about . . . Oh! I know! She was talking about how water evaporates!
And then I remembered she had told us a week or so earlier that more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, so . . .
I stuck up my hand and waved it in the air.
“Is it because most of the Earth is made of water and the water is evaporating? . . . Is that why the world is getting smaller?”
I thought I heard a couple of snickers from the back of the room, but, mercifully, Mrs. B. didn’t crack a smile or shame me in any way. In fact, I thought I saw a glimmer of gratitude in her eyes.
The ice was broken. A hand shot up.
“Yes, Roger?” she said.
“It’s because we have stuff like airplanes and phones and cars and televisions and stuff like that, right?”
* * * * * * *
Fast-forward about 40 years. By then I was a gray-haired student in grad school. Maybe because of that childhood experience, I often took it upon myself to break the awkward silences that sometimes followed professors’ questions. On one such occasion, as I began to speak, the professor cut in to ask, “Is this another one of your crackpot theories, Sally?” Well, at this point, I can’t tell you whether it was or not. All I remember is that I laughed so hard I nearly fell out of my seat.
So you see, when a question hovers over a classroom of taciturn students like an icy November fog hovers over a field of dormant winter wheat, I have been known to offer a not-too-well-thought-out response (or as my professor so drolly put it, a “crackpot theory”) to fill the void.
Which brings me (by way of a tenuous segue) to the Big Question that hovers over this little blog. Put in quasi-biblical terms, the Big Question is this: What can we do—given the gale-force winds that are dispatching us directly into an ecocidal maelstrom—to turn this environmental ark around? Back in the fourth grade, I probably would have suggested evaporating the ocean, based on the profound theory that if there were no ocean, there’d be no maelstrom, so we’d have no problem!
At this stage of my life, my answers, though less fun and fanciful, are more carefully considered. In regard to the Big Question, I’ve concluded that we can’t keep waiting for the environment to get fixed somehow, while we go merrily along buying whatever we please—not if we hope to hand off a world to our descendants that we could stand inhabiting ourselves. We must take individual responsibility for our share of the ecological mess that we’ve helped to create. In other words, we must be mindful of the environmental costs associated with the things we buy and reduce our consumption accordingly.