Dewitt Clinton High School Garden Grand Opening

By Weihui Lu, Programing Intern at Behind the Book

Last week, I began working at Behind the Book, and was very excited when I got to tag along on classroom visits and events. On Friday, Jo and I joined a longtime BtheB partner school, DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Grand Opening ceremony for their Clinton Garden – a rare swathe of greenery in the Bronx neighborhood. Students, teachers and funders from the local community milled around, marveling at the beautiful spread of lettuce, tomato plants, sunflowers, eggplants, and other delicious plants.

Under the supervision of Mr. Ray Pultinas, the garden was begun three years ago in conjunction to the Witt Seminar, an elective offered for seniors and juniors which focused on social activism and sustainability. Since then, the garden has doubled in its size, becoming an essential link in the school community, and as the growing signpost of a larger mission.

A teacher admires the past year’s growth in Clinton Garden

Walking among the plots, I was struck by the diversity of the plants (which are all edible, and selected according to their suitability with the local climate), and the contrast between the greenery and their chain-link and concrete context. Tiny butterflies flitted from plot to plot, as people wandered around, some moving to the inviting salad spread at the side. A group of cafeteria workers were serving freshly picked radishes, red leaf lettuce and other greens, satisfying both the palate and the curiosity of teachers and students who had watched and worked on the garden, year after year. I discovered later that this event alone had required 15 lbs of lettuce – a mere tenth of the impressive annual yield.

Garden to Cafe graciously serving fresh salad samples to the crowd, and Ray Pultinas speaking of his goals for the garden

The real significance of the garden is not its vegetable produce, however. As Ray quotes wryly at the podium, “this garden is proof that, like Tupac says, a flower can grow from concrete”. The garden is a space for students to experience nature despite the limitations of their urban surroundings, and an opportunity to learn progressive thinking despite their limited intellectual environment. By combining hands-on experience of the physical garden with a rigorous literary curriculum (that includes Michael Roland’s In Defense of Food and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony), “Mr. P” hopes to give them the ownership and freedom necessary to work for social change. Recently, students learned to use power tools to construct their own compost bin, and organized a peer-education event called “Occupy Lunch Room”, in their effort to improve their own community. Ray also hopes that the garden will become a valuable educational resource for the entire school, serving as an observational lab space for science classes, and inspiration for free writes in creative writing classes.

K does a lovely reading of her poem, followed by another student performance

After the various speeches, a student who had worked on the garden this year was invited to read her beautifully-written poem about Nature, and another class offered a group performance. The event was wrapped up with a tree planting dedication to the late Megan Charlop, an activist who had inspired and encouraged the birth of the garden.

Planting the oak in honor of Meg Charlop

The lit nerd in me is fascinated by the power of the garden as a symbol – a word used between people to communicate a larger idea. While problems like sustainability and healthy eating are pressing and very real in the Bronx, which has the highest obesity rate in the city, the educational value of the garden seems bigger than that: what the students really learn (we hope!) is how to communicate their passions, and express their own interests and concerns. At Behind the Book – and perhaps behind every literary endeavor – we are driven by our desire to embrace the personal and individual experience, and give everyone the tools and space needed to develop their own voice. As people begin to filter out, I smile as I overhear a student say: “Everybody has their own interest, everyone’s individual… Me, I’d love to see some kale”.

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