In my middle school teaching days, I once taught this fun book called Holes by Louis Sachar. It’s about kids at a camp for “bad boys” who are required to dig holes all day. There seems to be no purpose for the digging except that as Mr. Sir says, it builds character and turns bad boys into good boys. The book is quite good, a sort of Catch-22 for young readers that manages to be both wickedly sarcastic and warmhearted at the same time. Even kids who hate reading will read Holes.
I couldn’t help but think about it the other day when I accompanied some of my students to a local park where they are working on a tree planting project. Most of my students aren’t really “bad kids,” they’re just the round pegs that don’t fit into the square holes of the public school system. They’re smart, curious, friendly, and want nothing more than to succeed and avoid the mistakes they made that landed them where they are. Nevertheless, the first step in planting trees is digging holes.
Initially, they seemed reluctant to really throw themselves into the hole-digging, not for lack of enthusiasm, but out of concern that they would dirty their uniforms and get their boots muddy, which could cause them to fail an inspection and incur the wrath of their drill instructors. We assured them that the drills knew what they were up to and as their holes got deeper (and to avoid being outdone by us teachers), they proceeded to throw themselves into the task. Soon we had a bunch of holes and the kids planted peach and plum trees under the guidance of a master gardener.
For my part, I enjoyed digging the holes (there’s nothing like swinging a pickax to break rock) and to my surprise, so did the kids. One said to me that she liked knowing that her work would help something grow. Another said he liked digging holes because it was tiring and it made him happy to think that a tall tree would someday grow and bear fruit because of something he did.
It was a beautiful day and we all got away from the facility for a few hours to enjoy some time with nature. Fortunately there’s still much planting to do in the coming weeks. I still don’t know if digging holes will turn “bad kids” into “good kids,” but it does give them a chance to feel that they are doing something to make the world a better place. Most of my students need that.
(I also learned from the gardener in charge of the project that the young tree in my backyard will never grow until I make some changes in how it’s staked and mulched.)