potential

In our backyard is a giant maple tree that was planted at the same time that the house was built, we’re told. Pushing 70 years old, it could pass for something much older still as it dwarfs the house with its branches and pulls the Earth up as its trunk and its roots continue to expand. Somehow it negotiates the space with the house and the plumbing. Even more kind, it shades the house from the south during the summer months, in addition to giving us something to appreciate and inform us of the season.

One of the fascinating phenomena of this monster deciduous tree is that it drops its seeds in late May. During the spring we watch the leaves come back to life, a set of flowery things burst out, and then in May we see the seeds at the end of a wing begin to sprout. Fair warning, they let us know well in advance that we’ll see them come raining down on us, fluttering to the yard and roof (and gutters). This year they’ve done a particularly good job of falling down evenly throughout the yard, and I’ve done a good job of using our manual-push reel mower to trim the grass, leaving not only the grass clippings behind but the seeds unscathed. So now, in the backyard, I appreciate all the potential of thousands of “helicopters,” seed-side-down and wing-side-up in the grass.

What if all these seeds took root? A part of me wants to see what could happen. Every year there are at least a few seedlings that begin to sprout from the bare dirt on the sides of the yard or in the garden. But what if we let each seed have its own fair shot at it? Could I have a backyard filled with seedlings, the beginning of a maple leaf jungle? Probably not, but I love the idea of the potential.

Tonight I returned from a high school graduation of about 50 students from the local public charter school for which I serve as a board member. While I don’t want to push the metaphor too far, for fear of the anxiety I’d feel the next time I bring out the gas-driven lawnmower that bags all the grass clippings and seeds in the yard, the enthusiasm of this group of graduates seemed like they had finally landed and were ready to sprout. They celebrated not so much the accomplishment of graduating high school (although there was plenty of this) as they seemed to talk about what they were yet to become. The diploma in hand, they seemed poised, confident, and giddy about what potential futures they had yet to fulfill.

Potential surrounds me lately. In the lab, Ryan, a graduate with a teaching position offered to him this week, is laying out the science activities that we’ll bring to the parks this summer. On lab benches sit familiar old toys from previous years, but also the experiments with new things: a pinhole projector, a new bubble recipe, a soda-vinegar rocket, and plans for a new expanded PVC instrument. Or there’s my “new” office. Finally with a key in hand, I began installing the new computer and taking down the 2008 calendar. On the shelf is a library of teaching “self-help” books from discussion groups past. A new calendar, a new operating system, and maybe a new way of doing things are all potentially being planted in the office, but first I need to clean out the old computer, the old dying plant, and the arrangement of synthetic still life fruit. The latter can’t be a good role model — there’s no potential for anything but dust collection.

Now almost 10 days old, my new nephew Samuel is the epitome of potential. And as I look at him and look to my 9-year-old and look back to him I realize how quickly it all turns (and is turning) from potential to reality right before my eyes. Anna just received accolades for scoring in the 90th percentile or above on almost all subsections* and composite scores of a national test. (The random chance of doing this, by my calculation, is one in ten thousand, but I know that there are correlations between scores that make this an exaggeration.) So, here’s this kid with a gift that she seems to be well on her way to putting to good use, and it all started with a bundle weighing in at about six pounds with a swirl of hair that only had a hint — a potential — of being red at the time. Looking at Samuel and looking at Anna I see a progression from one to the other in a heartbeat of an instant of a moment. The potential is not only there, it’s being realized right before my eyes.

This all was never more apparent than when we went to Anna’s dance recital last Friday night. There was the typical bar work and waltz and ballet, but this year she began practicing contemporary and jazz routines. Through three costume changes, I saw the one who was previously swaddled in blankets now dancing. And not just “dancing” like she used to or like I still do, but really dancing. And all the while she smiled. And I swear, that once, as she bent her legs and raised her arms I was sure that she was about to leap into the air and do a backflip. Of course she didn’t … but then when she made the same motion a second time, I was still sure, again, that she was about to do a backflip. And frankly, I don’t remember her not doing a backflip. Through the smile and the dancing and the image of what this child has become in only 9 years or 9 minutes, there was not only the potential of something, but the realization of it. Anna’s found joy in herself and in what she does. I only hope I can look to her example for this in my own tasks before me.

____

*The one subsection she did not score in the top 10%? Science. It’s a funny irony in the household of the science educator.

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