Volume 25, Number 144, April/May 2022 The Assignment by Linda Payne
Sharon came home that Friday afternoon and slammed the back door, then slammed her back pack on the kitchen table. Her mother hurried in to see Sharon shaking with anger.
“What’s the matter, dear?” she asked as she prepared a snack for her daughter.
Sharon almost screamed, “That Mrs. Murphy! She gave us an impossible assignment to do and we have to have it done this weekend!”
“Why, Sharon, dear. Mrs. Murphy is one of your favourite teachers.”
“Well, she sure isn’t right now!” exploded Sharon as she plunked herself down at the kitchen table.
“Tell me what happened,” urged her mother.
“We are supposed to interview at least two people AND write a paper AND we are not allowed to use the computer. How impossible is that!” snapped Sharon.
“Well, I can see why you are upset. Go upstairs right now and get your computer. We’ll see about this,” answered her mother.
Sharon stared for a minute at her mother before hurrying upstairs to bring down her pretty pink computer. When she handed it to her mother, her mother took it and put it in her own briefcase. Sharon stood staring in surprise. “What are you doing?”
“I know about this assignment, all the parents do. We support Mrs. Murphy and so I am taking away your computer for the weekend. The parents are going to help you in this assignment by giving you a list of four people you can call to interview. Also you are to visit the downtown library tomorrow morning by nine o’clock and they have set aside a room with reference books for you and your classmates.”
Sharon was ready to scream again when her mother smiled and shook her head. “No more of that. This is an important subject and you cannot use the computer as your only source.”
Sharon reached for her phone to call her best friend Mary but Mother held out her hand for the phone.
“You will have to use the land line as I am taking your phone as well.”
It was her mother’s calm voice and stern manner that made Sharon hand it over although grudgingly.
Once more she stomped off to the family room to make her call but on her way the phone rang. It was Mary and after a few minutes of ranting about Mrs. Murphy, the assignment and how horrible their parents were, Sharon returned to the kitchen. Mother was waiting at the table with a pad of paper and a cup of hot chocolate.
“Mom,” wailed Sharon, “this assignment about global change and environmental changes is too big to do in just one weekend. You know that I want to do my best but I just don’t know where to start.”
Her mother pointed to the backpack on the table. “Let’s start there. Take out your paper.”
As Sharon pulled out the envelope
she wondered what else her mother knew. All of a sudden she wasn’t sure who she could trust, now that she had been told that her teacher had contacted all the parents. What teacher does that?
She remembered Mrs. Murphy’s instructions about not opening the envelope until they were home, but of course some of her classmates couldn’t wait. As more and more students succumbed to temptation the grumbling and complaining grew louder. For some reason, Sharon who had always been an obedient student waited and did not open hers.
It was in the form of a letter with a specific topic for her to focus on this weekend. Sharon began to breathe easier. She was to look into the changes of the weather and how that impacted their local area.
Her mother read the letter and
passed over her notebook with four
names on the first page.
Sharon read through the list and frowned. There was the name of her grandfather who lived on a farm just outside the city. Next was Mrs. James, the old lady who was their next door neighbour but Sharon thought she was about ninety and only worked in her flower garden all the time. What would she know about climate change. The third name was one she did not recognize, a George Bannerman. The last name was that of her Uncle Joe who she knew worked for the city in the sanitation department.
Beside each name was their phone number and mother handed her the land line, and told her to make an appointment to see each one over the weekend. “Start with Mrs. James because she is the closest and you can go see her before supper tonight.”
Sharon looked up with a puzzled look, and her mother nodded. “They know about the assignment too.”
Sharon was still angry at Mrs. Murphy but had to admire how thorough her teacher was to plan such a conspiracy for her class of twenty-two students in the environmental studies course.
After the cup of chocolate, with her letter and pad of paper, Sharon went next door to Mrs. James. She knocked on the door of the red brick house and was welcomed into the living room. Mrs. James was not quite ninety but had white hair for so many years that everyone thought she was much older. It was straight and cut short to make it more comfortable for spending her days in the garden. Sharon noticed that the older lady brought her love of flowers inside with floral wallpaper and adorning the side table was a lovely bouquet of forsythia and tulips. Even Mrs. James’ dress had a tiny floral print.
“Now, Sharon,” she started, “I understand that you want to speak to me about climate change.”
Sharon nodded, and stammered, “Yes, it is an assignment that we got just today. I am afraid I don’t know a lot about it and we are told not to use our computers to research the information.” Tears welled in her eyes and she blinked them away.
“Now, now, that’s okay dear. As you know I am usually outside as much as I can be with my flowers. I have lived here in this house for almost fifty-five years. I have seen a lot of changes in that time. Some of it good but some decisions are a worry to me. Come outside to the back yard and I can show you.”
Sharon had seen the tidiness of the front yard every day but the back yard was obscured by a board fence that she had never been able to peer over. As they stepped out the back door, she was shocked to see part of the yard overgrown and wild looking.
Mrs. James explained that in the front yard, the flowers had to be neat and tidy as some plants were considered weeds. “The city has passed a bylaw that says certain plants are not allowed. You know that one of our neighbours always gets a company to spray his lawn every spring and fall, little signs go up to tell us to stay off the grass. The spray has poisons in it and I know of two little dogs that have gotten quite ill from the effects of that spray. His lawn may look lush and green but it comes at a cost to the rest of us.”
Sharon shook her head. “I had no idea. Why is this one corner so overgrown with weeds and plants?”
“Let’s sit here for a few minutes and you will see.” Mrs. James had two chairs near a lilac bush so they could watch the corner of the property. Soon she was pointing out the butterflies and bees circling the plants. She explained about the monarch butterflies and soon Sharon was sharing what she knew about these remarkable insects. “ In many cities and even along the side of the roadways, milkweed plants are being sprayed. It is the only habitation and food source for these beautiful butterflies. I keep some here for them.”
Sharon had never known that an elderly person could be such a rebel as she thought that was only for the young and verbal. She began to look at Mrs. James in a whole new light. “I understand that you are to visit your grandfather sometime this weekend.”
Sharon nodded, “How do you know my grandfather?” She looked up in surprise again.
“Your grandfather and I went to school together and share our concerns about some of the ridiculous laws and changes as people want perfect little lawns with green grass and beautiful flowers. Your grandfather has some strong and interesting views on the subject. He has bees and will tell you all about them,” smiled Mrs. James.
As Sharon walked home she felt calmer and happier than she had a few hours earlier. As she ate her supper she shared with her parents about her conversation with Mrs. James. She did not notice the grins her parents exchanged.
“Oh, I forgot to ask about this George Bannerman. Who is he? How do you know him?”
“That was my suggestion,” answered her father. “I worked with his son on a project for the club I belong to. We work on keeping hiking trails through the Bruce Trail and making sure that things are kept safe. His father is an Ojibway chief and knows a lot about local history, geography and heritage. Also it is important to learn how our first nations people have honoured this land so that we can learn from them.”
The next morning her classmates were gathering at the local city library when she arrived. The first thing Sharon noticed was the change in tone as the anger and frustration of the previous afternoon was replaced by an eagerness for each student to really study their particular topic. The library staff had several books out on the table and the librarian offered a few suggestions before leaving them on their own.
In excited but respectfully quietvoices, they shared their reaction and that of their parents to thisassignment. But within a few minutes they had spread out their material and were hard at work. Some had requested notes from city bylaws both recent and those of long ago. Sharon found herself checking out some of those with Abigail, a girl that had moved here about two years ago. Since Abigail’s mother did not know a lot of resources, Sharon invited her to join her to visit her grandfather in the afternoon.
Sharon’s mother picked up the girls and took them out to her father’s farm for the afternoon. “I’ll be back around four o’clock,” she said as she drove off.
Grandpa took the girls out to see the beehives, after dressing them in protective gear. Sharon had never shown any interest in the bees but Grandpa talked about them as if they were an extension of his family. He shared his concerns about the spraying that went on in many local farms but his was an organic farm. He used natural methods to fertilize and grow his crops. He showed them his chicken coop and they also gathered eggs. He told them about once having cows but the changes in laws made it so restrictive and he just could not agree with all the laws.
“With more and more people noteating meat, but wanting to be vegetarian, it is important to make sure that my food does not have additives and growth hormones added to make them grow bigger and faster.”
While they sat on the wide front porch to wait for Sharon’s mom, the girls talked about what they had learned from Grandpa. “Oh, I forgot to tell you that I interviewed Mrs. James from next door.” Sharon saw the biggest grin from Grandpa.
“Did she tell you that we went to school together?” he asked.
“She was the best looking gal in the school back then. She married young and her husband was killed in a mining accident in northern Ontario. She never married again but has lived in the same house all these years. I usually stop in to say hello when I come by your place.”
The next morning Sharon’s father took her to the native reserve to meet George Bannerman. He was only seventy-five but looked much older. He took Sharon and her father to the forest surrounding the reserve and showed them the various trees. He explained the native way of respecting the land and the things that grew on it, inhabited it and how to use it without waste. Sharon even learned some weather lore from this wise old man. She wrote out about the clouds that could tell what kind of weather was to come, how the beavers build their lodges in a way to protect them during a long winter, how certain insects will predict the weather as well. Sharon then asked if he had noticed changes over the years in his lifetime. He told Sharon that his people had long passed down their history orally and only in recent years has some of that been recorded and put in books. There have been tales of storms and bad weather and droughts and floods. He grinned, “We never had to worry about volcanoes and tidal waves that I hear about in other places around the world today. We just knew about our own local news and the changes here. We understood about the directions and seasons and the winds. Then we told stories about how the Great Spirit looked after us and would keep us safe.”
As they said their goodbyes, Sharon looked up at her father and said, “Thanks, Dad.”
He smiled, “We are never too old to learn something new every day. Don’t forget that. Let’s get home now. Uncle Joe is coming for dinner and he is your next person to interview.”
As they walked through the door, Sharon was pleased to see her father’s brother Joe already in the living room with Mom. Although he was a younger version of her father, he was quieter and shorter.
“We have about an hour before the meal is ready, so why don’t the two of you go out to the patio to have your interview. Your father will help me with supper and getting the table set,” added Mother.
From Uncle Joe, she learned about the changes to how garbage is collected. “Now we are well into recycling but there are always changes to that as well. Scientists are trying to figure out how to either burn or reuse a lot of material but there is still such a lot of waste. Right now it is the ingredients of the plastics and the huge waste of packaging that cause concern. Just a minute, I’ll show you.” Uncle Joe went into the kitchen and returned with a plastic bag of grocery items.
“Your mom just went shopping on Saturday. Look here.” He pulled out a box of breakfast cereal and opened the new container. “Look inside.” Sharon peered in and noticed that it was about three quarters full. Then they checked out the can with the hot chocolate mix.
Sharon looked up in surprise. “Are all containers only partially full? That’s not right.”
“No. Some are full, like ice cream, butter, milk and juice. But when we buy an electronic item, the packaging is sealed and on so much cardboard and plastic that most of it goes into the landfill.” Uncle Joe shook his head. “While we are getting better at understanding recycling, we have a long way to go about not accepting such wasteful practices from companies.”
That night after supper, Sharon left Uncle Joe to visit with her parents and she went up to her room to complete her assignment. She worked on it for almost three hours before putting it aside. She came downstairs to say goodbye to Uncle Joe and her parents.
“Thank you so much. This was the best assignment ever. Mrs. Murphy is really a wonderful teacher. Hmmm, I had no idea you could learn so much from people around you and from studying a book.”
On Monday when she got to Mrs. Murphy’s class, she was happy to see that her classmates seemed so energized over their notes and were eager to tell her all about their weekend. It was a shock to realize that not one of them missed their own beloved computers or talking on the phone with their friends.
She even got a new friend, Abigail, out of the assignment. All of them got an A.