Killing gophers consumed him. Killing gophers mattered more than beets, broccoli, or beans. More than carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, or corn. It almost drove me crazy.
He had spent the late summer walking around the new place, testing the soil. A new neighbor had helped, donating a ton or so of topsoil and manure from his cattle and sheep corrals. The warm winter days of southern Arizona gave him time to mix the new soil with the old, and after work, week-ends, and school holidays I helped him put up some fence panels to keep the chickens and rabbits out of the new garden.
Early spring was planting time. He was pleased with his efforts, and excited when the seeds sprouted and the bedding plants grew. Then a cucumber vine wilted. A broccoli plant disappeared.
The gophers had found the garden.
He tried drowning the gophers and poisoning them. I tried gassing them and trapping them. Once in a while heÕd catch one staggering around near a hole, looking more like a half-drowned sewer rat than a pocket gopher, and promptly dispatch it with a swing or two of his shovel.
But the gophers prevailed.
I volunteered that it need not happen again. I would rent a small tractor, move the top two feet of dirt off to the side, line the garden area with a carpet of wire mesh, then replace the dirt. It would take money, time, and energy, but the gophers would not be able to repeat their gluttony at our expense.
ÒNo, donÕt do that,Ó he ordered, as he planted that seasonÕs even-larger garden. ÒIÕm going to get those gophers.Ó
Now he spends his days with a hose in one hand and a shovel in the other. HeÕs tried pouring lye down the gopher holes, almost killing the dog but hardly slowing the gophersÕ advance. Even in the rain, heÕll be out there, hose in hand. Pumping water down the holes. He loves it. HeÕs doing his job.
Our vegetables come from the grocery store, now.
It almost drove me crazy, but I learned a lesson: itÕs easy to stay busy killing gophers, especially when you forget your original purpose. ItÕs as easy for an elderly ex-farmer/rancher as it is for a younger teacher or administrator. Or legislator, or school board member, or parent, or student.
Too much of our educational energy is expended Òkilling gophers.Ó We have forgotten our original purpose. We have succumbed to the temptation of the distraction. We believe we are succeeding whenever we manage to lay a shovel on a gopher, but the vegetables are shriveling, dying, and disappearing.
Proponents of a school or school district Òplan for improvementÓ might insist that we need more money for hoses and shovels. Critics of the same plan loudly denounce this wasteful spending, pointing out that hoses and shovels have not proven very effective. Instead, they propose more money for traps, or poison, or (if they really want to break the boundaries) for cats, dogs, and gopher snakes as more efficient gopher killers. Yet others will insist that the problem cannot be solved by throwing money at it, that Òtightening upÓ is necessary.
But we have forgotten our purpose. We are not here to kill gophers. Rather, we are here to grow vegetables. We are not here to stamp out drugs or to keep guns out of schools or to tinker with class schedules or to build our rsums or to insist loudly and repeatedly that Òwhole languageÓ is better (or worse) than Òphonics;Ó we are here to grow our students.
Our forgetting takes many forms. It sneaks up on us. It takes advantage of our societyÕs pressures and our individual concerns and weaknesses. It even takes advantage of our strengths. Along the way, our forgetting lays waste to our individual and collective best: our sense of commonality and community and common sense. Then, just for good measure, it destroys our passion for teaching, for treating each student as an individual, for doing the best we can with what we have.
©2002, Robert L. Lee