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Why the “Understory” of Growing Up is Essential and Why We Need to Listen

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Found during a rain storm at the end of October…

A scientist friend recently remarked on the foliage as having an understory and an overstory.  These terms had been unknown to me at the time, despite being a next door neighbor to National Forest for the last 20 years.  Yet, I have not been able to stop thinking how an understory perfectly defines the forest, floral, and fauna growing beneath the trees, while the overstory represents the canopy of color tourists risk lives to photograph while visiting our White Mountains.  At this time of year, our hardwood overstory is completely bald having turned red, orange, gold, and brown and then stripped from branches, sometimes violently in a windy rain storm, sometimes just gracefully floating to the ground having accepted the fate of fall.  However, the understory stays vibrant longer, protected by the branches above.  Both perspectives are important in the roles they play in the forest.

Here is some recent understory to our overstory:

  1. Last weekend, I gave each kid a list of chores he and she were responsible for inside and outside our house.  It wasn’t like I was asking them to paint the garage or dig holes in a rainstorm; the day was beautiful so first on the list was raking.  Friends had given our son an electric leaf blower last fall while selling their house so he decided he would try to use it.  There is a learning curve to blowing leaves, but as my daughter and I raked, we just ignored him as he seemingly blew leaves all over the understory of our front yard.   But three hours later, we felt pride in clearing the yard of leaves, until the next day, following the wind and rain, when it hardly looked any different.
  2. Later that weekend, when chores turned to individual bedrooms, my 4th grade son was frustrated by some task when he told me, “Mom, you need to be more specific and clarify your directions better like Ms. Avard and Mr. Bradshaw.”  Hmm.  Go figure.  I thanked him for his vocabulary sent his teachers an email thanking them for his increasing communication skills.
  3. Our daughter doesn’t love being so far away from us in our new house.  In our tiny condo, she could say, “Mom” in a whisper, and we would still hear her.  She has taken to sneaking into her brother’s bed and snuggling him and the dog after he falls asleep.  She knows that her brother falls asleep about one minute following his head on the pillow and bides her time pretending in her room.  Then I hear her feet head north to his room, and I smile.  Her resourcefulness has always been impressive.
  4. I showed my students Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s famous speech from the 1990s about life being made up “not of years, but of individual moments.” I wanted them in 100 words to describe a snapshot of a moment from the last year that perhaps they would want to remember 30 years from now, thousands of moments later.  Wiesel came to Connecticut College my freshmen year to speak, and I knew his story, well at least the overstory, through the books he had written about being a teenager in concentration camps.  All these moments later, I remember the plush, theater chairs and new college friends whose understories were just beginning to be revealed to me.  I remember thinking about how funny he was in his storytelling and the awe of recognizing that someone could have survived the Holocaust, lose their entire family and childhood, and grow into an adult who would fall in love and see the humor and hope that remained.
  5. My students looked at me, struck with the paralysis of not having just the right moment to write about.  “Think about a moment,” I kept saying, “one worth remembering for any significance it may have taught you.”  Many stared blankly; some started writing, but no one wanted to share.  And then just this week, they shared the docs with me, and I smiled, even teared up, reading through each individual moment., a glimpse into their understory.

When we are in the middle of our understory, it’s hard to stand above the land to look down and wonder what it means.  Some hit “send” this week for college applications, nervous and anxious about the decisions ahead.  But the overstory is everything– the overstory captures the color and memory of the life growing beneath.

Thank you to my students for wondering aloud why I wasn’t writing more for my personal blog.  With their permission, I share the following from my eight students in AP Language and Composition: 

“It was a cloudy, cold morning, as I made my way through the clouds to the ‘top of the rockpile,’ the Mount Washington Summit. I was standing 6288’ in the sky, physically exhausted but at the same time alive and proud. Never did I think that I could endure the grueling hike up Tuckerman’s Ravine or the scaling of rocks only to find another rock in front of me. But there I was, a smile on my face, looking into a cloud of nothing. But for a minute, the clouds cleared to present the valley below. I saw how far I had come from the morning before, how small everything looked from up there. Seeing that, and looking around at my fellow hikers was a moment I will never forget, a moment where I realized that I was able to do much more than I ever believed.”

Delaney Pickering, grade 12

“It was mid June, 2017, and my family was saying goodbye to our exchange student named Andrine. But she didn’t feel like an exchange student but more like our sister. This was the day that we were dreading. Saying goodbye made everything seem too real and these emotions I felt were so strong.  This day made me realize that, though the day was tough, growing up can be hard, things are real and life is changing.”

Charles Loukes, grade 11

“A couple years ago I remember taking a walk with my dad. We talked about a lot, mostly things that happened in the past and the things that were happening then. It was one of the first times it had actually hit me that my dad has done everything for me. I don’t know why it took so many years to click in my brain; maybe I was just too busy thinking about myself, but ever since I had that realization I have tried my hardest to be more selfless and think of others. I will never take my dad for granted because I fully realize the amount of hardships my dad went through and the amount of sacrifices he made for my sister and me. He has given us the best life he was able to give us, and now I try to return the favor.”

Lauren Peck, grade 12

“I’ve wanted to be a teacher my whole life but have always contemplated on which subject: music or science. The moment in which I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life felt as if I had just found out a lifelong secret; I opened my mouth ever so slightly, realizing my decision, with a slight tilt to the right. In that moment I knew my love for music was strong, but my passion for wanting to learn more in the science world overpowers it. I follow with a smirk on my right side, as if I am ready to begin then and there.” 

Jade Fitzgerald, grade 12

“There was a time when I didn’t know who I was or who I was going to become. Then one day it hit me, when I was a junior in high school. I lost my best friend, who I called my sister, to her boyfriend because he didn’t like me. I lost another best friend because she didn’t know how to believe me or the rumors another friend was telling her. I learned that I’m not what other people tell me I am and I shouldn’t base my whole life on other people. There comes a time when you have to choose to be yourself and not what other people believe you to be. I had the choice then, and I am happy with the results. My favorite quote: ‘The version of me you created in your mind is not my responsibility.’” 

Abbi Rich, grade 12

“A moment I will be sure to remember was when I first got to start in a varsity soccer game. I started playing last year and played in less that half the games we had. Since we only lost two seniors last year, I wasn’t optimistic my playing time would increase much. I worked hard on my game over the summer, hopeful that my efforts could be seen during the preseason. As the season progressed, I was ecstatic I got to play in all the games we had, even if it was only for a few minutes. After scoring my first goal ever, I was asked to start.”  

Jillian Clark, grade 11

In the summer of 2018, my family and I went on a cross country road trip, where we visited many amazing places, including Yellowstone, the California Coast, and the Grand Canyon. This trip had a great impact on me, leading me to begin thinking about all the other places in the world I want to visit someday. On one stop, in Badlands National Park, we met three women who introduced us to a unique way of planning trips. They told us that they took turns surprising each other on a vacation that they went on together. They gave each other money to plan it, and then waited to find out until they set of to leave. My parents suggested that my sisters and I should try to do this, and that was the moment that I realized that some day not only I, but my two younger sisters, would get older and be free to explore the world on our own.” 

Alyvia Drapeau, grade 11

“During the past summer of 2019, I participated in the Boston Leadership Institute and enrolled in biomedical engineering for three weeks. This was at a school called Dana Hall, where I would learn about biomedical engineering every day for close to seven hours. It changed my outlook on high school, introducing me to many new topics and a much wider variety of people. There were students from England, Thailand, Korea, and many other places from around the world. I was able to learn about these different people and their education experiences in different parts of the globe. As I talked to more people, I feel like I broke out of a smaller, more confined shell that is northern New Hampshire, where it feels everyone has a similar story.”

AJ Vecchione, grade 11

2 thoughts on “Why the “Understory” of Growing Up is Essential and Why We Need to Listen

  1. Love this! ❤

    On Sat, Nov 2, 2019, 7:21 AM Heather Ehrman Krill wrote:

    > hkrill posted: ” A scientist friend recently remarked on the foliage as > having an understory and an overstory. These terms had been unknown to me > at the time, despite being a next door neighbor to National Forest for the > last 20 years. Yet, I have not been able to sto” >

    Liked by 1 person

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