“And then one day the boy came back and the tree shook with joy… the tree was so happy she could hardly speak.” -Shel Silverstein from The Giving Tree
For my fourth birthday, I got a car track, a green cake, and a green book, The Giving Tree. Because it was my birth night, my mom came back to tell me a bedtime story of when I was born: “It was early Sunday morning. I told your father, ‘Greg, I think it’s time to go to the hospital.’ He was so nervous, he cut himself shaving four times before we left for the hospital.”
“Mom,” I said, “you told me this story before. can you read me my new book instead?”
She looked a little hurt and grabbed the book. She began, “Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy.” Mom read a page and then turned the book to show me the pictures. I liked the drawing of the boy playing in the tree and eating all her apples. And the boy and the tree playing hide and seek. As she continued, she started to read quieter. The boy took the tree’s branches and the tree was sad, but then the boy came back and the tree shook with joy. Mom began to sniffle when the boy took the trunk. By the end of the book, mom was openly crying.
I began teaching at San Fernando High School in ’04. I taught Steinbeck, Bradbury, and Shakespeare for a semester and then moved to the English as a Second Language department. I taught a scripted program for two hour blocks to new kids from foreign lands. We began with rote memorization. “Where is the bathroom? My name is Janeth. What is your name?”
I didn’t have to prepare lesson plans. I had a teacher’s edition with prepared lesson plans. I got to school fifteen minutes early to learn what I was teaching that day. The kids had a textbook, workbooks, and small books with recorded readings to listen to.
I augmented the lessons when I could. The kids learned about integrity, citizenship, and Pat Tillman.
A year into teaching them, their vocabularies had exploded. Instead of memorizing sentences like, “My name is Eduardo, what is your name?;” they memorized sentences like, “Mr. Gutzman is my favorite teacher because he is smart, funny, and has integrity; plus, he is so handsome.”
The Friday morning before Christmas break started, fifteen minutes before school, I looked up the day’s lesson plan. I was to read a green book to the students. The Giving Tree. I grabbed it from my box of books and thumbed through it. I began by smiling at the drawings of the boy climbing the tree, remembering when my mom read it to me. Then the boy got a girlfriend, and he was pretty selfish. And then he left the tree alone, and she was sad. Even though she shook with joy when the boy came back, he abused her. He took her apples and then cut down her branches and trunk. By the time I finished the book, I was crying and I understood my mom a little bit better.
The bell rang and the kids shuffled in. We went through conjunction drills and over our spelling words. The kids took a test. After the test, there was fifteen minutes until the lunch bell rang. I wouldn’t see them for two weeks and they were itching to go. I explained, holding up a copy of the giving tree, “I’m supposed to read this book to you guys now, but it’s very sad and I would probably cry, so we can do something else.”
They whined and begged, “Pleeeassse Mr. Gutzman. We will be so good and listen. The Giving Tree looks like a nice book.” I sat on my stool in the front of the room. I read slowly, translating the unknown words into Spanish. I read a page and then held the book up so they could see the pictures.
After the boy got a girlfriend, I felt my voice choking. I quit looking at the students when I showed them the pictures. When the boy cut down the branches, the lunch bell rang. None of the once eager students moved. I continued.
Tears streamed as I finished the book and showed them the last picture, of the old man sitting on the stump. I looked up.
And the kids were crying.
I kept Janeth, Karina, and Eduardo for four semesters; from “Where is the bathroom?” to “I think I’ll try to go to UCLA because they have a good soccer team.” After that last semester, we were all leaving. Them to a ‘regular’ English class and me for law school.
On the last day they again begged me to read The Giving Tree. This time, they began to cry before I started the book. I got about half way through the book when the bell for nutrition rang. Nobody left. I finished the book. The students still didn’t leave. I stood at the door and they formed a line. They hugged me and kissed me on the cheek and gave me Mr. Gutzman’s book: a copy of The Giving Tree where each student had written a letter to me: “Usted es mi mejor maestro lo quiero mucho lo boy a extranar.” “Mr. Gutzman I felt sad because you want to go to Minnesota. I love you.” and “Mr. Gutzman I hope you feel good all the time. You alway be a good teacher For that I love so much. Don’t forget me.” and “Goodbye forever” (this last one was accompanied by a drawing of a crying girl).
Today, I hear the first croaks and sighs from his room, his crib. I walk back and stand over Zach. His eyes open as slits and he blinks three, four times. He opens his eyes wider and looks up at me, then at his mobile, then back at me. He shakes with joy, so happy that he can hardly speak. Then he squeals. He hasn’t seen me for 45 minutes. And his nap is over.