How One Bronx High School Teacher Helped Students Grow 40,000 Pounds of Vegetables And A 100% Graduation Rate

In The Power of a Plant, globally acclaimed teacher and self-proclaimed CEO (Chief Eternal Optimist) of Bronx County, Stephen Ritz, shows you how, in one of the nation’s poorest communities, his students thrive in school and in life by growing, cooking, eating, and sharing the bounty of their green classroom.

Five years ago, I gave a talk that I didn’t think would get any attention. “I am not a farmer,” I began. “I’m a people farmer. My favorite crop is organically grown citizens.”

To my amazement, those words launched an outpouring of interest in the green classrooms and outdoor gardens that I have cultivated across the South Bronx. In the nation’s poorest Congressional district, in the least healthy county in all of New York State, in neighborhoods that are densely packed with public housing, my students and I have transformed communities, schools, and lives into a luscious cornucopia that nourishes bodies, minds, and souls. Our results have attracted attention from the White House to the Vatican.

From all over the world, people continue to ask about our award-winning program, which we proudly call the Green Bronx Machine. How does the simple act of teaching kids to plant seeds lead to better health, stronger academic performance, and more hopeful communities? How have we managed to grow so much goodness and opportunity in a community challenged by high crime, chronic disease, and generational poverty? And just how fast can we bring this remarkable program to other communities that are desperately seeking solutions? I’m eager to share the answers and inspire others to fire up their own green machines.

This is my odyssey.

Summer 1984

On the first day of class, the assistant principal stopped me just outside my classroom door. “Here’s your room key, your key to the faculty bathroom, and your chalk,” he said.

“Wait, how long is this supposed to last?” I asked him, peering into the flimsy box that held 20 pieces of chalk to use on my cracked blackboard.

“Best wishes and good luck!” he called out over his shoulder as he disappeared down the hall.

While I was taking roll that first day, I paused to make eye contact with each student and did my best to memorize every name. At 21, I was the same age as my oldest students who had been held back so many times, they were about to age out of public education while I was just aging in. Many of the boys had more facial hair than I did. The girls had way more attitude. Some kids were brand-new immigrants to America, wide-eyed about the promise of public school. Others knew the system all too well; it had failed them for years.

When I called out Vanessa’s name, I heard chuckles from the back of the room. “Is she here?” I asked, wondering if she was one of the kids who appeared to be napping on their desks. “Do we need to wake her up?”

“Don’t worry. We all know when Vanessa’s here,” promised a boy with a knowing look.

The first day Vanessa bothered to showed up for class, I heard her coming before she arrived. Just outside my doorway, she shouted an angry promise down the hall and over her shoulder, “What the fuck, yo? I’ll beat your ass.”

I didn’t see who she was yelling at, but I couldn’t miss Vanessa. This big, belligerent voice came from a short, stocky body. Shaped like a whiskey barrel with arms, she overflowed with fury and aggression. And why? Because it was Tuesday. Because the sun was up. Vanessa didn’t need a reason to be mad at the world. She caught me watching her and glared right back. She lifted one eyebrow slightly as if to ask, “You gonna fuck with me, too?”

Right away, she asked for a hall pass so she could go hang with her friends. Everybody, and especially the boys, watched to see what would happen next. We all knew the principal’s ironclad rule: No hall passes during the first five minutes or last five minutes of class. Keeping kids in their seats was his weak solution to curtail fighting in the hallways and bathrooms. He was so insistent on this rule, he made me sign an agreement to abide by it. In fact, that was the only bit of teacher training I was given in my first year on the job.

“Take a seat,” I suggested.

Vanessa gave me the hard stare that other teachers and even some of her classmates had come to fear. Anything might set her off. That morning, I held the match.

“Look,” I started, “maybe that works with other teachers. But not with me. This is a two-way street. You give what you get and get what you give. You need to be in class.”

“You don’t know what I need,” she shot back. “You can’t understand me.”

“I understand that if you want to learn anything, you have to put in the effort, and that starts with showing up.”

“What do you know about Hispanics? About the Bronx? What do you know about what we go through? You don’t know nothin’. You’re here to get a paycheck. And you’re just white. Gringo, go home!”

“You know what,” I said, “you don’t know me.” Keeping my voice calmer than I felt, I asked her to take a seat. This time she complied, and I thanked her.

Vanessa looked shocked when I found her outside at lunchtime and handed her half my sandwich. I didn’t brown bag or eat the slop in the school cafeteria. Instead, I had acquired a taste for the ghetto gold standard of sandwiches made at a local deli. “Let’s get to know each other,” I suggested. “This is going to be a long-term relationship, not a drive by.”

“Are you serious, yo?” she said. “You’re giving me half?” That made a deeper impression on her than the fact that I was using my own break time to sit down with her. In a neighborhood where kids are lucky to get crumbs, half a Boar’s Head ham and cheese with mayo is a windfall.

Over many lunches in the weeks that followed, I learned more about her story. Her older brother, deep into drugs, consumed her mother’s attention. Vanessa was determined to prove that she could be just as bad if that’s what it took to get noticed. Behind that tough exterior, she was hiding superior coping skills, avoidance skills, and survival skills.

Her sharp intellect came out in flashes, like when she would deliver a highly sophisticated, exuberantly profane analysis of why public housing sucked. She didn’t hesitate to bully other students, smoke weed at recess, or frighten teachers with her temper. When she arrived at school with sweet breath, acting goofy, I knew she had stopped in the bathroom to guzzle a bottle of Calvin Cooler. This sugary concoction was marketed so heavily in the neighborhood that my students called it called it Ghetto Kool-Aid. Vanessa had no intention of doing homework or following any rules unless they suited her. Most days, though, we managed to get along. On great days, she ran the class for me.

As a rookie teacher, I didn’t know the meaning of pedagogy. My goal was to stay one lesson ahead of the kids. It wasn’t hard with the science textbooks I found in the basement. They were written in the 1950s. We were reading aloud in class one day when a student raised his hand and said, “It says here, ‘One day, man will go to the moon.’”

Another kid chimed in, “Yo, you think that’s possible?” His question made me doubt my own memory for a moment. Was I imagining that moon landing or did it really happen?

When I told them about Neil Armstrong and his giant leap for mankind, they just shrugged. Michael Jackson was moonwalking his way across America — that was all the lunar knowledge my kids had. For them, a space suit was a black leather jacket with three zippers. Their information came live and direct via MTV.

To compensate for my lack of training, I trusted my instincts. Growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s and 1970s had taught me to read the unwritten rules. In densely packed urban spaces, people are constantly sizing each other up. You figure out at a glance who you can trust, who’s willing to make eye contact, and who’s hiding an attitude behind sunglasses. A handshake and a promise are as binding as a legal contract. Playing ball taught me more about the value of straight talk. You don’t say you can dunk; you just do it. Actions count more than talk. To win a bet about my athletic abilities, I had once jumped over a Yugo parked at a South Bronx curb. I collected my payoff and jumped back over it again. A decade earlier, my parents had fled the excitement of the Bronx for the suburban safety of Rockland County, New York. But I still lived by the same rules I’d learned as a boy. As seemingly lawless as the Bronx had become, those rules still mattered. My classroom wasn’t apart from the world my kids inhabited; it was a part of the same living ecosystem.

Before my students realized I was an athlete, I made a bet with them. We all marched into the gym. I got out a ladder and lined the rim of the basketball hoop with books, balanced just so.

“If I can jump up there and grab those books, you have to read them,” I said. “Agreed?”

The kids laughed. I might have been crouching down a little to make it look less feasible than it was.

“Go for it, Ritz,” one of the boys said, feigning encouragement. But the look on their faces telegraphed what every kid was thinking: No way.

“Okay. I’m gonna give it my best shot. Wish me luck.”

I moved the ladder out of the way and rubbed my hands together while I eyed the net.

Two quick steps and jump! I snatched a book off the rim and delivered it straight into a student’s hands.

“That one’s yours!” I said.

He looked at me with wide eyes, knowing that we now had a deal as solid as a signed contract.

I jogged over to my spot again.

Step, step, jump!

A second book off the rim and into a student’s hand. I did this until every student had a book and a homework assignment to read it. And wouldn’t you know? Every one of them read those books. I think they wanted to see what trick I’d come up with next.

Keeping my students coming to class was connected to a bigger goal of keeping them out of trouble. I knew that kids who were hungry for quick money could find opportunities galore in this predatory economy as lookouts or spotters — the drug trade version of paid internships. I’d see kids who were broke one week driving a BMW to high school the next. Then a week later they were cuffed and hauled out by the cops, only to be back in school in another month ready to repeat the same cycle.

The real trick was to make school relevant to their lives. Was I a genius? Not at all. Was I highly credentialed? Even less so. But did I care enough about these kids to find ways to engage them? Absolutely. Even as a rookie teacher, I understood that caring relationships are the strongest foundation for learning. Just as I promised Vanessa, you give what you get and get what you give.

Excerpted from The Power of a Plant by Stephen Ritz printed from the FREE Buzz Books 2017 with permission of Rodale. For more information and to download all of the excerpts, go to Buzz Books.

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