Hand high in the air, fingers splayed, Nell mouths, "Pick me, pick me!"
"Yes, Nell." She sits taller, chin up, shoulders back, eyes sparkling.
"So all the good stuff in the leaves and branches can turn into dirt." She fairly spits the last word, clearly enjoying the dramatic effect on the younger children. She's growing so fast. Six going on seven.
The other six and seven year olds nod in agreement. Four year old Jimmy, like his younger age-mates, doesn't seem so sure. He cocks his head to one side, and taps a stick, hard, three times, on the deck.
"Miss Rose," Jimmy says, "How can a stick turn into dirt?"
"Good question, Jimmy, and we're going to find out today! Miss Ruby has three carts waiting for us. We'll fill them and push them to the compost bins, where you can see for yourselves."
After yesterday's storm, the play yard outside the nursery is littered with leaves, twigs and other debris. It's a perfect day to teach composting to the little ones. Overhead, a robin trills, his song sweet, lilting. The children turn their heads at his call, spy Miss Ruby, plain old Mom to me, and jump up, rushing to greet her.
"Hugs all round," she laughs, stooping to greet each child. Then, "Nell, Cathy and Nigel, would each of you take a cart and help the younger children don their gloves, please?" Ruby hands a pair of pint-sized garden gloves to each child. "Jimmy, Sarah and Lionel, each of you pick an older child to work with today."
Cousins Nell and Jimmy pair off right away. Jimmy, who tends to run hot, is tangled in his jacket, one arm in and one arm out. "Miss Rose," he turns to me. "My zipper is stuck. Please?"
Ruby smiles and winks as I bend to help Jimmy, then shifts her eyes to Cathy and Nigel. At her call, both raced for the yellow cart, their younger charges close behind. Cathy, slightly taller, beat Nigel by a hair to grab the handle with both hands.
"I saw it first," Nigel says.
"But yellow is my favorite color!" Cathy spreads her feet wide, blocking the cart.
"Let's think about this a minute." Ruby takes each child's hand. Cathy keeps one hand on the cart. Smart girl. "Both of you want the yellow cart. How can we decide who gets it today and who has to wait till next time?"
"It's my favorite color, Ruby! I want yellow all the time!" Cathy stamps her foot and crosses her arms, chin jutting toward Nigel.
"I saw it first!" Nigel strikes a similar pose, fists balled, one foot thrust toward Cathy.
"Perhaps the two of you should take the cart and work together," Ruby says. "I will help Sarah and Lionel with the green cart."
"But I want to show Sarah how to make compost," Cathy stamps her foot again. "This is my first time being the big kid."
"Being a big kid is a lot of responsibility," Ruby says, stooping to eye level with the children, one knee on the damp grass. At eighty-six, my mom is nearly as agile as I.
Cathy nods. "I'm a big kid, and I know stuff the little kids don't know yet."
"You want to share what you know," Ruby says. "Maybe show the little kids easier ways to do things?"
Cathy nods. "Yes, like how to break the twigs into smaller bits before you put them in the compost bin. And, and ..."
"What about things you've learned about getting along? About sharing, maybe. Do you think sharing is important for the little kids to learn?"
"Oh yes, Miss Ruby." Cathy's eyes are big. She tilts her head slightly, gazing into the tree branches above, as if remembering her own lessons about give and take. "Sharing is real important because when we share our toys, it doesn't mean we are giving them away forever. We're just borrowing them for a while. I mean ..."
"You mean you lend a toy that belongs to you for a short while?"
"Later, you get the toy back and can play with it again."
"Yes." Cathy inches closer to the cart, slowly wraps the fingers of one hand around the handle once more. She knows what's coming.
"Would you like to show Nigel and Sarah how you can share the yellow cart today, even though yellow is your favorite color?"
Cathy casts a lingering look at the cart, then smiles and lets go.. "I'm a big kid! Little kids don't know about sharing yet, but I do!"
At that moment, three-year old Lionel touches Nigel's arm, leans up to his ear and stage-whispers, "I like the green cart. Can we take the green cart?"
"Sure, kid," Nigel says, standing tall, puffing out his chest. "Why not?"
Cathy's shoulders rise almost to her ears, her mouth opens wide, and with a squeal she grabs the yellow cart again, Sarah close behind.
"Yay! Yellow cart! Yay!" Little Sarah claps her hands.
"Okay! Let's get started!" Ruby picks up a few wind-dropped twigs and places them in Cathy's cart. "Big kids push the carts and help collect. Little ones gather the twigs and leaves."
There. Jimmy's zipper is loose and the jacket off. "Thank you Miss Rose." Jimmy gives me a big hug and turns to find his cousin. She's holding a twig of Oregon Grape. A small cluster of dessicated berries, last summer's fruit, missed by pickers and birds alike, dangles tenaciously. "Miss Rose," she says, "How do the berries get on the bushes?"
"Another good question, and one that is fun to answer, Nell." We both glance up this time as the Robin tweets his merry song, high in the branches above our heads. The air is fresh with the scent of damp soil, leaves and something else--whole wheat buns baking nearby. "I tell you what, Nell. I know where some jelly made from berries just like these is waiting to be smeared on some hot buns. After we finish the yard, we'll ask the bakery for some of those buns, and I'll tell you all about the berries and how they grow on the twig."
"I wanna come!" Jimmy grabs my hand.
"We'll all go, Jimmy. You, Nell, the other children and Miss Ruby. We'll fetch the buns and eat them with mint tea. How does that sound?"
"Yum!" Jimmy and Nell rub their tummies and run to fill their cart. A drop of water hits my face, square on the eye and cheekbone. I turn upward. Ah! Mother robin spreads her wings, flaps in place, ruffles her feathers, stamping about on the branch overhead. She's the culprit who knocked moisture from a tangled knot of leaves. She has a bit of vine in her beak, about to lay it in her nest. Housekeeping.
Beyond the tree, the sky is overcast, but to the West, a streak of sunlight. We'll have blue skies by noon, and the earth will steam under the sun's warm rays.
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