Saplings That Touch the Sky

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By Ananya Rabeya

We took our four-year-old niece to the Muir Woods a few summers ago. It’s a forest of redwoods and sequoias in California. Seeing my niece wonder at the sizes of the trunks and the heights of the trees, I asked her if she would like to know the forest’s secret; a wisdom that someone had shared with me once. You see, some sequoias and redwoods are thousands of years old. But interestingly, these trees that are about 350 feet tall have roots that grow only about ten feet deep.

So, without deep roots, how do they keep standing for centuries enduring some of nature’s worst disasters?

My niece looked intently at me.

That day, I told her that the roots do not reach deep; they reach outward, seeking the roots of other redwoods, intertwining, making permanent bonds with each other when they meet. This way, all the redwoods in the forest either directly or indirectly support each other. They reach out and care for each other, sharing nutrients to hold each other up. From the Muir Woods, nature gives us this precious lesson that our true strength is in our willingness to care for and support each other.

At The Downtown School, we consider service learning through the lens of social justice-- the principle that all individuals are entitled to fair and impartial treatment as well as equity and equal opportunity. With its many parts, social justice includes:

-The right to the things required for human decency and dignity

-The pursuit of justice and peace

-Care for the weakest.

Among my favorite maxims of John Dewey is this observation: “When we reflect upon an experience instead of just having it, we inevitably distinguish between our own attitude and the objects toward which we sustain the attitude.”

It’s not just service, but the perpetual re-evaluation of our way of thinking as our hypotheses--and our beliefs--shift; our students’ journal prompts after every service opportunity, and their senior year capstone projects are, hence, crucial to that exercise. Reflecting upon an experience may bring closure to, but it also opens up the possibility of critical inquiry of one’s own assumptions, change, and ultimately growth. This is precisely the hope for our saplings that have understood this simple universal principle that in giving, in fact we receive.