On several occasions recently, I have heard a teacher read (and teach) the book, The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. I had this book for my children when they were young. (I can even “see” it in the basement playroom of my now-destroyed home.) I remember not liking it then. It seemed sad and inappropriate for young children.
Listening to smart teachers read it and use it to teach children, I have come to see the complexity of the book (though I still am not convinced it is a book for young children) and to appreciate the ways it can be used to teach students to take different perspectives and to argue a side.
But now my perspective is quite different. I am left wondering and trying to come to terms with the tree. Is she weak or is she strong? And I am left knowing that life experiences drastically change the way we read a text.
My life experiences pushed me last year to argue that the tree is strong. I had to believe that what she gave was a sign of her strength, her love, her complete devotion to the boy. And it was all worth it. They were both happy in the end, weren’t they? So I listened and uncomfortably fought against the idea that the tree was weak…even in the face of the text that started to show me otherwise.
I remember my mother trying to explain to me how much she loved me. She did this several times in my life, probably in response to some dumb decision that I had made which made her concerned for my well-being. She told me that she would happily cut off her right arm to protect her children. Happily.
My mother was a strong woman. She was not easily swayed to my side during an argument. She stated her opinions on many issues and stood behind them. People sometimes found her opinionated beyond what was comfortable. And my children respected her, even while being a little afraid of her. She was no shrinking violet. But she would have cut her right arm off for me? For my sister?
My parenting style was very different from my mother’s. Yes, I am opinionated. But I am easier, softer, more accepting than my mother was. I didn’t judge my children as I felt my mother had judged me. I accepted them and loved them for their own individual strengths and let the challenge areas alone to work themselves out.
And I gave – still give – just as the tree did. Ignoring my own needs at times. Ignoring my own wants. But not really. Because what I have always wanted is to give my children what they need and want. That makes me happy. Just as it made the tree happy to give to the boy. Even when I have sometimes been left sad and alone. Mostly, I have not been left. Because the thing about giving and loving is that it comes back.
So last week, I read the lesson plan of a teacher who was going to use The Giving Tree in her lesson. I got choked up just reading the plan. I knew it was going to be filled with emotion for me. But in our pre-conference meeting, I didn’t mention that. I listened (as much as possible with my grandson on my lap) and thought about the lesson. Yes, my grandson was with me at school. My daughter needed me to help out, and I made it work. And the teacher needed me to respond to her plans for the lesson. I gave to both as I could…as I hoped would be enough.
The morning of the lesson I drove my son to an appointment and back home again, made him a sandwich, and tumbled myself into the car a little late. I knew I had to be there first thing for my observation. I arrived just in time.
The teacher began to read the book. I tapped away on my computer to script the lesson. But almost immediately, I needed to wipe the tears while I typed. I had to think hard –as she was asking the students to do – about whether the tree was weak or strong. I gulped as I realized my answer was not the one I wanted to give.
The tree is weak.
I couldn’t stop thinking about my giving to him. Was it a sign of weakness? Had I hurt him, made him selfish and greedy, like the boy in the book? Was it my fault?
I had been happy to give – for a while. And I would have (and did) give it all, cut off my right arm, to save him. My mother taught me that. Even with her tough exterior, my mother would have given it all. Sometimes she did cut off a limb for me. She may have even fashioned a boat for me. And what I have given to my girls I have gotten back in so many ways. I guess I got back from him, too.
I know he loved me. And unlike the boy in the book, he never left me.
But listening to the book made me worry.
And it made me think. About being weak or strong. About giving and loving. Was I selfish to give as I had? Foolish?
I am trying to come to a place of acceptance. I think this: giving and loving are signs of strength. We cannot control the actions of the receiver. The boy was not kind to the tree. He left her after he got what he wanted.
At times, my boy was not kind to me. But he showed me that he loved me, even though he couldn’t do for me as I had for him.
That doesn’t make me weak.
I think the tree is strong. I love her for loving the boy as she did. Even if he couldn’t give back. We don’t give to get back. Sometimes it is just a happy response. It is not what makes us do it.
I’m glad I gave (and still give). I wish I could have given enough to save him. Maybe I shouldn’t have listened to those who said that I was weak. Maybe I shouldn’t have tried “tough love.”
I’ll never know. I did my best.
The boy does what the boy does.
The tree is strong.