A Sunflower Project Helped Her Student Thrive

When he planted and cared for the beautiful flowers, she knew that God was helping her to be a nurturing teacher.

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Posted in , Apr 27, 2022

Illustration by Kim Ekdahl

“Hey! Ms. Woodall!”

It was Saturday. My daughter and I were touring a model home in a new development where she and her husband had just purchased a lot. She was showing me something in the backyard—the kind of landscaping she was envisioning, I think—when I heard that familiar twang call out my name.

I turned around. Standing in the yard was a little boy, stocky, brown-haired and dusted with a fine layer of dirt. “William!” I cried in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m helping my daddy lay sod,” he answered proudly, sticking his chest out. William’s father owned a lawn sodding company. Now that I looked around, I could see him in the yard next door, working hard.

“I’m sure he appreciates that,” I said. “This is William,” I told my daughter. “One of my students. He’s a joy to have in class.” The seven-year-old beamed, the blazing Florida sun bouncing off his round cheeks.

It was true. Little William was a delight. He adored plants and animals and playing outside during recess. And even though he struggled with his reading, he never once complained. There was a brightness he brought with him wherever he went.

I’d never forget the day in class when another student was having trouble understanding the lesson. “Don’t worry,” William had told her, eyes wide and sincere. “Sometimes, second grade is really hard.” He was a gentle soul, wise beyond his years.

Still, I couldn’t help but worry. Despite his steadfast determination, William’s grades were poor. Some days, I wondered if he’d be able to pass.

“See you Monday, Ms. Woodall!” he said, running to his father’s side.

My daughter and I waved, but William stayed on my mind for the rest of the weekend.

Back at school, William’s grades showed no sign of improvement. Until the last few weeks of the year. When we studied the life cycle of plants, William excelled. I’d never seen him so invested in the classroom.

As a class project, each child planted a sunflower seed in one of those containers small plant beds came in. I did this every year, with varying results. Planting the seeds was exciting for many of the students, the growing part much less so. It took too long to see results from daily watering, and most kids had little patience for it. They lost interest and forgot to care for their sunflowers-to-be.

But not William.

Every afternoon, William made sure all the containers were watered and nurtured. By the last week of school, the shoots were about four inches tall. I was amazed. In years past, few seeds successfully sprouted. And those that did had never gotten so tall. But these were different. These were William’s sunflowers.

The head custodian maintained the flower beds on the school grounds. Before summer, I asked if he’d mind planting our seedlings. We picked out the perfect spot behind the library. It could clearly be seen from the street. We transferred all 20 seedlings and hoped for the best.

William managed to squeak into third grade. And though I was happy for him, the worry remained. Would third grade be too tough for him? Would his teacher next year be understanding? Would future teachers see just how special he was?

About a month into the summer vacation, I happened to drive by the school. I wonder how the sunflowers are doing, I thought. I hoped a few of them had made it…

But when I saw them, I had to stop the car. There, behind the library, stood William’s sunflowers. I counted all 20 of them. They must have been at least 12 feet tall, their stalks strong, their faces to the sun.

This is what it means to be a teacher, I thought. To trust what God has planted in our children and do our best to nurture it. At that moment, I knew I didn’t have to worry about William. I’d seen that special seed planted inside him. Others would too. And, one day, he’d bloom and shine—just like his sunflowers.

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