Growing Scholars

by Rachel Crumpley

“The iFamily Leadership Academy mission is to grow scholars: leaders who love learning and pay the price of greatness; leaders who embody a moral foundation of truth, virtue, compassion, courage and voluntary sacrifice; leaders who positively impact their families and the world for good while fulfilling their personal mission.”

As I read and pondered this statement, I was struck by the word “grow.”  Our mission is “to grow scholars.”  Being a word nut, I immediately began to think about the concepts and associations inherent in the word “grow.”  Most often, when I talk about growing something, I am referring to a garden.  So I wanted to find the parallels between growing a garden – or plant – and growing a scholar.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that at the fundamental level the processes are the same.

Whether you are interested in growing pansies or parsnips, snapdragons or snow peas, growing a garden begins with seeds.  In order to thrive, your seeds need 4 elements:  good soil, water, sunshine and protection.   As every gardener learns sooner or later, the perfect soil exists only in textbooks.  If you walk out into your backyard and dig up a shovelful of dirt, what will you find?  What color is the soil?  What is the texture?  Is it loose or packed hard?  Full of rocks?  Full of clay?  Full of sand?  Teeming with life or barren?  Is it acidic? Too acidic?  No two patches of soil are identical in makeup and all require at least some preparation before a garden can be planted.  So, you get out your shovel and turn the soil over, picking out the rocks and weeds.  Down on your hands and knees, you break up the big clumps of dirt and work the soil until it is loose and free of debris.  Now you add compost or fertilizer, sand, iron, sulfur, or whatever it takes to prepare the soil to receive your seeds.

When growing scholars, the soil is best compared with the heart of the individual.  No two individuals are exactly alike and some hearts are more prepared to learn than others.  To a certain extent the condition of one’s heart is a personal matter.  However, there is much that a mentor can do to help prepare the heart of a scholar for learning and growth.  Patience and perseverance, loving counsel, genuine concern and encouragement will go a long way toward softening a hard heart and awakening slumbering minds to the joys of learning.  But it is important to remember that in the end, the scholar must be responsible for preparing his or her own heart – this is not a task that someone else can do for them.

The second requirement for a successful garden is water.  Without water, the seeds you have planted will remain dormant, however well prepared the soil.  It is best when the soil is already moist before the seeds are planted.  Once the seeds are in the ground, the soil must be kept moist in order for them to sprout and grow.  A young, tender plant could easily be damaged if too much water is applied before it is well established.  The water causes the soil to shift and may disrupt the roots which are only just beginning to delve into the soil.  A more mature plant can handle more aggressive watering and is less likely to be damaged by occasionally being over-watered.  However, all plants (except for algae, I suppose) will eventually die if they have too much water for too long.

Equally destructive to the well-being of the plant is lack of water.  We all know what happens to a plant that hasn’t been watered in a while – it wilts, then shrivels, then ends up a dried, pitiful little thing, brittle and broken.  And there is no getting around the fact that watering has to be done on a regular basis.  I can’t give my lettuce a good dosing of water on Sunday and expect it to be happy and thriving on Saturday.  Regular, smaller doses ensure good growth and development.

In this analogy, water is equivalent to content – what the scholar learns.  However willing he may be to learn, if the scholar is not provided with subject matter or resources, the seeds of knowledge will remain dormant and he will struggle to reach his full potential.  As mentors, we have an obligation to provide content for our students.  This does not mean that “I talk and you listen,” or that our job is to pour in facts so that they can regurgitate them later.  What this does mean is that we provide access to books, equipment, instruction, feedback, counsel and (sometimes) a shoulder to cry on.  Perhaps even more important is providing a challenge.  Nothing fosters intellectual growth like a good challenge: some puzzle to solve, a language to learn or a concept to really grasp.  When a scholar is appropriately challenged, they discover new depths of determination within themselves.  They find what they are made of and they are thrilled at the discovery.

As with water, content and challenge must be applied with a sure and steady hand.  When the scholar is young and inexperienced, too much information too quickly can overwhelm the tender roots of interest that are just beginning to sprout.  However, as the scholar grows and matures, not only can he handle more information, he actually needs more.  Occasional floods of information might overwhelm him for the moment, but he can take a deep, steadying breath and pushes on.  Unfortunately, it is possible to drown even the most determined scholar if the deluge is prolonged beyond his determination to continue.   Equally devastating results can occur if no content or challenge is provided.  A well-prepared scholar may begin her studies with enthusiasm and determination, but if she is not sufficiently challenged, or provided with the materials necessary to pursue her studies, her interest will fade away and die.  In the end, our poor scholar loses even the desire to apply because she sees no way for her efforts to bear fruit.  And besides, laziness is so much easier, though admittedly less satisfying.

The next element essential to the growth of a plant is sunlight.  At first, the latent seed lays quietly in the moist soil, away from the direct rays of sunlight; however, as it feels the warmth of the sun it begins to awaken.  In a matter of days the first tiny shoots of green will push their way out of the soil and unfurl to the sky.  Through a process called photosynthesis, those little leaves will take the sunlight showered down upon them and turn it into food that will give the plant energy to continue growing.  Without the warmth and nutrients provided by the sun, the seed will remain dormant.  Or, if it does sprout, it will be a pale, sickly thing that will not thrive.  Like water, there is a fine line between just enough sunlight and too much.  With just enough sunlight, the plant will grow tall and green and beautiful and its leaves and blossoms will radiate the joy of life.  If the plant receives too much sunlight, however, it will wilt and droop and fade very quickly indeed.  It is interesting to consider that there is a correlation between water and sunlight.  During long, hot summer days, plants need more water to avoid drying out than they do during the cooler days of spring and fall.

Our scholar also needs sunshine in the form of love and encouragement from her mentors.  At first, the love and encouragement showered on her gives her the heart to venture out and begin her explorations of the world around her. She is eager to continue her efforts to learn and grow because she delights to bask in the joy of your approval.  Knowing that you have confidence in her, she will more willingly apply herself to her studies.  Love and encouragement are literally food to her soul.  But what happens to a scholar who is showered with love and nothing else?  What message does a mentor send when they are forever complimenting and reinforcing their scholar, but fail to provide him with sufficient challenge?  It doesn’t take long for the scholar to feel that all the encouragement is mere words, empty mockery.  He will notice that for all the confidence you express in his abilities, he is never really given the opportunity to show you just how capable he really is. As with our little garden, too much sunlight without sufficient water will kill a plant just as surely as too much water and not enough sun will.

The fourth, and final, requirement for growing a healthy plant (or garden) is protection.  Plants require protection from frost or heat, insects, rodents, disease, weeds and over-enthusiastic toddlers wielding trowels like samurai swords.  When an early or late frost threatens our precious garden, we haul out tarps, walls-o-water and ratty old quilts and lovingly cover the plants to keep them warm.  We buy ladybugs by the thousands and plant borders of marigolds to help keep the insect population down.  Fences pop up around our vegetables and nets are draped over the fruit trees to keep the rabbits and birds from devouring our crop, and hours of our time are spent eliminating the weeds that might strangle our plants or otherwise compete for their space and nutrients.  A good gardener knows that time, patience and lots and LOTS of work are necessary for his garden to thrive and willingly makes the sacrifice to make it happen.

Every scholar, indeed every human being, no matter how dedicated (or indifferent) in their studies, needs protection from lies, propaganda, misinformation, and low expectations, as well as bullying, abuse, and neglect.  I have seen the devastating effects of abuse and neglect in people that I love.  I have seen with sorrow the untapped potential of individuals who have been taught to believe that they have no worth.  And we are all too familiar with the great sorrow experienced when someone chooses to end life because they feel that life cannot hold joy for them.  Unfortunately, the consequences of constant exposure to lies and propaganda are much harder to detect.  Perhaps this is because the lies (or misinformation) themselves are often difficult to discern.  It is much harder than we think to gather together the “cold hard facts” of a problem, sift and analyze them and draw conclusions without at least some of our own prejudices creeping in.  And what of the tyranny of low expectations?

As mentors we protect our scholars when we develop relationships of love and trust with them.  As a parent, I do tend to teach subjects in a way that reinforces my own faith and values.  However, I believe there is benefit in presenting other viewpoints and teaching my children to try to see different sides of a question.  This helps them not only to be sensitive to the opinions and beliefs of others, but also to discover holes in their own reasoning.  And only by having a close relationship with our scholars will we be better able to detect when they are troubled or struggling emotionally.  This is by no means a foolproof method for avoiding tragedy, but it greatly reduces the odds that the struggling scholar will become a heartbreaking statistic.

A final word about our growing scholars.  Just as there are an infinite variety of green (and not so green) growing things, so it is with people.  Some plants need hours of sunshine every day, some thrive best in the shade.  Succulents need hardly any rain at all and yet can withstand brutal temperatures.  Basil is so tender that it wilts at even the suggestion of frost.  A deep red tea rose is very beautiful and showy, but also thorny.  A strawberry plant isn’t eye-catching, but the fruit is wonderfully sweet.  From the tiniest, microscopic phytoplankton to the tallest, towering Redwood, each plant is unique with its own strengths, weaknesses and requirements.

As mentors we will find that one scholar will work doggedly at a problem with very little help or encouragement, while another will need constant reinforcement.  Some may love nothing better than a constant deluge of fascinating information and puzzles to solve.  Others will prefer simpler tasks that allow them plenty of time with you.  You will have prickly scholars and perky scholars; scholars who stand out in a crowd and others who fade into it.  There will be many differences, but the one thing all scholars share is that they are unique, with talents and abilities that will enable them to fulfill their specific missions in life.  They may not even know what that life mission is yet, but it will be breathtaking in its beauty and scope and it is worth every sacrifice of time, patience and work you can give to help it grow.