The garden school

It was the first day of school for Sakiko and six of the neighbor’s children. Katie stood behind a desk made of two file cabinets and an old solid core wood door covered in a table cloth. The blackboard behind her was as black as a winter’s night except for her name written in yellow chalk.

Her students sat in mismatched office chairs around two dining room tables salvaged from nearby abandoned homes. While the boys experimented with the adjustable features of their chairs, the girls sat with rapt attention. Sakiko, the young Japanese girl who had traveled with her former tutor from Japan was delighted to once again be in the familiar role as her student.

“Welcome, everyone to the Garden School. My name is Ms. Duffel and I am very happy to see all of you” said Katie, suppressing a rush of emotion swelling within her.

“I understand that most of you know each other, but, starting from my left,” she continued with an outstretched hand, “would each of you please stand up and tell everyone your name and the title of your favorite book?”

In turn, the 4 girls and 3 boys ages six to fourteen stood politely and introduced themselves.

The basement of Ryan’s 1950’s brick rancher, next door to where Katie lived with Sakiko and her grandparents, had been transformed in recent weeks. To create Katie’s classroom, the partition wall that ran down the middle was removed along with the old drop ceiling and the recessed lights. The exposed floor joists were painted various shades of white from several half empty cans. The fluorescent tube fixtures were re-hung from chains and twists of galvanized wire. The single paned windows were cleaned and a hole in the screen door leading out to the garden was patched.

Along the back wall, sturdy pine bookcases were stuffed with an assortment of collected books and several dozen National Geographic magazines. Plastic bins held art supplies and a whole ream of copier paper. Katie’s grandfather, Henry, donated two solar powered calculators from his old cabinet making business.

However, everyone’s eyes kept drifting toward the shiny metallic laptop in the center of Katie’s desk. Ryan had used it at his IT job at the local university to update department web pages and retrieve lost research data. It had worked ‘miracles’ for the less tech savvy professors back then. Today, the icon made secret promises to each of the children in Katie’s class.

Several hands went up once the introductions were complete.

“Yes, Becca?” responded Katie to the small girl sitting next to Sakiko. Becca’s mother was the first to accept Katie’s offer to teach. The widower had lost her husband and teenage son when their home was robbed during the banking holiday.

“Is that a computer?” asked Becca in a whisper. It was then that Katie realized young children born during the economic collapse might not know what a computer was or how it had once been a staple in classrooms around the country. “Yes, it is. Have you ever used one before?”

“No” she replied shaking her head. “My mom has one but it doesn’t work anymore. She said it got sick with a virus and she doesn’t know how to make it better. Is yours sick?”

“No, this one works fine. It’s not connected to Internet II, but we can still use it in our lessons” replied Katie.

“Ms. Duffel?” asked the oldest boy without waiting to be called on, “do we get recess?”

“Yes, Jeremy. We’ll take a break for lunch each day and go outside if the weather’s nice. We’re also going to spend lots of time in the Garden. We’re going to study the plants we grow and how they use nutrients in the soil, water, the sun and carbon dioxide to produce the food we eat. Does anyone know what the scientific study of plants and animals is called?”

The oldest, a tall thin girl with blonde hair responded confidently, “Biology.”

“That’s right, Schuyler, biology. To help us learn about biology, each of you is going to have a little space in the Garden where you can grow whatever you like. We’re going to experiment with hugelkulture, vermiculture, and lots of other messy things!”

Becca raised her hand again timidly.” What’s ‘vermiculture’ Ms. Duffel?”

Hoping to get a smile, Katie scrunched up her nose and said, “Worms, Becca. Lots and lots of wiggly, red worms!” Becca’s expression indicated that she was not impressed.

“Don’t worry; we’re going to have lots of fun in the Garden. I’m also going to teach you Math and Reading. Once in while, we’ll even make some art together. Now, do any of you have a musical instrument at home?”

Several of the student’s hands went up. “Wow! In that case, I’ll also give you some basic music lessons.” Sakiko was delighted. The seven year old played the violin very well. Unfortunately, hers had been lost during their month long journey from Japan.

There were more questions about homework and taking tests. There was still so much to figure out.

“One week at a time,” Katie told herself as she wrote out the first week’s schedule on the black board.


Retrieving his backpack from a row of hooks, Ryan headed toward the office to return the dry goods inventory list he had been double checking this afternoon. It was his third week of working at the distribution warehouse next to the train depot.

This morning, his boss had asked him to help with the monthly inventory reports. Mr. Stafford was a neatly dressed, older fellow with a full head of white hair and rimmed glasses. Knocking on the open office door, Ryan stepped in to return the report.

“The Dry Goods inventory is done, sir. I found an open carton of wool blankets near the back so I pulled them out and counted; there were two missing.”

“Why am I surprised” said Stafford without looking up. He was buried behind a small desk covered in clip boards. Stuffed with yellow forms, each one represented a different government subcontractor.  “Thank you for your help; I knew I could count on you.”

“You’re welcome. I’m surprised you don’t have a laptop or a smart pad to track everything.”

“Nope; not yet. I’ve been waiting for a computer and the parts to the forklift for almost a month now.” Stafford looked up at him, “I understand you had a job in computers before. Any chance you might be able to get one of my old computers up and running in the meantime? I’ve got one that was never connected to the Cloud.”

“I’d be happy to try, sir.”

“Alright, I’ll bring it in. Oh, and would you mind doing one more thing tonight? I need you to deliver something for me” he said pushing back his chair and standing.

Stafford reached into a pocket and pulled out a set of keys as he turned to the upright file cabinet behind him. “This needs to go over to the office tonight,” he said opening the top drawer. Stafford took out a large brown envelope with a bar coded address and handed it to him.

Ryan looked at the adhesive backed label. He didn’t recognize the recipient’s name, but the office for the depot’s operation was in the old historic building across from city hall.

“Will someone be there at this hour?” he inquired.

“Someone’ll be there. Thank you. See you tomorrow?” asked Stafford.

“Absolutely. Have a good night,” Ryan said, nodding as he stepped out.

Outside the late summer sky had turned dark and the air smelled of ozone. Rain was on the way. “Better late than never,” Ryan muttered to himself as he headed quickly up the concrete steps toward downtown.

Light emanated from the double glass entry doors of the historic building. Standing inside the foyer, a uniformed guard was watching the approaching storm. He unlocked and opened the door as Ryan ascended the brick portico.

“Mr. Stafford sent me to deliver a package” he said producing the envelope from his backpack.

““I’ll take it, thanks” replied the guard coldly, glancing up and down at Ryan quickly. Then hearing voices from inside, he stepped out to hold the door open. Zipping his backpack, Ryan turned to leave when he heard his name called amidst raucous laughter.

“Ryan, fancy bumpin’ into you here’ said his jovial neighbor Bill exiting with two other men. Instead of overalls, Bill was dressed in an expensive button down shirt, slacks and leather shoes. One of the men behind him handed Bill an overcoat while the other took out a large umbrella.

“How’s the job workin’ out for ya?” asked Bill in his familiar drawl.

“Fine, great. I’m just dropping something off for Mr. Stafford. By the way, Katie asked me to thank you again for the blackboard.”

“Well, you tell her she’s welcome. Let me know if she needs anything else.”

“Thank you, I’ll tell her. “

They parted quickly under the distant sound of thunder.

Ryan decided to take a short cut through downtown and cut across the cemetery to save time. As he entered the side street, he saw something move in the alley to his left. He glanced quickly in that direction and prepared to run if it was trouble. Instead, he caught sight of the stray dog he’d seen before. Going down on one knee slowly he pulled a piece of jerky from his backpack. Breaking it in two, he tossed one half in the direction of the hungry looking dog.

The dog moved cautiously toward the stick of dried venison, grabbed it and took off down the alley.

“You’re welcome!” shouted Ryan after the dog. He bit firmly on the other half as the rain began to fall.

–J.B. Sties, Transition Voice

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  1. Darryl says

    I am still enjoying your story, but I am wondering about the system of government that is operating. It seems to be more autocratic than dictatorial.

    • Jb says

      Hi Darryl, I’m glad to hear you are still enjoying the story. It’s a work in progress. At the moment I envision a government structure that is very much intact and in control over central operations but has little presence in local communities. For now, let’s call it a mash-up of post-Constitutional government with private enterprise controlled by the same sorts of unscrupulous people in power today.

      In ‘Where Presidents Once Gazed’ I described a new currency lacking the images of our former Presidents. Removing their faces removes their historical as well as their cultural significance. They have been replaced by the Eagle which symbolizes authoritarian power and scrutiny. Since the bald eagle is already part of our cultural mythology, the substitution is a subtle form of propaganda as well as an attempt to retain control and restore confidence in the New Government.

      In this edition, I am exploring this further by suggesting that postal operations will resume. Someone at the other end of the mysterious parcel can print out labels and scan them, but the capability eludes Mr. Stafford. It seems likely that private companies will take over this function; think mash-up of UPS and the US Army. The Pony Express was also a private enterprise.

      Thanks as always for your comments!

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