It’s taken me a long time to get back to a place in my life where I entirely appreciate fall foliage.
There was a period when I saw a beautiful leaf and had visions of wax paper, encyclopedias, Platanus occidentalis and an adhesive sheet scrapbook flash through my head. Of all the memories I have of grades K-12, the leaf collection in Mr. Lewis’ class is probably the worst.
First of all, Lewis’ enthusiasm for the project was just a tick over the top. He’d been assigning the project from hell for at least a decade when I was in his class; I would have thought he could have curbed the smile in year three. He got some sort of sweet satisfaction passing out the assignment specifics, which actually contained more qualifiers and ridiculous instructions than a building permit application:
When you find (what you believe to be) the perfect leaf, you may touch the leaf, but not with your hands. You must use American-made metal tongs with black rubber end grippers to gently pick up the perfect leaf and place it into a plastic, dry, gallon size Ziplock brand freezer bag. Do not touch the bag with your hands. You must hang the bag on a low-hanging limb of a Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and drop the perfect leaf inside so only the sweet autumn breeze touches the bag. Then you must review the check list:
It gives you a happy feeling like a puppy in a parade.
If you gently swoop it through the air, east to west only, it sounds like angels singing a William Clark Green song.
If you gently swoop it through the air, north to south, you can hear Elton John singing Candle in the Wind.
It has at least 35 individual CMYK colors on the left side of the midrib.
If (what you believe to be) the perfect leaf, still suspended in a bag hanging from a Robinia pseudoacacia, appears to meet the above requirements, you must find two more just like it.
By the time we got to the end of the characteristic requirements for each leaf I was convinced I would have better luck finding the lost city of Atlantis, and would have enjoyed that more, also. I'm not even a good swimmer.
So I spent a weekend wandering aimlessly around a local forest and using a pocket field guide (this was the bag phone era) to identify the difference between a White Oak, Red Oak, Bur Oak, Chestnut Oak, English oak, Pin Oak and Black Oak. By the time I got home I was so sick of oak that I was ready to rip all of the woodwork off the walls.
Then we had to transport 4,327 leaves home in $88 worth of plastic Ziplock bags, then use 4 rolls of wax paper to individually press every single leaf. Once positioned in the wax paper, we pulled 17 cookbooks and 13 encyclopedias off the shelf and tucked the leaves deep into the pages. To this day if Momma gets itchy hands we don't pass her the corn husker's lotion; we just assume she found another pressed poison sumac leaf in the pie section of her Southern Living cookbook.
There are likely 17 leaves still tucked in those shelves.
But which part of the project was worse: Finding the perfect leaves, pressing them or labeling each? We had a home printer but Dad wouldn’t let us use it because he thought ink was too expensive. So with a Producers pen (that Dad obviously snagged from the Tuesday market) I hand wrote every intricate detail of every delicate leaf:
Common Name of Leaf: American Sycamore
Scientific Name of Leaf: Platanus occidentalis
Where & when you found it: Hayes Arboretum, about 18 feet off of trail 4, 39°50'24.6"N 84°50'43.9"W. October 1.
Simple or Compound Leaf: Simple
Venation Pattern: Palmate
Write an interesting fact about this leaf: The red splatters are actually blood from tripping over a log and having a stick puncture my left thigh. Mom wants to know if the school has good insurance?
And lastly, the monumental question:
What have you learned from this leaf collection assignment?:
I’ll tell ya what I learned from this assignment. It ranks right up there with Science Fair projects regarding all the ways public education can initiate a second Civil War within the confines of the family home.
To wrap up the academic charade, we’d get our graded leaf collections back with holes punched in every single page so another student - or younger sibling - couldn’t reuse them.
That really stuck in my craw.
Last week I was walking into work and a leaf on the ground caught my eye. Having an affinity for pretty and free things, I scooped it up as my computer bag fell off my shoulder. I got inside and unpacked for the day and studied the little leaf.
Though proportional and colorful, it had 6 noticeable imperfections and was tossed in the trash seconds later.
I think the leaf collection of 1999 ruined me.
Note: In my thirties I see Mr. Lewis every so often at a mutual friend's house. He's a super nice guy and has acquired many more human attributes than he had while teaching my class. And I'm somewhat terrified he's going to read this.