For Sonya Rashad
I didn’t water the plants in front of my porch much last spring, and by June, the Rosemary, Lantana, and a small shrub of unknown species weren’t doing so well. The shrub had exactly one leaf left, clinging to a low branch near its main trunk. I started watering every day for 90 minutes. The Rosemary and Lantana exploded with new growth and bloom in only days. But the shrub showed no improvement. I had my doubts, but decided to give it one more week.
The week passed with no improvement, and I felt unexpectedly sad as I started cutting branches to make the uprooting easier. But the cut of one branch had some green under the bark. Looking closer, I saw that other branches had grown an inch or two at their tips, even though no new leaves had budded. With renewed hope, I gave the shrub a lot of extra water and checked it every day. Within a week, several leaves sprouted and new buds were everywhere.
I named my bike Midnight and my car my Satín, but until now I had never named a plant.* I searched Google for names that mean “survivor “and Sasha came up. I liked it, but it turns out that Sasha, a diminutive form of the Russian for Alexander, actually means “a helper or defender of humankind.” Even better. Sasha it was.
I’m not the only one who knows how Sasha felt when she was down to her last leaf.
But it took my friend Sonya Rashad to put it into words. Sonya has taught and coached at Safford K8 for 22 years. Her teams have won 32 district trophies. To have some fun at the beginning of the year, I kidnapped 16 of them. Literally. I left a ransom note and took them home. On the day the faculty reported back to school, I sent an email to everyone, which included a proof of life photo. The email included the demand that for their safe return, Sonia must speak to the faculty about what they mean to her.
She stood before us and talked about the day she finished college, the first in her family. She felt unworthy, and sat alone in a diner on graduation day paralyzed by fear and doubt. When she came to Safford, we were the team everyone wanted to play because we always lost. So in spite of fear and doubt, she stepped up to change that, and her 32 trophies prove that she has.
A singular achievement, but consider this. The majority of her teams consist of minority girls from low-income families. No doubt many of players are down to their last leaf when they come into Sonya’s orbit. Studies consistently show that females who compete in athletics have better than average self-esteem and body image. They are less likely to experiment with drugs, alcohol, or sex. They are more likely to include college in their future plans. Sonya’s legacy will pass down for generations.
But whence so many victories over fear and doubt? Sonya claims she has five allies that never fail: Hope, Faith, Love, Strength, and Passion. And with them, whenever Fear and Doubt show up at her door, she invites them in to meet their end. And that’s what the trophies mean to her.
That afternoon, riding home on Midnight, I saw real faces of those I know, young and old, down to their last leaf as Fear and Doubt wait sneering for the end. But, I also saw the real faces of those I know who personify Hope, Faith, Love, Strength, and Passion and who never fail to bring new growth. They are the helpers and defenders of humankind. The Sashas.
The year is young and I don’t know what lies ahead. I’m teaching all math for the first time ever, something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m already seeing learning happening. My eyes are also open for opportunities to be a Sasha for the wounded souls that fill my classes. But on Tuesday I told a student to shut up. Have I done said that five times in thirty years? I don’t think so. It’s only the second time I remember clearly. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I thank God for my own deep bench of Sashas.
*The spirit of my mother just reminded me that in college I had a rubber tree I named Trojan. I don’t know who was more surprised – my mom at me for naming it that, or me at her for getting the joke and thinking it was hilarious. She told all her bridge club friends, and one day when it was her turn to host, I walked through the living room. She had told them about Trojan the rubber tree and they thought it was hilarious, too. There’s nothing quite like being 19 and sharing a condom joke with a house full of little old ladies. Not for nothing do they call them the Greatest Generation.