Before beginning public elementary school in Indianapolis, I attended Miss Cook’s Kindergarten. Given that this educational experience occurred nearly "fourscore and seven years ago" (well, 1953 to be exact), my memories of it are vague—except for one: nap-time.
We took about an hour’s sleep break each day, and we were responsible for fetching our own nap mats, which were stored on shelves along the back wall. Each mat was labeled with a fruit and number tag for easy identification. Mine, I remember, was Apple-4. With my love of ice cream sundaes, I also remember being jealous of my lucky classmate who had the joy of always napping on Maraschino Cherry-1.
But that all changed very early in the school year on September 26. Our teacher (not Miss Cook, whose name, as far as I remember, only appeared in the school title, kind of like Mrs. Smith in "Mrs. Smith's Pies") gave us a birthday lecture that enhanced my mat's allure.
She celebrated with us the birthday of one John Chapman, born in Massachusetts on September 26, 1774. His life story was one so fascinating and easy to follow that even my five-year-old self paid rapt attention to it. As a toddler, John gazed out the window after a heavy rain and discovered that a rainbow ended in the boughs of a huge apple tree in his front yard. The tree was in full bloom with white blossoms that the rainbow had turned into every color imaginable.
The Chapman family moved to Pennsylvania a few years later, and there, as a boy, John decided on his life’s mission. Inspired by that extraordinary tree in Massachusetts, he dedicated his life to planting apple orchards thick and strong from Pennsylvania across the rest of the country. Every autumn he would go to the cider presses, collect the mashed pulp, separate the seeds, wash and dry them, and pour them into flour sacks. For the rest of his life he walked across America spreading the seeds from his sacks at river banks, empty meadows, and yards large and small. He eventually walked as far south as Tennessee and as far west as the Rocky Mountains, and by giving seeds to the pioneers, he ensured that his trees eventually reached the West Coast. Thus was born the Legend of Johnny Appleseed. And suddenly, my apple mat was cool.
And even cooler was our “field trip” the next day -- to a field. Our teacher told us to put on our jackets, and she led us to the playground. Behind it, separating the school from a housing development was a field filled with apple trees almost ready for harvest. She explained that because Indianapolis was on the Old National Road (US 40 when I was a child; Interstate 70 today), there was every chance that this orchard came from seeds Johnny Appleseed originally planted. The National Road had been his highway west, and much later he had even died in Indiana. As only a kindergartener could, I immediately saw old Mr. Appleseed right then expiring right there in that field. Perhaps I even imagined reverently covering his body with my handy Apple-4 shroud!
It was six years later in a sixth-grade science lesson on fruits that my apple tutorial was concluded. The teacher had placed an apple sliced in two on each desk. We were to count the seeds in our apple; mine had only three. “Do you see,” he asked, “how easy it is to count the number of seeds in an apple?” We did.
He then asked us to put one seed in the palm of our hand and examine it. “No matter how closely you look at it,” he continued, “you’ll never be able to count how many apples are in that single seed.” We looked puzzled until he explained that when one plants an apple seed, it becomes a tree that could produce hundreds and hundreds of apples in its long lifetime. The average life of an apple tree: seventeen years; the average number of apples produced per year: 500 -- that is, 8,500 apples per tree.
Could this be why the apple is the symbol of the teaching profession? All teachers are Johnny Appleseeds, and students are the fertile soil in which teachers plant the seeds of their knowledge. That knowledge will later blossom forth from the original students into their children, and then into their children's children, and so on until the end of time.
Perhaps I entered the teaching profession still inspired by Johnny Appleseed. I view each dab of Dickens, bit of Brontë, and dollop of Trollope that I disseminated in my Victorian novel seminars as so many scholarly seeds that I planted within my students. And now I’m still hopeful that you, my readers or listeners, will take any knowledge I share, mix it within the rich soil of your own personal experiences, and ultimately, with luck, disseminate it from here to eternity.