When I was a kid, the neighbors on the next street had their houses fronted by ditches which they didn’t mow or maintain. For us kids reared in orderly and well-trimmed suburbs this was a wonderland of wildness. Vetch grew with tiny purple flowers and pea pods (we thought). Some of the weed seeds popped like popcorn when touched. The smell floated fresh and green.
The best part was the butterflies. White ones with black spots skipped over the plants. Rusty brown ones the size of a quarter with furry bodies and powdery wings flitted everywhere. We chased and caught them in cupped hands, and then opened our fingers and watched them flutter away.
And then there were the monarchs. These were the magical ones – big and beautiful with wings like orange stained glass. They migrated in, left their eggs on the milkweeds and flew away again. We watched them come and go and waited for the caterpillars. Monarchs are innocently beautiful in every stage. The caterpillars inching along the stiff milkweeds are striped as though in some wild Halloween get-up – yellow, black and white with neat little antenna tasting the air. Their feet always looked to me like they should be wearing tiny shoes, sort of like the Alice in Wonderland cartoon.
I would catch these lovelies, put them in a mason jar, keep them supplied with fresh milkweed leaves, wait first for the chrysalis, and then the emergence. If you have never seen a monarch chrysalis, put it on your bucket list. It dangles down by a thin black thread, the body the most elegant compact, pale green. The top seal has a strand of shimmering gold along its edge.
In the summer between fourth and fifth grade, I had raised a caterpillar to chrysalis state. We started school science by studying insects so I brought the jar into the classroom to show my teacher and friends. Instead of having me take it home again, the teacher directed me to put it on the back counter.
A few days later, looking through the window at lunch, I saw the butterfly had emerged, and the beautiful thing was beating its wings against the glass jar. I couldn’t find the teacher, so I went into the room, got the jar and took it out. With as many friends as I could find, I released it. We watched the monarch soar into the air and away. The beauty of that moment is still with me.
My teacher was beside himself. His intent had been to chloroform and pin my butterfly for I have no idea what purpose. He berated me in front of the class for being selfish, irresponsible, and breaking rules. Desperately, I told him the monarch would have broken its wings in the jar. That made him angrier. I remember standing head down, feeling the storm break over me, as his rage went on and on. I was demoted to the 5th row with the “stupid” students. He never forgave me. In June, after another infraction of some kind, he revived the memory and went into another tirade about it – the man should never have been in a classroom.
However, it taught me something far more important than any curriculum. It taught me that I will always choose life over rules and it taught me that a bully can be resisted, even when the bully is more powerful than I am.
Who would have thought that love of life and the courage to face a bully could be learned from a butterfly?