When I was younger, Arbor Day sort of used to be a thing. At some point during the school day, we’d receive little conifer saplings in long, perforated plastic bags which we were then urged to go plant somewhere. I remember gingerly wedging the now-steamy bag down the side of my backpack, next to three binders and at least as many scoliosis-inducing books, feeling like an infinitely better person while I unwittingly robbed the tree of its ability to photosynthesize for the duration of my long bus ride home. Do I remember actually planting any of these baby trees? Not exactly. While it wouldn’t have been characteristic of either one of my parents, both of them raised on a farm of some description, to outright scorn tree-planting, I do know there was always some warning not to plant my little Charlie Brown tree too close to the house. And I think there may have been one, once, that made it into the soil. It may have even lived, who knows. But otherwise, Arbor Day sort of faded out of existence for me and became one of those holidays where I’d hear someone say something about it, and about three weeks later I’d think, “Oh, right. That happened, didn’t it?” The glut of holidays nowadays sort of obliterate the ones that used to matter when I was a kid, anyhow. Arbor Day, shove it, we’ve got International Purple Socks On a Llama Day! (Can we please celebrate that next year? No llamas will be harmed in the celebration. Promise.)
Arbor Day was recently brought to my attention this past spring, though, because of my job at a middle school. As the school secretary mumbled through her end-of-the-day announcements, I heard, “And the tree-planting ceremony will take place in the school parking lot immediately after school.” At first, I laughed as Joni Mitchell warbled in my mind about paving paradise and putting in a parking lot. But then the rush of elementary school Arbor Day festivities flooded back in a deluge and all of a sudden, I wanted to atone for all the trees I probably didn’t plant back then. As luck would have it, I discovered that the tree-planting ceremony, being led by a woman fervently reading what may as well have been the Holy Gospel according to Saint Lorax, was taking place RIGHT in front of where my car was parked. No big deal, right? Just walk out to your car, linger for a second, take it in, then go on your merry way. Atonement, anonymity, success.
But luck is a frequently a four-letter word in my life.
Glancing out the window of the chorus room, I saw the proceedings going on, and recognized a couple kids from the chorus classes I play for standing in the semi-circle that appeared to be nowhere near any…trees. A couple spindly sticks in the grass, sure. But no holes had been dug, no signs of foliage and sweet, sweet photosynthesis. Poor judgment, perhaps, but again: this was about my personal redemption. And those couple well-intentioned, dweeby kids would be witnesses to it. Hallelujah!
And then I realized…
My car is a 2006 Corolla. It was, at the time of this ceremony of shame, 2013, and the car had at least 150,000 miles on it. Not a catastrophic scenario in and of itself, though. What I forgot at the time was that my catalytic converter was tragically derelict; due to some shoddy workmanship at some point in a repair, the converter didn’t attach properly to the muffler, so any time I put the car in reverse, it was, well…a proclamation of sorts.
Unfortunately, that proclamation was multifaceted. Suddenly vanished the fleeting, selfish joy I had taken in knowing that those folks would see how virtuous I was in supporting greening up the Earth. Suddenly overweening pride turned to overwhelming guilt. Because the second I sat down in the seat and turned the key in the ignition, everyone knew that there was one person who desperately had some environmental sins to atone for. The low-pitched clattering of a detached muffler combined with the slow belch of unfiltered exhaust fumes cast a gloomy pall over the would-be tree-planters. And then the slow head-turns in my direction and slit-eyed judgmental glances hit me square in the solar plexus. Let me tell you: there are few lower levels of shame than receiving the stink-eye of judgment from a middle-schooler eighteen years your junior who may as well have a pocket protector and be reading Popular Science in his free time.
So, as much as one with a rattletrap car can slink away, away I slunk. I vowed I would get my car fixed (I did…sort of), I vowed I would plant a tree somewhere and somehow (I didn’t), and I vowed I would remember when the heck Arbor Day is for once this year (I almost forgot). I still feel a little pang of remorse when I see the now-eighth-grader boy who shot me that look, even though I’m sure he has little to no recollection of the day Miss Watson killed the Earth. When I heard the announcement at the middle school this year that the tree-planting ceremony had been rescheduled, I heaved a sigh of relief and laughed as I walked out to my car, started it up, looked at the non-trees planted in front of my parking spot, and rode off into the afternoon after backing into my own cloud of pollution. Arbor Day, let’s be friends…next year.