Essay of the Week: The Garden of Helena

By Helena Sanchez

“Helena, Abby just ate a rock!”


So much for a peaceful walk in the woods with my ten campers. Add to that–a recent stomach virus caused the health center to shut down to care for the 32 sick campers and staff members.

I immediately race to Abby to prevent her from becoming number 33. She is smiling and fine. Before she has the chance to put another small pebble in her mouth, I warn her not to accept any more dares. She throws the rock away and we continue our march through the woods. I love every minute of it–minus thoughts of Abby’s digestive system.

We passed the outdoor greenhouse with growing vegetables. I see my life in that space as a garden growing with passions– children that I babysit, campers that I lead through the woods, dances that I perform and choreograph, classmates whose houses can feel like microcosms of other countries, debates with classmates and family gatherings filled with soul food and motown on one side and Dominican cuisine and bachata on the other. This is the biodiversity of my life.

Maybe I discovered my garden the first day I picked up Alex after school two years ago. I fell in love with babysitting, which evolved into a passion for working with children. From that moment on, I took the responsibility of nurturing and encouraging this 6 year old. She became a small flower in my garden.

A garden cannot thrive without a lifeline–water. My family is my water– the source of my personal growth–the center of my garden on the diverse corner of 110th street. I am also watered intellectually at Chapin, where it is comfortable to have controversial conversations about feminism or gun control sitting at lunch with friends, some I have known since kindergarten. Now, as a Peer Leader tasked with advisement ranging from academic time management to peer pressure, I am nurturing the sapling freshmen. It is a mission made for me–a natural teacher, camp counselor, leader and someone who has lived through the ups and downs of high school.

My garden moves with the grace of pirouettes and chaîné turns. TLC is the cultivation of a flourishing garden, sunlight — positive examples and encouragement from others — has been essential for me. Once, as a younger dancer, I sat cradled on the balsa floor attempting to rub away the pain after a rehearsal in pointes for the first time. It was then that Ms. Alison, my dance teacher, affectionately divulged some tricks of the trade: numbing cream before rehearsal, sticking cotton in between your toes to ease friction with the floor, and exercises to relieve the inevitable foot cramps. Her advice was vital.
I pass on the same for other young dancers as a volunteer at Dancing Dreams, assisting children with disabilities so they can live their dreams of dancing. My garden possesses the branches intertwining my love of teaching children and dance. At 16, I challenge my years of training and choreograph my first piece for 5 young dancers at different levels. I incorporate the teacher in my garden through companion planting– the sowing of seeds in a way that promotes cooperation over competition. My instructional techniques enable the dancers to feel confident and graceful on performance night.

The diversity of my garden is intertwined and feeds dynamism, that extra umph embedded in our nature. Like how on nothing but a whim and an opportunity, I flew to Elorrio, in the Basque Country, where I wasn’t yet fluent in the language, to teach English.
Other times we need the wherewithal to pause and do some life maintenance — or weeding as I like to think of it. Late nights, early mornings, and subsequent lack of sleep from juggling school, dance, and other extracurriculars take their toll but also create my sprawling ecosystem of passions and ideas living and thriving within me.

Helena Sanchez, a 2017 graduate of The Chapin School, is a freshman at Wesleyan.

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