I’m washing carrots in the school’s kitchen sink when Jasper Chen and Milo Alvarez walk in holding hands. The minute they see me their fingers fly apart.
“Hi, Clementine,” Milo says, ever polite.
I nod, letting the cool water splash over my hands, pretending I’m not watching Jasper.
He picks up a crate of onions, and I try to ignore the way my skin hums while I watch his biceps flex.
The wet carrots glimmer with a deep orange as I set them on the cutting board at the vegetable station. The delicate green fringe is tangled together. I take a chef’s knife and whack the tops of the carrots, freeing them from their tangled mess. If only I could do the same to my feelings for Jasper Chen.
The carrot tops smell like fresh cut grass, and my lips tingle as I remember Jasper and I kissing, kissing, kissing last month in carrot patch. I want to take that memory, tie it up in a big plastic bag, and throw it out. But here at Wild Garden High School we compost.
Milo and Jasper chop onions at the station next to me. Jasper’s eyes tear up like the morning he told me about Milo, while we were weeding the garden.
“It just happened, Clem.” He yanked out a weed and put it in our compost bucket. “I know it’s not fair to you, but I love him.”
Slash, slash, slash. My knife hacks through the thick orange carrots over and over until there are dozens of tiny pieces.
Milo and I were part of the initial first grade class here. My parents were excited for me to go to a public school where we learned to garden and cook along with reading, writing, and arithmetic.
In first grade, I was the kind of girl who colored the radish in my garden journal such a deep shade of red that I broke the crayon in half. Milo was the kind of boy who took both halves, sharpened each, and said it was lucky that I had made twice as many red crayons for our table. So I understand how Milo’s presence is like sunshine at the golden hour, even if my own heart feels like unwanted vegetable waste.
Jasper wipes his eyes as he chops. Did he sign up for onions as penance for falling in love with someone who isn’t me?
I scoop up the peels from their table into a bucket with my carrot greens.
“Thanks,” Jasper says. “Hey, have you signed up as a mentor yet? There’s this kid in my apartment building named Ellie who needs someone as cool as you.”
Jasper didn’t start here at Wild Garden until seventh grade, four years ago. During our weekly nature days, he and I would race each other up to the big branch of the oak tree. He was surprisingly good at climbing, considering he had gone to one of those old-fashioned elementary schools that didn’t have nature days. I loved to sit on that high branch and look out at rooftop solar panels on the apartment buildings in the distance.
At the big gray compost bin near the kitchen door, I dump the onion skins and carrot greens on top of the other organic waste— potato peels, eggshells, and coffee grounds. The smell is rich and earthy.
Above the kitchen compost bin a white board hangs with names of the kids in this year’s first grade class. High schoolers sign up as garden mentors.
The first time I planted radishes, I was so excited I smashed all the seeds together. My mentor, Indigo, gently took my hand and used their finger to push one seed by itself. Then they licked their finger to pick up the seed, like they were a magical fairy, and showed me how to tuck it in a secret hide out in the soil. I planted all my radish seeds as carefully as Indigo after that.
I scan the list of this year’s first graders until I see Ellie’s name. I watched her chasing kids around the blacktop at recess the other day. Her clothes were stained in blue paint, her long hair tangled as if she never combed it. I write my name next to hers.
In a few weeks, these carrot tops and onion skins will turn into rich new soil, just in time for radish planting with Ellie.