National Writing Project

On the Subject of Grafting

By: Jan Isenhour
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 10, No. 3
Date: 2005

Summary: As a ninth grade biology student, Jan Isenhour learns what happens when a teacher makes sure a school assignment resonates with a student.


In ninth grade biology, Mrs. Neal assigned a research paper. "Think about your topic for a day or two," she advised, "but before you begin doing the work, be sure to clear the topic with me."

For the next several class periods she strode around the room with her clipboard, quizzing students on their choices. Her presence was as bracing as a quick dip in chilly waters. She was all about the teaching of science, and she didn't mind coming out from behind her desk to do it. "What is the topic for your research paper?" she asked one student after another, making notes on her clipboard.

I had no idea what to choose. I dreaded less the writing of the research paper than trying to decide on a topic, for the truth was that I did not know what I might be interested in researching. I did not number science or math among my favorite subjects.

A friend at a nearby table chose seahorses, so with a burst of desperate vision I suggested "starfish" when the clipboard paused by my table.

"Starfish." The clipboard didn't move on to the next desk but stayed stationary at my eye level. "What interests you about starfish?" It was a fair question, even a shrewd one. I was sitting in a classroom in landlocked Lexington, Kentucky. We were not a family that often traveled to the beach.

"Just stuff about where they live, what they eat, you know . . . " I slowly met Mrs. Neal's dark eyes, which peered at me over the top of the clipboard.

She stared back. She waited. She did not smile, and most importantly, her pencil did not record my topic. "Why don't you think about your topic for another day?" She was not unkind, but she was firm.

I began to worry. The easy topic-—the one I thought I could get away with—I could envision how that paper would proceed. I would start with a trip to the library and a quick look into Compton's or the World Book Encyclopedia. I might even find a book or two on marine life. I could make notes and eventually transform those notes into text. I could look for headings to help me categorize the notes: Habitat, Reproduction. I would find illustrations to add to the report. Without having to exert much imagination I saw my finished paper neatly bound in a red pocket folder with title page, table of contents, illustrations, and bibliography. Across the title page I saw a neatly penciled "A" and a brief but satisfying comment: "Good work, Jan."

I was a good student, and I gave every project the benefit of my time and attention. I would never dream of plagiarizing the words I used. But it is true that my attention was always focused ahead of where it should have been—not on commitment to a topic that interested me but on a neatly written paper already fastened into a pocket folder with a grade affixed to it. My focus was on completion, not discovery.

I'm not sure what happened next, but Mrs. Neal's refusal to write "starfish" on her clipboard created the mild level of anxiety that sometimes improves a student's performance. I worried. I perked up. I looked, desperate, for a place where the study of living things, biology, might intersect my life.

My father had a small greenhouse tucked in the southwest corner of our back yard. No larger than 6 by 12 feet, it sometimes hosted a stray garter snake looking for a warm place to hide out. My sister and I gave the greenhouse a wide berth.

My dad used the greenhouse to start tomato and geranium plants from seed every spring. He built a sandy bed with a wire grid suspended above it, and here he grew hothouse carnations in all colors. He raised some orchids, mostly cymbidiums and cattleyas, as well as a huge night-blooming cereus—as mangy and sprawling as an old family dog. But when desperation forced me to acknowledge the inherent connection between a greenhouse and botany, I remembered something from our textbook—an illustration of grafting. The illustration showed how a sturdy v-groove could be cut into the stem of a healthy plant and how a branch from another plant could be inserted into that groove. The incision was covered with soft paraffin, and eventually the wound healed. Nutrients and waste by-products flowed as usual, and new life grew out of the old. The method, used most often with roses and fruit trees, allows propagators to rely on sturdy root stock.

My project, undertaken with my dad's help and Mrs. Neal's blessing, involved grafting stems of pink and white geraniums onto stock that bloomed red. I envisioned a geranium that bloomed in three colors at once. Another experiment involved grafting together a tomato plant and a potato plant. I was susceptible to the same fascination with mutant life forms that grips 14-year-olds everywhere.

Several of my geranium grafts took hold and thrived, although I don't remember a profusion of tricolor blooms. The pomato survived, but my science-fiction fantasy of a plant bearing a root crop at the same time it bore perfect ripe tomatoes didn't materialize.

The real miracle is that after forty years I still remember the process of conducting my ninth grade biology research project. I remember going out to the greenhouse after school (checking first for napping snakes). I remember making the incisions, inserting stem into stock, and tying the graft with gauze strips. I remember rubbing the stems, searching for signs of healing and bloom. I remember keeping a log of the progress of my project, and I remember the ease with which I was able to write and illustrate the final paper. I remember scratching my head as I figured out a plausible explanation for why my pomato failed to yield fruit.

That remembering allows me to describe what it's like when a teacher makes sure a school assignment resonates with the student.

I have no idea if I put my paper in a red pocket folder when I finished. And that forgetting is a good sign.

About the Author Jan Isenhour has been one of the directors of the Bluegrass Writing Project of the University of Kentucky since it was founded in 1987. She is executive director of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, a community education facility located in Lexington, Kentucky.

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