When Abby Fulcher, 22, recalled her fourth grade year at Grant Elementary School in 2006, she thought about the time a beloved tree outside the classroom window was cut down. Her younger self felt emotional and confused as to why anybody would cut down a tree, especially one her class was so connected to.
Lisa Schenker’s classroom faced the large pin oak tree. Schenker, now retired, described the tree as grand and said it felt as though the class was in a treehouse. The class watched the birds and squirrels come and go through the tree, and Schenker used the tree to teach the students about nature and the birds they saw.
“The kids just loved this tree,” Schenker said.
After one of the branches fell onto a dumpster, the pin oak was labeled a hazard, and a cut-down order was issued. Schenker said her students did everything they could to protest, even on the day the tree was taken down.
Now, 13 years later, the essence of the story is the basis of the latest children’s chapter book in the “Bea Garcia” series by Deborah Zemke of Columbia.
Fulcher said it was her and her mom’s idea to protest the pin oak’s removal. She recalled being moved that her class was able to stand up for what it believed in. She said that at the time, she wanted to give a voice to something that did not have a voice and fight for something that was innocent.
Fulcher even remembered her classmates taking slices out of the tree after it was cut down. Schenker said she still has a piece of it in her home.
“Before they took the tree down, we went out and we had this celebration in honor of the tree. The kids wrote poems, and the kids wrote letters to the tree,” Schenker said. “It was just really really sad.”
This tale led Deborah Zemke to write and illustrate the fourth book in her children’s chapter book series: “Bea Garcia.” Published last month, “Bea Garcia: The Tree and Me” was inspired by the class’s effort to save the tree outside of the window. Although the book has a happier ending than the true story, the idea of students working together to achieve the goal aligns.
“The thing that’s nice about art is that you can make the ending any way that you want,” Zemke said.
To celebrate “The Tree and Me,” Zemke will hold a book signing at 2 p.m. Saturday, 20 S. Ninth St. at Skylark Bookshop. There will be reading, drawing, poetry writing and snacks.
Zemke has been the project mentor of the Grant School book project for over 20 years, so she has long been familiar with the treehouse classroom and the story of the pin oak tree. Zemke said she has kept the story in the back of her mind, so when she came to write the fourth book in her series, she thought it would be a great fit in the world of Bea Garcia and her friends.
Zemke also said she was inspired by the way Schenker taught — by bringing the outside world into her classroom. It’s what Schenker and “other really good teachers” do, she said.
“Part of how they’re engaging with their students is to interact with the whole world,” Zemke said. “The things that they’re learning about, writing and science and the environment and art and poetry, aren’t something that just happens within the classroom. You don’t have to be 21 to write a story — you don’t have to licensed to write a poem. All these tools for expression and communication are within their grasp.”
Schenker said she still gets choked up when she thinks about the time the tree was cut down.
“They were just really emotionally involved with this whole tree thing,” she said. “We were just beside ourselves.”
Fulcher said that at the time she didn’t feel young and felt like she could do anything.
“Really keeping that spirit alive in kids and nourishing that confidence and young youth activism is important,” she said. “It’s important to give children a voice and to give the tree a voice.”
The class raised money to replace the tree, and the new tree stood outside for about a decade. However, when Grant underwent a massive renovation last year, that tree was taken down, too.
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.