A Teaching Epiphany with “Marigolds”

When I started teaching in Miami in 1990, I took over for a series of substitutes for an English teacher on pregnancy leave. These seventh-grade students were incorrigible according to the administration. They were prone to flipping off the lights in the no-windowed room and turning over the teacher’s desk. The first thing I did was to move the desk by the door under the light switch.

The Background

I remember teaching the short story “Marigolds” by Eugenia Collier. The premise of the story is that Lizabeth, a young African American girl whose family is experiencing strife and tension due to money and family dynamics during the 1930s, takes out her frustration along with her peers on an elderly neighbor and her developmentally disabled son by name-calling and throwing stones. The climax occurs when she sneaks back at night to destroy Ms. Lottie’s marigolds. Ms. Lottie discovers her, and as Lizabeth begs for forgiveness, Ms. Lottie says nothing. Ms. Lottie never replants the flowers and Lizabeth comes to realize that the patch of marigolds was a symbol of happiness and hope at a time when she and others desperately needed it. The adult narrator, looking back at her youth, now plants marigolds to honor Ms. Lottie’s memory and to atone for her psychic sin.

I am sure that I taught this story the way I had been taught- explain the plot, characters, setting, conflict, themes, and symbols. I probably assigned the questions at the end of the chapter and used the textbook’s blackline masters to mimeograph a quiz or a test, it was 1990, after all.

A couple of things struck me from that early experience. One is that I had no idea what I was doing. I had taken teacher education classes at the university and underwent an internship while waiting for a boyfriend to complete his degree. I finished before him with a double major in English and English Education with no intention of teaching. I knew the components of a lesson plan, some classroom management concepts, and a bit about educational psychology. No one told me how to handle a bunch of resentful middle school kids much less how to implement effective and engaging curriculum. It was a wonder that I didn’t quit like the other substitutes.


The story I happened across was the perfect story for that group. I didn’t know it then, and I am sure I botched the opportunity to apply the context and message of Lizabeth’s angst. Like Lizabeth, those seventh graders were throwing stones and calling names. They didn’t know why; they just followed their peers. They also were intent on destroying anything in a fit of rage. Their pride for running off substitutes was evident.

“I said before that we children were not consciously aware of how thick were the bars of our cage.  I wonder now, though, whether we were not more aware of it than I thought. Perhaps we had some dim notion of what we were, and how little chance we had of being anything else. Otherwise, why would we have been so preoccupied with destruction?”

Imagine if I had tied in this propensity to create violence and conflict to stand in for violence and conflict in one’s own life. I could have brought in graffiti, or even Miami’s thriving art and music scene—much of the creativity are reactions to violence, poverty, racism, inequity, and family dynamics.

A Fit of Rage

I committed my own fit of rage one day as they were passing around a bag and laughing hysterically. When I intercepted it, the object of hilarity was a red magic-markered maxi-pad. I grabbed it out of the bag, peeled off the tape, and said with exasperation, “If you all want to look at it so badly … here … we can all see it and laugh.” And I stuck it to the board; it was not my finest moment. While Lizabeth had to stamp out that splash of hopeful color, I needed to display it to the humiliation of my students. Both of us were left with shame as a result of our impulsive reactive actions.   

My Students’ Lives

I also didn’t consider anything about these students’ lives or backgrounds. The school was 100% Latino, mostly Cuban, Colombia, Venezuelan, and Peruvian kids. Primarily working-class and recently arrived immigrants, they probably could understand Lizabeth’s experience of parents worrying about bills and fighting late at night when the kids are supposed to be asleep. They could relate to the gender dynamics of a mom working and a father out of work in a patriarchally-aligned culture. They knew the experience of transition- people in their neighborhood were always on the move coming in as immigrants, moving out due to theft and violence, or to better circumstances.

“We children, of course, were only vaguely aware of the extent of our poverty … Nowadays we would be called culturally deprived, and people would write books and hold conferences about us. In those days, everybody we knew was just as hungry and ill-clad as we were. Poverty was the cage in which we all were trapped.”

Many of the students came from a vast apartment complex, but others were from single-family homes carved into duplexes or triplexes, the lawns paved over, bars on the windows, and walled from the street. They might not have seen a marigold except in a pot on a windowsill, on TV, or in their home country. Some might even have know marigolds for their medicinal or ceremonial purposes.

Flower heads Scattered on Relatives’ Graves

According to Burpee.com Marigold History, “In Mexico and Latin America, marigold flowers are used to decorate household altars to celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Flower heads are scattered on relatives’ graves which can account for the profusion of marigolds in cemeteries.” Thus, my students might have had a very different connotation of marigolds then the story’s professed symbolic beauty in a blighted area. Here was another missed opportunity to discuss my students’ lived experiences. Those connections to each other, and an opportunity to share their lives with me, might have been an opportunity to build relationships with each other.

Slavery and Its Aftermath

Collier is an African American writer from Baltimore, and she sets her story in the place of her childhood, rural Maryland. Her protagonist is 14 during the Great Depression. Maryland was a slave state, a border state, during the Civil War. It had many slavery synthesizers and is home to the battle of Antietam in Sharpsville, Maryland, the most significant loss of life of any Civil War battle. At the time, the state officially rationalized that it was fighting to maintain the union not to abolish slavery; thus, it didn’t apply the emancipation proclamation to itself until 1864, three years after slaves in the southern states were legally freed. Therefore, it is plausible that Collier’s childhood included knowing former slaves in their declining years.

Slavery and its aftermath have a place in this story, even with its absence of mention. Lizabeth would have been born in 1919 or 1920; Ms. Lottie could have been born into slavery or to former slave parents and grandparents. The audience doesn’t know, but Collier says of Lizabeth’s experience, “the Depression that gripped the nation was no new thing to us, for the black workers of rural Maryland had always been depressed.”

Latchkey Kids

We also don’t know if the children attended school, probably not. The story is set in late September when schools in the north would traditionally resume. The children in the story were described as having one item of clothes- a dirty dress for the girls and a threadbare pair of shorts or pants for the boys—no shoes. If Lizabeth and Joey’s parents had only one income from Lizabeth’s mother’s work as household help, it is likely that the kids “ran wild” during the day. This kind of neglect complements poverty: “Each morning our mother and father trudged wearily down the dirt road and around the bend, she to her domestic job, he to his daily unsuccessful quest for work.”

Again, my students would have connected to being latch key kids or the experience of a lack of educational and job opportunities in their home countries. After school care, currently at $10 per day per kid and $6 back then, is expensive. Kids as young as seven were expected to return to their empty houses in the afternoons, complete chores, and start dinner. Left unsupervised, they often roamed the neighborhoods in the afternoon and evening committing acts of vandalism, staking out territory for gangs, and bullying other kids from basketball courts and playgrounds. Lizabeth and Joey did not have the same opportunities as current students and a class discussion on options for kids who have absent caregivers might have provided resources for students that share the experience of neglect due to poverty and a lack of education.

The Search for Self-Identity

Collier captures the search for self-identity when Lizabeth’s father exclaims,

“I ain’t talking about nobody else, I’m talking about me. God knows I try … What must a man do, tell me that? … and “The world had lost its boundary lines. My mother, who was small and soft, was now the strength of the family; my father, who was the rock on which the family had been built, was sobbing like the tiniest child.”

This was a double dilemma for an African American man of this time and even continues to be problematic today. My first and second-generation immigrant students—still grappling with where they fit into hybrid English-Spanish Miami—might have overheard this same raw and real hushed conversation in Spanish in their homes. It was yet again another missed opportunity for me to connect literature to my students’ experiences.

Collier says early in the story that “memory is an abstract painting—it does not present things as they are, but rather as they feel. I remember only the dry September of the dirt roads and grassless yards of the shantytown where I lived.”

Planting Marigolds

Thirty years after I got into this profession, I look back at that teaching experience and feel like I did those students a disservice. It’s not enough to bring African American literature into our classrooms. Without the color, context, connections, and opportunities for students to relate their experiences with literature, this story could have easily been swapped for a story by Pushkin. For those students in that classroom all those years ago, they might only remember the nice, young, enthusiastic lady with a pillowcase full of treats. Since then, I have tried to plant marigolds with each group of students in my classroom and I hope they are left with a more nuanced and memorable experience of the complexities of color.