Christmas cactus

I have two Christmas cactuses. One, in a handmade pottery urn, was a cutting from a relative's gorgeous parent, and both continually bloomed on schedule (in different homes), right before Christmas. It didn't matter what happened to that plant of mine - no matter if water was forgotten, or if the plant was over-watered, or even if the curtains weren't opened in a week - it would still send forth its long, fragile fuschia blooms . . . right on schedule. We could always depend on that plant. It seemed to know what was expected of it.

Because we all enjoyed this cactus so much, I decided to purchase another just like it. When I took it home, standing side by side with the other in summer, without blooms, they looked identical - though one was smaller and in a green plastic container. Naturally, I expected the same performance from the new addition.

I had the new cactus for four years, and never, never, did it bloom. As the first continued its uninterrupted schedule of Christmas blooming, the second began to look less promising, and I removed it to another room. It really wasn't fair to compare the two. At Christmas, the family would talk about how the cactus was blooming, as if there were only one cactus in the house. The second, unfruitful, though still green, sat by itself in the bathroom - just being a cactus. I hadn't forgotten it, but I just didn't pay it much attention any more outside of the regular care. It had failed me. It didn't give me flowers in return for my care of it, even though I had been patient.

In March I saw little nodules forming but mentally passed over the suggestion that such a plant would ever bloom. And then, last week, when I was washing the bathroom mirror, I saw three long, red-pink blooms reflected. I turned in amazement. Yes! The second was really in full bloom, and I hadn't even seen it happen.

This event reminded me of a teaching experience I'd had. My student teaching was done at a school that had a reputation for ''toughness'' and had a large percentage of non-English-speakers and so-called minorities. In an English class , I had a girl that I will call ''Sadie.'' Other teachers had told me not to expect too much of her - she was a total ''F'' student in all classes. All sorts of comments had been made about her motivation and mental abilities, and the first day in my class, it seemed that Sadie was a sad case. She sat slumped in her desk, hair uncombed, staring either at the floor or out into space. Her first exam had been returned to me with some totally irrelevant marks on the top half - the rest of the page was blank. I suppose I could have put her ''on the shelf'' mentally, as I had done with my Christmas cactus, and directed my energies only toward those who showed promise and were producing for me, but I didn't seem to be able to. Because she had marked on her test at all, I felt there was a possibility of more.

One week, I arranged the English class into research groups with interesting assignments to accomplish, and took Sadie out to the hall to tutor her. At first , there was little visible response, but she was listening. The second day, she was at the hall desk early. Later, she had actually done most of her homework assignment, and even asked some questions . . . and so on, until it was time for the next exam. During the exam, all the students were together again, and all worked the full hour.

When I returned the results, Sadie gave me the most brilliant smile imaginable. Her dark eyes sparkled, and she let her paper lie on her desk for fellow students to see, instead of shoving it under her desk. At the top was a large blue ''C'': deserved for acceptable work. She told me after class it was her first ''pass mark.'' All along, Sadie had been blooming, and I could almost feel a strength welling up inside her from the roots she had sunk into that ''C.''

I've moved both my Christmas cactuses together again. I don't really care if they bloom on schedule at Christmas now, but when I look at them I get a good feeling. I'm reminded to enjoy the cactus for what it is and not for what it should or can do. Then, I find I get surprise blooms all year.

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