Miss Dirt Turtle's Garden Club

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“Miss Dirt Turtle’s Garden Club made me giggle and also cry real tears. The authentically diverse cast of characters captured my heart as they morphed from wise-cracking kids to a caring and inspired group of go-getters, making this treasured tome the total package.” —Book review by J.V. Poore for Goodreads

T t ur r i t D

’s le

Surviving adolescence is hard anywhere and five 10-year-old best friends try to survive a summer of bullies, parents with substance abuse issues, broken homes... crime... social workers... thieves... slumlords... and poverty. These five try to navigate all these pitfalls in a most unexpected way. Working in the sheltered garden of whom they always thought was just a mean, strange old lady. A woman of very few words, Miss Dirt Turtle lays a path of “foundation”—starting with the earth around them.

“The latch-key children in Miss Dirt Turtle’s Garden Club could easily fall into despair in their urban-blight neighborhood surrounded by bullies and addicted kin. But watchful elders steer them toward beauty and hope, and teach them (and us) about the transforming power of kindness.” —Marie Manilla, Author The Patron Saint of Ugly “The power of compassion, community and shared experience runs deep through Daniel Boyd’s book—along with a surprising amount of genuine emotion and inspiration.” —Robert Tinnell, Writer/Director Feast of the Seven Fishes

Daniel Boyd

Daniel Boyd is an acclaimed filmmaker (Chillers, Strangest Dreams, Paradise Park), a two-time television regional Emmy nominee, a multi-nominated graphic novelist (Chillers I & II, CARBON, SALT, and playwright (Paradise Park the Musical, Space Preachers the Musical, Miss Dirt Turtle’s Garden Club Musical.) The Adventures of Wandala, his previous multi award-winning book, is also a Gold Mom’s Choice Award Winner. A retired media studies professor at West Virginia State University, Boyd also taught around the world including in Tanzania as a three-time Fulbright scholar. He recently retired as Artist in Residence at WV State University’s Economic Development Center.

Garden Club illustrated by

Daniel Boyd Hector Mexia

Miss Dirt Turtle’s

Garden Club Daniel Boyd illustrated by

Hector Mexia

Dedicated to the founding members of the Main Street Garden Club: Tavarish (T Man) Porter- Martin, Terykah Porter-Martin and Rajanae Lacy. Very special thanks to Larry Groce for lending me a few verses from his beautiful songs. Miss Dirt Turtle’s Garden Club by Daniel Boyd illustrated by Hector Mexia copyright ©2022 Daniel Boyd All rights reserved. This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents, except where noted otherwise, are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any other resemblance to actual people, places or events is entirely coincidental. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any other form or for any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any information storage system, without written permission from Headline Books. To order additional copies of this book, or for book publishing information, or to contact the author: Headline Kids P. O. Box 52 Terra Alta, WV 26764 Email: mybook@headlinebooks.com www.headlinebooks.com Lucas Kelly—Design/Layout Published by Headline Books Headline Kids is an imprint of Headline Books ISBN-13: 9781951556723

Library of Congress Control Number: 2021946128


1 The old lady did not even look up from digging in her garden as the excited children skipped by her fence. Coming in the other direction was an old Black man, calling out, “Yardwork! Fast and cheap,” the man sang out as he pushed an old shopping cart filled with yard tools. The kids all called him Old Head, but they barely paid any attention to him. Just another of the “working poor.” The streets were tight in this minority community. A whisper within a block could be heard perfectly. And it was often more than a whisper in this had-betterdays neighborhood. Frustrations often spilled out from the disenfranchised. Once a prosperous working-class neighborhood, the prosperity slowly faded into the barely “making it.” But the old Black lady was in her well tended garden every spring, oblivious to the noise around her. None of the kids knew her name; they just referred to her as Dirt Turtle. If she cared about the insult, or even heard it, she paid no attention. The five best friends slowed their celebratory run, escaping from their last day at Mary C. Snow Elementary School. Ending the 5th grade meant they would move to Middle School next year—no longer one of the little kids! 3

Taking a break, they lowered their overstuffed book bags to the sidewalk at the fence of the digging old lady. “Won’t need to haul these again!” exclaimed Rajanae. “Not until Westside Middle!” Terykah excitedly added. “A whole summer free! What are we gonna do first?” Rosie chimed. “I know what I’m going to do tonight,” Marty interjected. “Watch TV all night and sleep till noon!” His mood then shifted as if just remembering. “If Mom ever gets the cable back on,” he added quietly. His four best friends knew that Marty had the worst home life of them all. Being the only White kid in their group of best friends (Terykah, Raj, and Chatter were Black, and Rosie, short for Rosalina, was Hispanic), the others always felt bad for Marty. But he never complained. Trying to change the sad subject, Rosie turned to Chatter. “How about you, Chatter?” Smiling, the other four knew Chatter would not say. He never spoke. Thus, his nickname, Chatterbox. He just shrugged his little smile. Which made them all smile. With all their varied differences, one thing was for sure— they loved each other. And to have a friendship like that was critical in a neighborhood like this. And as if on cue, one of their biggest obstacles for survival in the hood came running toward them. “Shorties!” yelled a kid running with a pack of older kids down the street toward them. “Get them!” yelled another. The kids turned to the angry, shouting voices coming in their direction. “Hammerheads! Run!” And four of them did just that. All but Chatter. He had become fascinated with the old lady meticulously clearing the small ovals in preparation to plant the circles in the small



garden that was beside them. It was as if Chatter was noticing the old lady for the first time. Chatter opened the chain-link gate that bordered the garden, right beside the sidewalk. From behind the old lady, he watched her methodical process of clearing the small garden space. It was as if he was mesmerized by something fantastic that had always been there, but he was now seeing for the first time. The old lady paid no attention to the boy as he stepped closer to the garden to inspect. Neither seemed to care the other was there. Chatter mimicked the way the old lady cleared the small ovals and then knelt to begin his own. Chatter had almost forgotten about the invading force that sent his friends fleeing for their lives from the bullies. The Hammerheads arrived in a collective cloud of stink, right in front of Dirt Turtle’s yard. “Dang it, they got away!” one of the Hammerheads said, not noticing the old lady and Chatter behind her. “Ah, it’s a long summer. We got plenty a-time to terrorize those shorties!” another said. The dozen or so Hammerheads were all 12 to 14 years old and were all the colors of the hood-bully rainbow. Like most bullies, they ran in a pack, feeding on the younger and weaker. Why, they never knew. It’s just what some kids did at that age. Kids needed to feel stronger than someone, as almost all of them had been treated unkindly by other older kids at some time. Sometimes by uncaring parents. They needed to feel superior to someone, anyone. “Fish eat fish,” they just figured. And being younger, Chatter and his friends were the closest to catch in their small world. As they started to leave, one noticed Chatter digging behind the old lady. He hoped they would not notice as most people never seemed to pay any attention to the strange old lady.



“Hey! There’s the little mute boy! He may not talk, but I’m sure he squeals.” En masse, the gang started for the open gate. As if not even noticing them, the old lady casually walked over and closed it, flipping the latch. She then returned to her gardening. “You can’t hide in there with crazy old Dirt Turtle forever, mute boy!” a Hammerhead shouted to Chatter. “It’s a long summer. We’ll get all you shorties soon enough!” They continued flinging insults as they raced down the street. After the Hammerheads were out of sight, Chatter watched curiously as the old lady planted her first seeds in her cleared spots. Before, she dug with her bare hands, loosening the fresh soil before pushing the seeds a few inches into the earth. Chatter stepped closer and took some seeds from her box. She neither seemed to notice nor care. With his bare hands, he dug and planted a seed into his own little plot. Both were content in their silence as they continued their task.


2 “Chatter, what the heck?” Rajanae said across the fence. Chatter and the old lady had cleared and planted a few plots, but there was much more to go to complete the entire garden area. His four friends had sneaked back to the block after making sure the Hammerheads moved on. They stared dumbfounded at what they saw. “Did old Dirt Turtle kidnap you?” Marty asked. Chatter shook his head “no” and continued, contentedly planting. “You...wanna do this? Like, by choice?” Rosie asked in amazement. Chatter just kept clearing, digging, and planting. “That old witch has a spell on you. Run, Chatter!” Marty yelled. Terykah added, “She’ll lure you into her gingerbread house and cook you!” The old lady did not even seem to hear or notice the others. Marty was losing patience with this absurd scene. “Come on, the Hammerheads will come back!” The four friends slowly noticed Chatter was not leaving, happy with what he was doing. Shock slowly changed to puzzlement as they watched the strange act. 9

They observed from outside the fence for a bit, then cautiously eased through the gate and slowly closer into the yard. Chatter turned and casually offered the box of flower seeds to his friends. Curiosity started to take over. They slowly stepped into the garden, each eventually taking a seed. Watching how the old lady and Chatter worked, Rosie and Rajanae carefully prepared their plots. Unable to resist, Terykah began to join in. As she first reached into the soil, she exclaimed, “Ewww, dirt is dirty!” The kids giggled at their prissy friend, except Marty, who was having none of this. The other four seemed to be starting to actually enjoy the activity. “Have you flipped your lids?” Marty yelled at his mates. “This is how you wanna start our summer...in the dirt? With Dirt Turtle? Why?” The four reflected on Marty’s question. Rajanae pondered, “It’s kinda...fun.” “Yeah, it’s fun,” Rosie agreed. Without looking up, Chatterbox nodded agreement. Terykah turned to the strange old lady who had not spoken a single word, not even acknowledging their presence, “So...Why?” she asked. Without looking up, the old lady only said, “A seed can’t grow until it’s planted in the ground.” The four pondered the vague explanation. Perhaps it was code for something bigger, more complex? “SEE!” said Marty losing his cool. Which he was prone to do. “Dirt Turtle is cuckoo puffs! And so are you for playing along!” The four pondered Marty’s evaluation. “I don’t know, Marty. It just...” “It just what?” Marty impatiently interjected. “I don’t know. It just...feels right.” Her three partners considered her explanation. After thinking for a moment,



they agreed it was a good enough explanation for them. Stupefied, Marty could only shake his head. As the four returned to the garden, he skulked off and sat on the street curb behind them. He had no other friends. Nothing else to do. And he sure did not want to go to his home. That’s the last place he wanted to be. A few hours later, the kids had made good progress, some of the plots shaped, the soil hand-tilled, and the seeds sown. Lost in their quest, Rajanae stopped with a realization of the real world. “Shoot. I gotta get home for supper.” “Me, too,” Rosie added. They were all disappointed the workday was done except for Marty, who still sulked on the curb. As they started to leave, Terykah turned back to the old lady, “May we come back tomorrow?” The other three new gardeners nodded; they wanted the same. The old lady had still barely acknowledged their presence the whole time. She did not even look up. Chatter nodded a yes to the other three; he thought that meant it would be okay. They would learn that was her usual response—no response. As they started to leave, Terykah stopped and turned back, “Ma’am, may we ask what your name is? I mean... Your real name?” They nervously waited for her to answer. Slowly, without looking up, the old lady said, “What name do you call me?” The kids were embarrassed, reluctant to say. Rosie replied, “We’d...rather not say. “What name do you call me?” the old lady repeated. The kids realized she would not budge until they would say it. Embarrassed, Rajanae quietly replied, “Dirt Turtle.” “Then that is my name.” the old lady said definitively. All Rosie could say was, “But...” They realized that was



all she would say on the matter. Perhaps that was a lesson the kids wondered. But what was the lesson? Insulting an old lady? Giving up, the kids began to leave. “Okay then, thanks, Miss Dirt Turtle!” Terykah called back. “See you tomorrow, Miss Dirt Turtle!” Rosie added. As Marty joined the others on the street, he turned back to the old lady. He glared at her, saying, “Dirt Turtle!” If she heard, she did not show it. Marty lived the closest to his four best friends. All were within three blocks of Miss Dirt Turtle’s. Marty’s shabby HUD rental house was just two doors down, across the street: a direct view of the old lady’s house and yard. Even though he lived the closest, he waited until his friends were out of view before reluctantly walking to his door. All these kids would be considered poor by national standards, but none of them felt like they were. Except for Marty. He and his sick mother were poor. And in her condition, she put no effort into improving their subsidized condition. His friends had many dreams. Marty had only one—a real home. Of course, his dream would remain his secret, too ashamed to reveal it to even his best friends.


3 Marty’s friends were already working in Miss Dirt Turtle’s garden when he caught up with them the next morning. “Really? Our first day of summer vacation and you’re digging in the dirt?” The friends seemed happy as clams, now down to the nitty-gritty of the early stages of preparing the plot. “Come on, Farty-Marty, dig in!” Rajanae teased. The kids laughed. “It’s stupid. You don’t even know what you’re planting!” The kids paused to ponder. “He’s right,” Rosie said. She turned to the old lady, “Miss Dirt Turtle, what are we planting?” As they were learning, her response was almost always the same— no response. The kids accepted not knowing what they were planting. After all, they were never invited. They just moved in. “Guess we’ll find out when they grow,” Rajanae shrugged. “Big dummies,” was Marty’s response. The kids giggled at this; the insult only seemed to make them happier. 15

In spite of Marty, the four dug deeper into their different individual plots. When Terykah pulled up her hands, she was mortified by her beautiful fingernails, now coated with dirt. “Oh, my beautiful nails!” With a smile, Rajanae reminded what her friend had said the day before: “Dirt is dirty.” Getting over the shock, Terykah played along, “Dirt, dirt, dirty, I’ll dream of worms in my bed...” trying to find the rhyme. “Can’t get dirt outta my head.” Raj joined in, “I’m digging to China, so keep your bowls. I’m bringing back us all some egg rolls!” The four laughed harder. Rosie extended the game, “And when it rains, dirt gets dirtier. Rain comes, never fails… and sometimes it rains like… HAIL!” The kids doubled over in laughter with her near-dirty joke. They were truly happy except Marty, who just shook his head on his curbside. Later that afternoon, Rosie changed the topic: “A little birdy told me our final report cards come tomorrow.” They all gave a collective groan. Terykah added, “Will you ask that birdy to bring us Cs. That is all we need, Cs’ are passing.” These were the kind of kids who were never encouraged to have high expectations. The road to opportunity rarely led out of this neighborhood. “I’ll try,” Rosie, said looking up to the sky. “Little birdy, will you please bring us Cs? That’s all we need to get to middle school.” The kids laughed… until the strangest thing happened. All the birds in Miss Dirt Turtle’s yard started chirping excitedly. The flock of assorted birds ascended first in front of Miss Dirt Turtle as if extending a greeting to an old friend. She waved back to them as if that were normal. But to the kids, this was anything but normal. 16


They stared, trying to figure out if the birds were actually communicating. Confused, Rajanae asked Miss Dirt Turtle, “What are they saying?” Without even looking up, Miss Dirt Turtle replied, “Here I am. What everyone wants to say. Just, Here I am.” The kids would ponder this for a long time. *** Not all report card news would be good for them all. The next morning, the kids ran to gather at the garden, carrying their sealed final reports that came in the morning’s mail. Of course, they were addressed to the parents, but the kids learned that trick years before: Intercept the mail before their parents get it. What they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them, the kids reasoned. And most parents in that neighborhood rarely paid attention, having bigger real-life problems to deal with. Miss Dirt Turtle had already started gardening when they arrived. They stared together in nervous anticipation, holding the sealed envelopes. “Please be Cs,” Rajanae said into the air. “If I pass, Momma promised me my pony this year.” For as long as the kids had known Raj, she had asked for a pony every year. “Yeah, I’m good with Average,” Rosie added. “Let’s do this!” Terykah shouted as she ripped her envelope open. The others followed suit. As they read their results, Rosie yelled, “Bing-BangBoom, all Cs!” “Me, too!” Terykah cheered. “Yeah, baby, all the way down C-Ville, I’m getting my pony!” Rajanae added. They turned to Chatterbox. He nodded affirmatively, but they had always suspected he was a much better 18


student than them. It all was left to Marty, who stared at his card. “Well?” Rosie asked what they all wanted to know. Looking up, Marty said, “All C’s.” The four others cheered! That was until Marty added, “And one F, in English.” The cheer instantly turned into a collective groan. The kids were mortified. “How, Marty?” Rajanae asked. Embarrassed, Marty replied, “I don’t read too good.” “So...now what?” Rosie asked. Marty just shrugged. “Looks like I’m back at Mary C. Snow. Unless...” “Unless WHAT!” Terykah jumped in. “Unless I retake the English part in a month and pass.” “Then study! Read!” Rosie added. Dejected, Marty replied, “Come on, guys. You know where we live. Do we have books? And the few grown-up ones, I’d never make any sense of.” Terykah said, “Your mom’s gonna kill you.” “She won’t even notice. She’s...sick,” he said, looking away. Confused, Rajanae tried to reason, “She can get medicine.” Marty just hung his head lower, “That’s what she’s sick from. Medicine. The bad kind.” The realization settled in for them. All fighting tears, the four best friends spontaneously hugged Marty. He did not resist. They had forgotten about Miss Dirt Turtle. But she would not forget about Marty’s situation.




4 The next morning, Marty took up his spot on the curb, head in hands. Terykah and Rosie tried to go through the motions, but hurt badly for their friend. And sorry for themselves as well. The five had been together through every grade. And now it looked like their beautiful quintet was ending. Suddenly, the quiet was invaded by Marty shouting, “Holy cow, Raj got her pony!” Rajanae glided next to them on her new Stingray bike. She began doing gleeful figure-8s in front of them. The four friends rushed out to see up close. They marveled at the bright pink bike with a banana seat, elevated handlebars, and colorful streamers flowing in the air. It was indeed a sight to see! “How could you afford this?” Terykah yelled. “My grandpa built it out of old parts. Bought a new seat and painted it!” Rajanae enthused. “It looks brand new!” Rosie marveled. “I know!” Raj said as she riffed, “My pretty, pretty pony...Pink and frilly, my pretty little filly.” She glided onto the yard, carefully putting the kickstand down. “She is a beauty,” Marty marveled. “Yep,” was all that Raj could say. 23

As the kids settled back into their garden spots, Terykah noticed a big old cardboard box in the yard next to the garden, “I didn’t see that before.” Unable to resist, she reached in and pulled out a comic book. “Comic books, there must be hundreds!” The others gather around. They looked back to the old lady who had appeared to not even notice them. “Can we look at these, Miss Dirt Turtle?” Rosie asked. Her response was the same. No response. They took that as a “yes” and dove into the box. Each took five or six comics, quickly glancing through. Rajanae exclaimed, “These are old school! 1980s!” Terykah adds, “And super cool!” The kids plopped right there in the yard and started diving into their buried treasure. “She’s Black like me... Storm,” Terykah said, looking at her comic in amazement. Trying to read: “She has...Pee...Ion...” Helping her with pronunciation, Chatter gently read, “That’s psionic power, pronounced si-onnic.” Terykah tried to read on. “Psionic power. And before, she was with the X-Men. She was an African Princess from...Kansas?” Chatterbox helped his struggling friend. “That’s Kenya.” He read over her shoulder. “She was Queen to T’Challa.” “Who?” Terykah asked. “The Black Panther of Wakanda,” Chatter read. Terykah exclaimed, “She looks like me!” Rajanae added, “Like we! Who knew there were comics that looked like us?” Chatter picked up another Black Panther comic. “And this mighty man is Black like me.” Looking at a different comic, Marty tried to understand what he was seeing and struggled to read.



“There was a Black Green Lantern? I never knew that. Trained by Cat...Ta...” Chatter helped. “Katma Tui.” Marty tried to read on. “Katma Tui, from the planet of Kor...U.” Chatter assisted. “Korugar.” Marty read the corrected pronunciation, “Korugar. Cool!” He read on, totally engaged. “Firebird, Bonita Juarez!” Rosie squealed, looking at the comic she found. “She’s Latina, like me! She has the power of pie...rok…” She struggled. Chatter read over her. “Pyrokinesis,” he pronounced. “Which is?” she asked. “Power over flame,” Chatter clarified. “Thanks, Chatter!” Rosie replied. As if they all just realizing the same thing, they suddenly stared at Chatterbox. “You’re...talking,” was all Marty could say. “Yeah. So?” Chatter replied. Rajanae stammered, “And you talk...now? “Thought you needed help,” was his quiet response. Realizing the kids were done with gardening for this eventful day, Miss Dirt Turtle retired into her home. The kids were still trying to process Chatter talking, helping them at that, when Old Head called out, “Whatchya kids doin’?” They had not noticed him push his cart of lawn tools up the street in front of them. “Miss Dirt Turtle gave us a bunch of old comics,” Terykah said to the odd old man. Marty added, “Yeah, these comics are older than you, Old Head.” The kids laughed. “His comics were probably painted on cave walls!” Rajanae added with a jab. The kids laughed harder.



Old head, expressing no anger: “Should show respect to your elders,” was all he said. “Okay, Old Head. Go on back to cutting weeds or whatever you do,” Marty said, dismissing the man. Old Head, as they had always called him, still showed no anger at this disrespect. “Yeah, cutting weeds. That’s what old heads do.” He held their stare until he continued. “Let me tell you what else old heads do. Yeah, mow grass, haul trash. And even babysit for free when your parents have no money. Isn’t that right, Miss Terykah Jones?” Remembering, Terykah’s expression changed to shame, recalling the old man’s wife taking care of her when her mom was looking for work. He continued, “Who looks out for you when no one else does, even when you don’t see? Yeah, old heads.” He turned to Marty. “Mister Martin Brown, we know your momma is struggling. We work hard to keep the bad people away, who would keep her sicker.” Marty looked away, embarrassed. The kids realized Old Head knew them better than they had ever imagined. Old Head directed his attention to Raj. “Miss Rajanae Little, who had the tool when the water company cut off your water? Uh-huh, old heads.” Rajanae remembered, realizing who had helped them when they were desperate. “How ‘bout you, Tae’Vion Jackson?” The kids realized he was talking to Chatter. “Who got your TV outta Pawn?” Chatter was processing how they got their television back. Rosie realized she was next, being the last one on Old Head’s list. “Miss Rosalita Maria Gonzales, we know you got no papers. We keep a close watch to keep the ICE away from your door.” Like the others, Rosie was now embarrassed about how they had disrespected these wonderful old people of their neighborhood. “Yep, old heads.” 28


And if that was not enough, Old Head saved his biggest bomb to drop on these ungrateful kids. “And this beautiful elderly lady you call Dirt Turtle. She has a name. Miss June Autumn Greene. She lives every day with the unthinkable pain of losing her only child. The boy was about the age you are now when he passed.” The kids’ jaws dropped, looking at the old comics in their hands. They were her late son’s! “We may be old heads, but we try to hold this fragile rock together. We can’t save you all, but we save who we can. This neighborhood of ours.” Old Head let that settle in a moment before he started on his way. “Yardwork! Fast and cheap. Yardwork!” He continued his familiar chant down the street. Although these five friends were only ten years old, they all knew their lives were changed that summer day forever. They learned the hard way that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Learned it twice on the same day. And the summer was still young.


5 The girls were already in the garden with Miss Dirt Turtle the next morning. Chatter and Marty were sitting in the yard, Chatter helping his friend with his reading. “The Black Panther is known in this res-plen-dent... resplendent jungle.” “Doing great, you’re getting it, buddy!” Chatter encouraged him. Terykah interrupted the two, seeing something unusual happening on their street. “Marty! A cop and some lady are taking your mom away!” Marty and Chatter jumped to the fence where they could see better down the block. The cop guided Marty’s mom into the backseat, and the other lady watched them drive away. Marty continued to watch and saw her turning to them. “Uh oh,” he said. “I think she’s coming here,” Rajanae warned Marty. They all knew if the lady was coming to one of them, it would be Marty, the only White member of their group. And she did indeed zero right in on Marty as she arrived at the garden where the kids and the old lady were. All were watching in fear, except for Miss Dirt 31

Turtle, who appeared to pay no attention, focusing on pulling weeds around the plot. “Martin Brown?” the middle-aged White lady asked toward Marty. If she was a cop, she was plain-clothed, in a simple business suit. “You taking my mom to jail?” Marty asked the lady, looking ashamed. “No, sweetie. I talked with the police and your mother, and we all agreed it would be best to take her to a treatment center instead. She is not a criminal. She’s sick. And we’re going to get her help. If all goes well, she’ll be back in thirty days. Fit as a fiddle. Do you understand, Martin?” Marty nodded reluctantly. “Fit as a fiddle,” he repeated without conviction. Drawing closer, the lady gently shook Marty’s reluctant hand. Out of respect to the boy, she guided them further onto the sidewalk to allow more privacy. But his friends could hear them perfectly, afraid for their friend. “I am Miss Francis,” the lady continued. “You a cop?” was all Marty said. “No, dear! I am with the Child Protective Services. A social worker. But until your mom gets better, we’ll have to find a safe place for you. There are nice group homes who—” Marty interrupted, “I’ll stay at my aunt’s. She just lives a couple of blocks from here. I’ve stayed with her lots of times.” “That’s perfect.” Miss Francis smiled. “Family is best for these...situations. Let’s go see your aunt.” She guided the boy toward her car. On impulse, Chatter gathered up as many comics as he could carry and ran to Marty. Without enthusiasm, Marty accepted the offering. The kids watched them drive away.



“I’ve never seen an aunt,” Rajanae said, still in shock over what just had happened. “Me either,” Chatter said. *** Late that night, long after the kids had left, the neighborhood slept. Avoiding the streetlights, Marty crept along the side of his now unoccupied HUD house. He crawled into an open window, careful not to turn any lights on so that no one might notice. But someone did notice. And would continue to notice every night.


6 While the kids were tending their garden, Marty walked up, careful to approach from a nearby street. He was carrying the stack of the comics Chatter had given him. The kids were thrilled to see him. “You bust out?” Terykah said. “Just during the days. Work release, I guess,” Marty forced a joke back. “Then let’s get back to work,” Chatterbox said, sliding out the box of comics. “You still have a test to pass.” For a person who never spoke, Chatter was making up for lost time. But it was for a good cause. They took their reading spot in the yard, Chatter helping Marty struggle through each sentence. But Chatter was very patient, encouraging his friend through every book they would read over for the next few weeks. Even the girls would take breaks to read from their favorites. Who thought reading could be fun? they thought. Miss Dirt Turtle continued to teach the kids how to garden. Not with words, as she rarely spoke, but by her actions. The kids realized there was a wealth of knowledge in that special lady, if only they would pay attention. As the kids were finishing for the day, Rosie said, “I’m going to the market and walk mama home from her work.” 35

“See you tomorrow, Rosie,” Rajanae said. “Bye, Rosie,” Terykah added. Marty chimed, “Tell your mom we said hey.“ Chatter just nodded a smile. Rosie got to the grocery store where her mom worked a little early, so she sat on the bench in front of the line where her mom was as the cashier. There were five lines with five cashiers. Rosie liked all her mom’s co-workers. Her mama had to work extra hard because she was still struggling with English. Rosie’s parents brought them here from Mexico to find a better life for their children. But being undocumented, they were always in fear of being kicked out of the country they now loved. Rosie sat quietly, thinking about the nice day she had spent with her friends. Her nice memories came to a screeching halt when she heard a loud, angry voice coming from her mom’s line. “That’s not the price it said in the store!” the mean man said as her mom scanned a can of soup. “I am sorry, sir,” she quietly said in her heavily accented voice. “We change no price. We...como se dice... scanner to...” “Speak English, lady!” the mean man interrupted. “You’re in America!” “I am sorry,” Rosie’s mom quietly replied. “Yeah, and hurry up! I don’t want to be here all day!” interrupted the lady in the line behind the man. Rosie was shocked. She could not believe what she was hearing. Why would people speak like this to her wonderful and kind mother? After work, Rosie and her mom quietly walked toward their home. She knew that her mom’s feelings were hurt. “You okay, Mamma?” Rosie’s mom forced a smile, “Si, mi chiquitita linda. Just...tired.” 36


Rosie always liked it when her mom called her pretty. But she knew her mom was not just tired. The next day in the garden, Rosie told the others about the mean people. She turned to Miss Dirt Turtle. “Why, Miss Dirt Turtle?” They did not expect the old lady to speak, as she rarely did, but Miss Dirt Turtle stopped and thought about this. “Well, some grownups, when they were little, there were people who were mean to them. It made them feel they were less important than they were. And there are some adults who are still sad and angry about their lives.” The kids were shocked, as these were more words than they had ever heard Miss Dirt Turtle say. And there was more! “They have the need to feel they are better than some others. And clerks can be the easiest targets. The workers who really need their jobs, so they can’t complain.” The kids were confused. Without even looking up from her weeding, Miss Dirt Turtle continued, “Are there people mean to you?” Spontaneously the kids blurted, “THE HAMMERHEADS!” The Hammerheads were the older, bigger kids that picked on the little ones in the neighborhood. “How can we make people stop that?” Rosie asked. “It probably won’t work for the Hammerheads. Most of them will just grow out of it. But with grownups, show them kindness.” “What?” the usually quiet member of the garden club, Chatter, blurted. “No way!” Terykah agreed. “Be nice to mean people?” Rajanae chimed. “This garden is not going to weed itself,” was Miss Dirt Turtle’s final reply. The kids got back to their work, but they were still thinking, trying hard to understand.



7 The next day, after the kids finished their work in the garden, Rosie decided to go early to wait for her mom to get off work again. She quietly slipped onto the bench that faced out to the clerk aisles. And she watched. She wondered if some people would be mean again. Sure enough, a lady raised her voice to Rosie’s mamma. “You need to stock the shelves better! None of my favorite potato chips are there!” Rosie moved and stood behind her mom’s register and smiled. The louder the woman got, the bigger Rosie’s smile grew. Rosie’s mom tried to explain. “But, ma’am, the truck...” “Truck? You’re just a...” The woman looked up to think of the worst word to say. And there was Rosie, beaming a smile right at her. The mean lady’s frown froze. Within seconds her expression dissolved into a smile. The lady turned back to Rosie’s mom. “I’m sorry, miss. I know it’s not your fault.” “It’s okay, ma’am,” Rosie’s mom responded in surprise. When she turned to see the lady leave, she saw Rosie smiling. It took a moment for her to understand what had just happened. And then realizing, Rosie’s mamma smiled back to her girl. 40


It worked! Rosie thought. And it worked the whole time she was there. Every time an angry customer came to Rosie’s mom’s register, their scorn turned into smiles. It was like they were just figuring out these workers were human beings, just like them. The next morning, Rosie excitedly told the others in the garden what had happened. “No way!” Marty said. “Way!” Rosie replied. “Come see for yourselves.” Before they could consider, Rosie turned to Miss Dirt Turtle. “Can we take a day off from the garden?” Miss Dirt Turtle did not even look up, which the kids knew meant that it was okay. “And do what?” Terykah asked. “Just smile,” Rosie said. And that is just what they did. Not believing it would work, each picked a bench behind each of the five cashiers. They discovered it was not just in Rosie’s mom’s line. It happened in all of them. Whenever a customer became mean to one of the tellers, each would stand behind their designated line and smile. Smile big. The meaner the people were, the bigger the kids smiled. And it worked! Every time! Toward the end of the shift, a young lady with a baby on her arm and a toddler in her other hand was trying to pay at Rosie’s mom’s register. Suddenly, her expression became of embarrassment. “Oh, ma’am, I’m so sorry, I’ll have to take a few of these things back.” She’d realized she did not have enough money to pay for it all. “I’ll put them all back on the right shelves.” Her baby started crying. “Oh, for heaven’s sakes, lady!” the customer behind her yelled. The customer behind him added, “We’ll be here all day!”



Without even thinking about it, all of Miss Dirt Turtle’s Garden Club kids were right there. “Don’t worry, ma’am.,” Rajanae said “We will put them back for you.” “Right where they need to be,” as Marty started picking up the things. “You bet, we gotcha.” Terykah added. Chatter nodded yes, and the more they collected her things to return, the bigger they smiled at her. “Put those things down, right now!” the angry man demanded. But he was not mad anymore. He was smiling. “I’ll take care of the rest of her bill. There was a time when it would happen to me too.” “So will I!” the angry lady added. And she was smiling too! The whole store smiled. *** “It worked, Miss Dirt Turtle! The mean people stopped being mean!” the kids yelled out to her as they got to their garden the next morning. Miss Dirt Turtle did not even look up, as the kids knew she would not. “But wait a minute.” Rajanae’s smile disappeared. “We can’t be there every day. What then?” The happy air they all had rushed out like burst balloons. They had not fixed it. Not permanently. “I have an idea!” Rosie excitedly said. The kids spent the next few hours sitting in the yard, cutting out oval shapes from poster board. Next, they drew with colored markers on each of their individual ovals. After that, they attached sticks on the back of each oval. When they looked at what each other had done, they could not stop giggling.




Having delivered their work to the cashiers the evening before, the kids were anxious to see if their experiment would work. As soon as they finished in the garden, they all ran to the store. Out of sight, peeking through the front window, they watched anxiously. It did not take long; they could see mean customers come to the registers. They could not hear them, but they knew that look. When a cashier got to an angry customer, they would just raise their shape attached to a stick in front of their faces. And every time, the mean people became nice when they saw the silly faces that were drawn on. They were smiling selfportraits of Rosie, Terykah, Chatter, Marty, and Rajanae. The next morning in the garden, this time they smiled all day. They even thought they saw Miss Dirt Turtle hiding a smile. The world seemed a little better to them.


8 Weeks later, Terykah, Marty, and Chatter stood in amazement at their garden. Miss Dirt Turtle was weeding around the plants that were now over chest high on the kids. Overnight, several blooms had popped out. Miss Dirt Turtle never had told them what they were planting, but now they saw—sunflowers! There were now dozens of thriving plants, hinting at the magnificence of what these kids had begun, with their very hands, and what they would soon become in the next weeks. “Wow...” was all Terykah could say. The happy mood quickly shifted when Rajanae moped up the yard to the others. Head hung. It looked like she had been crying. “Raj! What’s wrong?” Rosie asked. “Somebody stole my pretty pony,” Rajanae revealed. A spontaneous groan of AWWWWW came from her friends. Terykah and Rosie embraced her as Raj began to cry again. “What kind of person steals a kid’s bike?” Chatter said in disbelief. “It’s okay, Raj, somebody will find it,” Rosie said, trying to help. “Yeah, right,” Rajanae said through her tears. “In this neighborhood?” 48


Looking up to face her friends, she saw the magnificent plants. “Oh,” was all she could say. Trying to make her feel better, “Yeah, look what we’ve done!” Terykah said as Raj stared at the miracle that had seemed to just appear. “Beautiful,” Raj said, her tears drying. “Aren’t they,” Rosie added, trying to cheer her friend. Trying to keep her mind off her tragedy, they guided her into the garden. “Let’s weed around each of our plots,” Chatter said. Miss Dirt Turtle was already at it. Terykah, Rosie, and Chatter began doing just that, trying to encourage their sad friend. Remembering her loss, Rajanae began to cry again, “My pretty, pretty pony.” Marty took her hand and guided her to her garden section. “Come on, Raj, I’ll help you.” He gently guided her down and began to weed around her plants. She caught on and joined him. The other kids were shocked. “Farty-Marty is gardening?” Terykah said in amazement. “I must be dreaming!” Rosie added. Marty had refused to take part in the enterprise since the very beginning. “Yeah, very funny,” was all Marty could say to his friends, who were ribbing him. But he kept working. As they worked awhile, Chatter asked Marty, “You ready for your test tomorrow?” “As ready as I’m gonna be. I’ve read every comic we have. Twice,” Marty replied, without showing any confidence. “You’ve got this, Marty,” Rajanae said quietly to her new garden partner. “We believe in you.” Marty smiled at the encouragement. If only he believed in himself. 50


9 Late the next afternoon, Chatter, Rajanae, Terykah, and Rosie were finishing their garden chores for the day. They were quiet all day, anxious about Marty’s test. They did not speak about it, fearing they might jinx it. The kids did not want to consider the possibility of the five best friends not all going to middle school together the next year. As if on cue, Marty drug his way from the sidewalk into the yard. He did not appear happy, expressing no emotion. The four ganged around him. “So?” Rosie blurted. “Survey says?” Chatter anxiously asked. Rajanae added, “You get a C?” Holding a piece of paper, Marty looked up at them, “No.” “Ohhhhhhh,” the kids moaned. Marty grew a huge smile, “I got a ‘B’!” In spontaneous joy, they swarmed around him into a group happy dance! Terykah squealed, “YOU’RE GOING TO MIDDLE SCHOOL WITH US!” “Hurray!” the kids cheered! 52


“Thank you all,” Marty said sincerely. He shook Chatter’s hand. “Thanks, Chatter, couldn’t have done it without you.” Chatterbox smiled. “You’re welcome. It was a team effort. Miss Dirt Turtle’s Garden and Book Club.” Marty walked over to where Miss Dirt Turtle was working, of course seeming to pay no attention to the spectacle. “Thank you, Miss Dirt Turtle.” That was the first time he had ever said the name the kids had christened her. In fact, that was the first thing he had said at all to her since he insulted her that first day. Without turning, she simply nodded. And that was plenty good enough for him. The kids pulled him down their street, continuing their happy dance all the way. When all were well out of sight, Miss Dirt Turtle smiled. It was a little one, but it was a smile.



10 “GET OUT OF MY YARD!” yelled the angry man as Terykah picked up the empty cup someone had thrown into his yard. It had been her habit to carry a bag and collect the rubbish in the yards as she walked down Main Street to assume her summer duties at their garden club. And to her, it seemed there had been more and more trash thrown into the small yards this year. Not only that, but the properties were also badly neglected, the bushes and trees untended, grass overgrown. And Terykah also lately noticed her and her friends at Miss Dirt Turtle’s yard was the only one with a garden. And what a magnificent one it was becoming. The dozens of sunflowers they had planted just weeks before were starting to blossom. Hadn’t there been many more gardens before in their neighborhood? She tried to remember. The angry man yelled into his house, “Get out here and clean up this yard, you lazy dummy!” Out stepped Hammerhead Harold. It was obvious Harold was afraid of his father. Terykah wondered if this angry man was even meaner than his son. As Terykah hurried away, Harold shouted, “I’ll get you. And your punk friends!” 56


Her so-called “punk” friends were already in Miss Dirt Turtle’s garden when Terykah got to them. They were busy weeding around their beautiful plants. They could tell that she was upset. “What’s wrong, Terykah?” Rosie asked. “Hammerhead Harold’s father yelled at me for picking up trash in his yard.” “You went into Hammerhead Harold’s yard?!” Marty gasped. Rajanae chimed, “Are you crazy? Harold is the meanest of all the Hammerheads!” “I didn’t know it was his yard,” Terykah explained. “Why has our street become so...messy, Miss Dirt Turtle?” she asked her mentor. Miss Dirt Turtle had never asked them to join her to plant in her garden. It had just sort of happened. That spring, the last day of school, the friends had been chased down their street by the bully Hammerheads. While the others ran further down, Chatter came into Miss Dirt Turtle’s garden and hid behind the old lady. Becoming intrigued, uninvited Chatter began to plant beside the strange old lady. When his friends returned, they thought Chatter had lost his mind. But strangely enough, they all joined in that summer and eventually were taking great pride in their accomplishment. “It didn’t use to be like that,” Miss Dirt Turtle finally replied. “People took pride in their homes and yards. Most had well kept lawns and gardens. Many put up Christmas lights in December and even had block parties in the summer.” “What happened?” Rosie asked. If Chatter was a person of few words, Miss Dirt Turtle was a person of fewer. But what she would say to the kids would always be very good words.


“When the homeowners passed on, many of their kids sold the houses to move onto what they thought would be better lives somewhere else,” Miss Dirt Turtle continued. “Some not-so-nice landlords bought the houses for cheap and turned them into rentals. They didn’t care about the well being of the homes as long as they got their rent checks every month. People sometimes lose pride in what they think is temporary, places they do not own. When I got this house, we were not wealthy but took pride in our community. But what is ownership? Everything, everywhere, is temporary. You need to learn to love the space you are in. However long it may be. You are you wherever you are.” The kids thought a lot about what Miss Dirt Turtle told them as they worked. Much of it they did not understand, but they had learned to know what they did understand--what they did not may someday make sense to them. When the time was right, they supposed. But without talking to each other, they all had the same thought: Was there a way to help their street?


11 The next morning, Terykah carried her bag but was surprised there was very little yard trash from the night before. Maybe the folks were getting the message. But she did notice something new. In one yard, there was a For Sale sign. It was the home of Gus and Lavonna Moss. They just had beautiful new twin boys. Terykah liked the Mosses. She hoped when the boys got older, they would join their garden club. Mister Gus came out to collect the mail when he saw Terykah’s confused look. “Are you all moving, Mr. Gus?” she asked. “Afraid we got to,” he sadly replied. “Landlord raised the rent, and with Lavonna having to stay home with the boys, we can’t afford it. He offered to sell it to us at a price we could afford, but we could never get enough for the down payment the bank demanded. Pity, we love this house.” When she got to the garden to tell the others the sad news, she suddenly realized why there was no trash along their street. It was all strewn over Miss Dirt Turtle’s yard. Miss Dirt Turtle was picking it up. The other kids had not arrived yet.



“I told you I’d get you!” a voice yelled out from behind Terykah. Standing on the sidewalk was the smiling Hammerhead Harold and his fellow bullies. They seemed quite proud of their accomplishment. As the other garden club kids arrived, they all quickly jumped in and helped Miss Dirt Turtle clear the rubbish from the lawn. Already bored, the Hammerheads left to find their next neighborhood devilment. Terykah felt terrible. “I’m sorry, Miss Dirt Turtle. This is all my fault.” “Don’t ever be sorry for trying to do something nice,” Miss Dirt Turtle said. They continued clearing the mess together. “Why do people do things like this?” Rosie asked. Miss Dirt Turtle thought carefully. “For some people, beauty makes them angry. Reminds them of what they can’t find in themselves.” The kids thought all day about this new grownup mystery Miss Dirt Turtle had laid on them. As they finished that day, they were just as confused as when the morning began. It just did not make sense. “Let’s do something about it!” Terykah said to her mates. “There’s nothing we can do,” Rajanae said. Even Chatter shrugged in acceptance of defeat. Terykah picked up the seed bucket, showing them that there were still dozens of sunflower seeds left over. “Can we take some of these, Miss Dirt Turtle?” Miss Dirt Turtle’s response was the same as it almost always was—no response. But the kids had learned it meant it was okay. Terykah turned to her mates. “Let’s regrow our neighborhood!”



“Are you nuts? If you’re thinking what I’m thinking,” Marty continued, “these people don’t even want us in their yards, any day.” Terykah smiled, “That’s why we’ll plant at night. After they’ve gone to bed.” As the idea grew and blossomed like their plants, the other four’s confusion dissolved into smiles as big as Terykah’s.



12 As secretly agreed, the five friends set their alarms for 4:00 a.m. They realized in the hot months, many neighbors sat on their porches until late at night. They must find the time when no one was awake for their plan to work. Each slipped quietly out of their homes—their parents would never approve—and met at Miss Dirt Turtle’s yard. They were both nervous and excited when they sleepily all came together. “We need to split up. Each take some of the seeds and plant in the yards where the neighbors won’t notice. Hopefully, they’ll think they’re just weeds and leave them alone until...” Surprising them all, Chatter finished the sentence, “Boom!” This was especially funny as Chatter almost never spoke. This made them all giggle as they set off to separate yards. The kids worked quickly, clearing small plots they thought would not be noticed. They had covered their whole block just as the dawn was starting to peek up. In the last minutes of darkness, the five met together, away from one of the streetlights. “Get them all?” Terykah whispered. They all smiled a proud affirmation. 66


Rajanae whispered, “We need to sneak back home before...” Too late. An adult voice came out of the darkness: “Before your families catch you?” The kids were so busted, their masterful plan ruined! From a darkened porch, Mr. Old Head sauntered quietly down to the kids. They were relieved when they saw who it was. He had become their friend. “Why are you awake, Mr. Old Head?” Marty asked. “Don’t sleep much these days,” the old man answered. “I don’t think the grownups would be happy if they knew about this.” “You saw what we were doing?” Rosie asked. “Old heads see everything. That’s what we do. No, don’t think the neighbors would be happy ‘bout you sneakin’ and plantin’ in their yards.” He let this settle in before continuing. “But it makes me happy. Not too much work for me these days. Folks seem to stop caring about their yards. We need a little beautifying around here. Now get along. I’ll keep an eye out for you until you get home.” And that is what they did, gone in the night.



13 A few weeks later, Terykah ran excitedly down the street to their garden, yelling, “They’re growing. Some are blooming!” “Duh!” said Marty. “We’re looking right at them,” pointing at their newly blossoming sunflowers. “No! The whole block, come see!” Terykah yelled. Her mates ran down the street with her. Many of the neighbors were staring dumbfounded at the alien plants that just seemed to magically appear out of their weedy yards. “Yardwork! Fast and cheap. Yardwork!” came Mr. Old Head in his sing-songy call, pushing his creaky shopping cart filled with yard tools. As he pushed his cart up to the kids, he winked. The kids proudly winked back. And Mr. Old Head got a lot of work that day and the summer days to come. Most of the neighbors seemed to re-find interest in their properties. They would carefully protect and clear around the sunflowers. Many of them planted other flowers around their small yards. Tender mercies sprang up all around the block. A few days later, Mr. Gus walked up to the garden and handed envelopes to Miss Dirt Turtle and the kids. Terykah began to cry, “I can’t open it.” 70

“Why in the world not?” Mr. Gus asked. “It’s a goodbye letter and we don’t want you to leave.” Her friends sadly thought the same thing. “Oh Lordy, no!” Mr. Gus laughed. “It’s an invitation to our Housewarming Party tomorrow.” Mr. Gus beamed. “Our banker found a special no-down-payment loan. We own the house now! Just pay the monthly mortgage, which is less than the rent we had to pay for before. In twenty years, we’ll pay it off. Several of our other neighbors are looking into it, too.” The kids cheered! Miss Dirt Turtle struggled not to smile. She, of course, would never show a smile. The next day, the Housewarming had spontaneously evolved into an entire block party. Almost all the neighbors set up tables and chairs right on the street. They grilled and brought covered dishes out for all. Everyone was happy. Even the Hammerheads were well behaved. But the kids knew that would not last long. But still, it was nice for if only one day. As Miss Dirt Turtle’s Garden Club walked through the street, they beamed proudly at all the beautiful growing flowers that hemmed the block. The kids never confessed to the act. It was their secret. They hadn’t done it for thanks. They did it for love. And that block of Main Street had more love that day than it had in a very long time. Without having to say a word, the kids knew they helped replant a neighborhood. Planted with love seeds. And hopefully, it would grow and grow and grow. Terykah was reminded of the first words they ever heard from Miss Dirt Turtle: “A seed can’t grow ‘til it’s planted.” And they had planted it.



14 Weeks later, the kids stood on the sidewalk looking at the fully bloomed, massive sunflowers. “Wow,” was all Rajanae could say. Marty added in amazement, “Must be over ten feet tall.” And the mammoth species were indeed ten feet and higher. But there were other strains mixed in, smaller and multicolored ones to balance out the magnificent canvas before them. The kids did not even know what they were planting that first day when they crashed Miss Dirt Turtle’s garden. Now they realized she had mixed a variety of species of sunflower seeds in the communal seed box. Terykah could only come up with “Beautiful...” Their group reverence-fest was interrupted by the common call they heard coming up the street: “Yardwork! Cheap and fast. Yardwork!” Mr. Old Head rang out his daily pitch. When he reached the kids, he stopped his squeaky cart behind them. “Somebody lose a pony?” he called. The kids turned back to see Mr. Old Head pulling Rajanae’s bicycle out of his cart. Raj ran to him.


“My pretty, pretty pony!” she screamed in excitement. She held it as if making sure it was real. It was! She gave Mr. Old Head the biggest hug she had in her. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Old Head!” “You’re welcome,” he replied with a smile. “A princess needs her pony.” The kids were overjoyed for their friend. “Who took it?” Marty asked. “Don’t you never mind. Old Heads took care of it. They won’t do it again,” was all he would say about that. “But just in case, keep your pony in the house when you’re done.” “Oh, I will, I promise!” Rajanae said, fighting back the tears of joy. Mr. Old Head looked up at the garden. “Nice garden. You kids did good.” “Thanks!” the kids chimed in proudly. As he started his cart on down the street, he nodded to Miss Dirt Turtle, who was barely visible, busy in the massive grove. “Ma’am.” She nodded back. “Yard work! Fast and cheap. Yardwork...” Mr. Old Head continued down the block. Rajanae said, “I think this is the greatest day of my life.” Between this and their peaked garden, the kids agreed. “Yeah,” Rosie beamed. But just as fast, their joyous moment screeched to a halt by a new storm coming their way. Francis, the CPS lady, rushed in. “Martin! Are you okay?” Marty was caught off guard, “Yeah. Fine. Something wrong with Mom?” “No. She’s fine. In fact, we’re bringing her home today. She’s better. Finished the program. But she said your aunt



was back in rehab herself soon after she was. Who took care of you?” Marty looked at his friends and the garden where Miss Dirt Turtle weeded, seeming not to notice the fuss. “I was looked out for,” he said. Instead of scolding him, Francis pulled Marty into a warm hug. “Oh Martin, I should have checked more. I just thought she was running errands when I stopped by. I can’t lose one of my kids.” “Sorry,” Marty said. And he meant it. “Your mom is on her way, as soon as we finish up the paperwork,” she added. “You be well, Martin,” she said as she turned back to her car. The confused kids followed Marty as he retreated into the yard. “Where did you stay?” Chatter pleaded. “I would just sneak back into our house when no one was around,” Marty explained. “For a month?” Terykah asked. Rosie added, “How did you eat?” Marty thought about this. “Craziest thing. Every morning I’d find a basket of food on the back stoop. No matter how early I’d get up, I’d never see who brought it.” The kids thought about this. But it only took a moment. At the same time, they all looked toward Miss Dirt Turtle, working in the garden as if not paying any attention to them. Their love for this woman overfilled their hearts.


15 Well settled into their new school, now wearing their fall jackets, the kids stared at what had been their magnificent garden with Miss Dirt Turtle. The plants had all died out after the season change. The heavy, lifeless, and colorless blooms bowed over. Many had totally fallen to the ground under their top-heavy blossoms. Rosie began to weep. The others were fighting it back. “Oh, Miss Dirt Turtle, our beautiful garden is dead.” Rajanae could no longer hold back her tears, “It was so beautiful,” she sobbed. Terykah joined in with her own tears, “This is so sad.” Marty was fighting his emotions as well. This place had healed him, healed them all. “What do we do now? Pull them up?” he asked helplessly. “Of course not,” Miss Dirt Turtle said. “A garden never dies. It just moves along. Resting, making room for a new one in the spring. We can’t pull them up until we plant next. What would our birdie friends have to eat during the long, cold winter? Some of the seeds fall onto the ground and grow next year. Their seeds help keep our garden alive.”


As if on cue, like months before, the birds swarmed around the garden, chirping happily. They seemed to know it was now okay to eat the yummy seeds. Miss Dirt Turtle waved to them, welcoming them. The deep sadness the kids had just felt quickly warmed with understanding. “Here I am!” Rosie shouted up. Rajanae added, “Here I am!” Terykah joined, “Here I am!” Even the boys chimed in, “Here I am!” And here they were.



16 Twenty-two-year-old Marty walked up to Miss Dirt Turtle’s porch. He could not wait to show her the college diploma he had just received that day. He and all of his garden partners had eventually earned full Promise Scholarships and moved on to further education after high school. Rosie was now a licensed social worker and now a fully legal U.S. citizen! Rajanae double-majored in business and early education. She had just opened “Miss Dirt Turtle’s Daycare Center” down the block. Terykah was completing her nursing degree with a few more credits to be a full RN. Her husband, Tae’Vion, was already a successful automotive technician specialist. But few of his colleagues knew him as Chatterbox, and he was okay with that. That nickname was reserved for his close friends, of which there were very few back then. Marty had an important first stop before he would next go look for an apartment. He had to find one soon, as he was just hired to teach summer school at Mary C. Snow Elementary, where he and his four best friends had started out. He was to start in just a couple of weeks. As he was thinking back, walking up to Miss Dirt Turtle’s door, he thought, Who would have ever thought back then 80


I would become an English teacher! This first stop was the most important. When he knocked on the door, there was no response. He waited for a moment before knocking again. He saw no signs of life. Looking around, he saw a large envelope wedged between the doors. Looking closer, he was surprised to see that it was made out to him: “Martin Brown.” Carefully wedging it out, he opened it. He saw what looked like a document. First, he took out the handwritten letter and slowly started to read: Dear Martin, I am so proud of you on hearing of your graduation. I am sorry I could not be here to greet you personally, but I had to move on to a new garden somewhere. It was my time. You said you never had a Forever Home. Now you do. The deed is signed over to you. Free and clear. Your room is ready. It has been since the day we first met. Just please remember: “A seed can’t grow ‘til it’s planted.” Love, Miss Dirt Turtle Marty tried to comprehend this. When he took out the document, a key fell. He picked it up, slowly starting to understand. He waited to wipe his tears before moving. That took a while. When he was mostly composed, he turned the key and walked into his forever home.



17 Early the next morning, Marty walked out of his home and looked out over the yard. He smiled and moved to the old garden plot. It was a mess. He sighed and kneeled to start pulling out the dead weeds. It looked like it had not been tended for a very long time. “Need some help, buddy?” came a voice from behind him. The grown-up Chatter walked into the yard, along with a smiling Terykah. “You’re weren’t going start without us, were you?” she added. Surprised, Marty started to stammer, “How did you know...” before he was interrupted by someone else. Rosie joined them. “A little birdy told us,” she said, smiling. “Miss Dirt Turtle’s Garden Club unites!” Rajanae shouted as she ran toward them. They collided in a giant love-hug, just like the happy dance they did as kids! The five best friends waded into the garden, preparing for battle against the neglected space. As they began pulling weeds, an old voice rang out: “Thought you kids might need some new recruits!”. They turned to see Mr. Old Head being pushed on a wheelchair by a middle-aged White lady. They rushed to him, yelling, “Mr. Old Head!” as they hugged him. 84



“Easy, easy now. Old Head’s even older now. Could you have ever imagined that?” He laughed. “And I think you might remember my pretty escort.” Marty’s eyes got big as he looked again at who was pushing the wheelchair. “Miss Francis?” “You’ve done well, Martin. I’m so proud of you.” Looking at the others, “All of you.” Age had changed her, but for sure, that was her. She extended a handshake, but Marty hugged her instead, which she warmly welcomed. “So, what do we do now?” a kid from around the dozen youngsters who had been following behind their respected elders asked. Mr. Old Head pointed to the founding members. “They’ll show you.” The five looked at these young scruffs, misfits from the neighborhood. They looked like...well, they looked just like they had when they were that age, they realized. Lost, needing direction. Needing “foundation.” Terykah said, smiling, “Yes, we will!” “Yeah, we’ll all show you,” Rosie added. And they did. They guided the new kids into different spots in the garden space. Just as they were starting to dig in: “Aren’t you forgetting something, Marty?” Marty looked up to Raj. It appeared his four friends were thinking the same. Marty thought for a moment. And then he got it! He turned to the new members. “A seed can’t grow ‘til it’s planted in the ground.” He beamed. And they began. “Ewww, dirt is dirty!” one of the new little girls said. The five founding members laughed. The End




“Miss Dirt Turtle’s Garden Club made me giggle and also cry real tears. The authentically diverse cast of characters captured my heart as they morphed from wise-cracking kids to a caring and inspired group of go-getters, making this treasured tome the total package.” —Book review by J.V. Poore for Goodreads

T t ur r i t D

’s le

Surviving adolescence is hard anywhere and five 10-year-old best friends try to survive a summer of bullies, parents with substance abuse issues, broken homes... crime... social workers... thieves... slumlords... and poverty. These five try to navigate all these pitfalls in a most unexpected way. Working in the sheltered garden of whom they always thought was just a mean, strange old lady. A woman of very few words, Miss Dirt Turtle lays a path of “foundation”—starting with the earth around them.

“The latch-key children in Miss Dirt Turtle’s Garden Club could easily fall into despair in their urban-blight neighborhood surrounded by bullies and addicted kin. But watchful elders steer them toward beauty and hope, and teach them (and us) about the transforming power of kindness.” —Marie Manilla, Author The Patron Saint of Ugly “The power of compassion, community and shared experience runs deep through Daniel Boyd’s book—along with a surprising amount of genuine emotion and inspiration.” —Robert Tinnell, Writer/Director Feast of the Seven Fishes

Daniel Boyd

Daniel Boyd is an acclaimed filmmaker (Chillers, Strangest Dreams, Paradise Park), a two-time television regional Emmy nominee, a multi-nominated graphic novelist (Chillers I & II, CARBON, SALT, and playwright (Paradise Park the Musical, Space Preachers the Musical, Miss Dirt Turtle’s Garden Club Musical.) The Adventures of Wandala, his previous multi award-winning book, is also a Gold Mom’s Choice Award Winner. A retired media studies professor at West Virginia State University, Boyd also taught around the world including in Tanzania as a three-time Fulbright scholar. He recently retired as Artist in Residence at WV State University’s Economic Development Center.

Garden Club illustrated by

Daniel Boyd Hector Mexia

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