Matt Durham grew up in an agricultural region in southeast Connecticut, and always loved hands-on learning. While studying writing, literature, and publishing at Emerson College in Boston, he got involved in food justice work and community gardens. After college, his City Year service year introduced him to ESYNOLA at Langston Hughes Academy, and he’s been working in the Dreamkeeper Garden ever since. Matt, or “Mr. Durham,” is a lead garden educator at LHA.
How would you describe your job to a Pre-K student?
We help people learn how to keep things growing. It’s everybody’s garden. We keep things happy and alive.
What first spoke to you about Edible Schoolyard’s mission, vision, or values?
I think what sparked my interest a lot was seeing how kid-driven all of this literally is. When adults come through the garden they don’t realize that kids are doing all this stuff, but it is the kids who are building the compost pile, watering, pulling weeds, taking care of the animals. This garden is totally kid-driven, and that’s what appealed to me at the start and has driven me for the past few years. Kids are the driving force behind everything we’re doing here.
What is your favorite thing you grow here in the Dreamkeeper Garden?
I’m going to say milkweed, because it’s cool to see kids identify plants that most adults can’t identify. We are growing milkweed for a specific purpose. It gives us a direct way of engaging kids in nature and being comfortable outside for them to be able to identify that plant, tell you about it, see butterflies and caterpillars on it, look for chrysalises around it, and tell you about how that habitat works together and there is intention behind plants we put in the garden. It’s not edible, but it serves a greater purpose.
What would people never guess that you do in your role.
Catch and release opossums. We’ve had four so far this year that were trying to get to the baby chickens.
What is your favorite age student at the moment?
I’ve been enthralled with kindergarteners. Just coming out to the garden, it really throws kids for a loop, but I really love that. You turn the corner and there’s something new for them to touch, smell, or feel. I love how amazed they are that there are all these things to interact with. Even if it doesn’t have to do with the lesson, sometimes we’ll just walk by something that’s rotting or tip over a log and see what’s underneath it. Those moments of pure awe from kids are special.
What were you like when you were in kindergarten?
At my kindergarten I remember you only went for half the day: a.m. or p.m., and I was in a.m. I remember one day it snowed and we got to stay the whole day. That was amazing. Another thing I remember from kinder was dissecting a peanut. I’m only connecting that and ESY right now, but maybe that’s something hands-on I did when I was a young child that connects to what I do now.
What’s your favorite place in the world?
I have many. City Park. It offers so many different things to different people. Art museum, exercise, nature, beauty. It’s got everything you need. That’s one.
Grand Isle would be another, during the birding festival. It’s indescribable what happens there when birds are migrating back and forth, you can see birds that have flown over the gulf that are really small. How did they do this? It gives you an appreciation for the little things in the world that are able to do things like that.
If you could share a garden salad with anyone, living or dead, who would you share the salad with, and what’s one thing you’d put in the salad?
My mom. I really respect my mom. And when you said, “garden salad,” I remember as a kid my mom would always make this salad that had onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers from our garden. That’s all that was in it, and Italian seasoning, oil, and vinegar. And I really love that combination of things, and it’s a really homey thing for me to eat. When I make it on my own it reminds me of being home and being with my family. So that salad, with my mom.
Do you have a favorite family tradition?
My favorite family tradition that we still do is Christmas Eve. It’s a big thing in Italian American families: the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It’s this big thing where you eat a bunch of fish and pasta. It’s one of the things my family has held onto for a long time.
What has been a favorite moment or proudest moment for you as a garden teacher?
The project I’m most proud of in our garden is the way that we handle waste and compost. It’s something we take pride in. I think what we try to instill in kids that instead of waste going to a landfill, we can do something different. It opens up a huge discussion about how we can impact how much we waste. I remember last year we had kids really questioning what to do with the plastic they get in their school supper every day. I didn’t have a good answer for them, but I’m really glad we’re thinking like that and having that discussion. The way we think and act around waste at our school is something I’m proud of, and I’m proud of the higher level of thinking our kids put into it.
In the time you’ve been with ESYNOLA, how has your perspective of the need for or benefits of our work changed?
I have come to think that what we’re doing at our schools with ESYNOLA should be at every school in the country. I think every child deserves a good education, and part of that education is getting your hands dirty and doing what we do. It should be emulated and replicated at every school. Wouldn’t it be awesome if school gardens and teaching kitchens weren’t the exception but the norm? At school you learn where your food comes from and see butterfly life cycles all the time. The more I read about nature deficit disorder and kids who have no idea where their food is coming from across the country… the need is definitely there, everywhere, for what we’re doing.
Tell us about a moment in garden class when you couldn’t help but laugh.
There’s one particular kindergartener this year, who’s a kid that you can’t really imagine telling him to sit down and do a worksheet, but he LOVES being outside. He always walks and stands right next to me. The other day he was whispering to me, “I’m going to touch EVERYTHING today.”