Going out on a limb

`Hero': An 11-year-old girl stops workmen from mistakenly cutting an old silver maple at Clarksville Elementary.

February 14, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

It was under this tree that fifth-grader Becky Paynter found her first friend at Clarksville Elementary School.

In the shade of the hulking silver maple, the new second-grader was spotted at recess by a classmate who invited her to play soccer. In third grade, Becky used the tree in a science project: She observed it. She craned her neck in awe of it. She loved it.

By fourth grade, she had deemed the tree "Da Bomb."

So when chain saw-wielding construction workers gathered menacingly around the tree last week, poised to cut it down to make way for a parking lot, Becky, energized by four years of history and admiration, flung herself against its peeling trunk.

"I sort of stood there and said, `If you cut down the tree, you have to cut off my legs, too,'" Becky said yesterday. "They looked scary, but I was like, `This is important. I have to talk to them.'"

Today, Clarksville Elementary's silver maple, the one generations of children have run around -- balancing on its web of protruding roots -- families have picnicked under and community members have hugged, is still standing.

Becky Paynter, 11, is the reason. "She's definitely the hero," said teachers secretary Nancy Holbrook. "The chain reaction that took place to save the tree wouldn't have happened ... if Becky hadn't had the presence of mind to see what she saw and then act on it."

Becky didn't know she was going to save a tree Friday when she was dragged by her mother to a book fair at Clarksville. School was out for teacher conferences, and she wanted to stay at home with her best friend, Maddie, who was sleeping over.

When Becky saw the trucks, she giggled at the "Stump Eaters" name on one, but she and Maddie kept climbing and swinging.

When workers began to take apart a fence in front of the tree, Becky began to worry. When she saw the chainsaws, she knew her tree was in trouble.

"I turned to Maddie and I said, `They're not supposed to cut that down,'" Becky said.

She was right. Parents and teachers had convinced bigwigs at the Board of Education many months ago that the extended parking lot should be built around the tree that stands five fifth-graders wide, and too many feet tall to count. But somehow the message got lost.

Her self-sacrificing tactics losing steam in the face of hard-faced hardhats, Becky ran inside and alerted her mother, who went to call Holbrook, who came speeding to the school, and appealed to the building supervisor, who called the Office of Planning and Construction and reached an administrator, who found the tree's pardon papers and called off the attack.

"It was kind of amazing," Becky said. "We were running through the hallway saying, `We saved a tree! We saved a tree!'"

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