Saving a beloved tree

`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 chainsaw-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, about 100 years old and counting, if groundkeepers' estimates of its age are correct.

And 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.

But her twin older brothers were out for the day, and Lynn Paynter didn't want the two girls home alone. That's how they found themselves bored on a day off, and resigned to playing outside on a playground jungle gym to pass the time.

When Becky saw the trucks, she giggled at the "Stump Eaters" name emblazonedon the side of 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 grand, old tree that stands five fifth-graders wide, and too many feet tall to count. But somehow - traveling from contractor to subcontractor - the message got lost.

"The print was pretty small," said Bill Brown, the school system's director of planning and construction. "I guess the guys didn't notice it."

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!'"

Principal Brad Herling plans to formally announce Becky's good deed at a school meeting next month. But he keeps leaking the news to teachers in the hallway, and front office workers and parents who come in to volunteer.

"I'm personally glad she did what she did," said Brown in his office at school board headquarters. "It would have been really bad if we had cut down a tree we didn't have to, especially one the kids seem to love so much."

To Becky, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

"It was kinda weird," she said. "We went out there at the perfect time. If we had gone out there a minute later, the tree would have been already cut down. If they had cut that tree down, I bet they [the children at Clarksville] would've cried or something. It's such a pretty tree. And when kids first come here, that's where they go to think. We all play around it and sit down and talk in the shade. It's a special tree."

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