In search of conkers

Life lessons from a Montessori playground

By Soncirey Mitchell
Reader Staff

My old Montessori school once stood imposingly tall — for a toddler — between the Sandpoint Charter School and the roaring traffic of U.S. Highway 2. I remember it in flashes: the short, scratchy carpet; the chain link around the playground; and, most of all, I remember the horse chestnut trees.

I didn’t like Montessori school. Each fall day I would waste half my recess trying to pull on my tiny pink boots, leaving little time to crawl through mud and piles of wet leaves in search of conkers — chestnuts, hidden inside spiky shells. It was supposed to be good practice for my future sniffing out dinosaur bones as a paleontologist.

I really liked conkers. Those sleek, shining nuggets were worth more than candy to me. My teacher, a formidable woman whose love of cleanliness was out of place in a room full of grubby munchkins, did not appreciate my obsession with the little treasures. To be fair, by the end of recess, both myself and the conkers were covered in dirt and slugs’ slime.

Since I wasn’t allowed to pile them in my cubby, I’d carefully bury them under fallen leaves and wait for my mom to come pick me up. Every afternoon she would dutifully hold open my knit hat as I filled it with heaps of conkers.

We’ve kept the tradition going for 20 years — even when I left for college, rows of conkers lined the particle board bookcase in my dorm. I studied English, not paleontology, because it required far less math.

I even brought conkers to a poetry class where they fascinated my professor.

“They’re kind of sad,” she said. “They used to be alive.” 

In my many years of collecting conkers, I’d never thought of them as dead before that class. They were juggling balls, decorations, pirate’s treasure — never the ghost of something that could have been. It seemed as though the conkers had one true purpose — to grow — and they never would.

Sandpoint’s chestnut trees drop thousands of conkers onto our sidewalks, lawns and residential streets every autumn. Each seed has the potential to expand into a massive tree that can live up to 300 years: perhaps one in a thousand actually will. The other 999 will be picked up by school children and street sweepers and carried off to places nature never intended for them to go. Such is the fate of conkers.

Chestnuts don’t suffer the burden of expectations the way humans do. Often in life, we’re crushed under the weight of our own potential — who we think we should be becomes more important than who we are. Like a chestnut, we expect to drop from our canopies, take root and grow into imposing figures.

Life is seldom what we expect.

The truth is that very few of us will have the exceptional lives we imagined as children. We will never be astronauts or world travelers or paleontologists — neither should we be haunted by the ghosts of our unlived potential. We are filled with everyday purpose in the ways we least expect and often forget. A life spent sharing happiness with others is a life well lived.

The conkers on my dining room table will not grow into trees; they will be decorations, craft supplies or eventual squirrel food. Most importantly, they will make me smile, and that is purpose enough.

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