Jennifer Gruet, a dance teacher at Stephen A. Halsey J.H.S. 157 in Rego Park, said she was surprised and touched when she came back from a family funeral to learn that her school’s gardening club made plans to plant a tree honoring her relative.
In this case, Gruet’s family tragedy took on national significance. She had just arrived from San Diego, where she had mourned the loss of her cousin Lori Kaye, who was killed in the Poway Synagogue shooting in California last month, shielding her rabbi from the gunman’s bullets.
“It was unexpected — I had no idea they were going to do this in her honor,” said Gruet of the tree planting. “Everything they said at the funeral was all about growth, acceptance, tolerance and preaching love instead of hate, so I think the tree is a nice representation of some of the ideas they talked about.”
When they heard about Gruet’s relationship to Kaye, the Green Team, a group of student gardeners, and the Parent Teacher Association snapped into action, finding a spot for an Eastern Red Bud right in front of the school’s main entrance. Students, parents and community members held a tree planting ceremony Thursday afternoon.
“That’s why we’re here today. In remembrance and in celebration of those three rights that we enjoy: hope, love and peace,” Principal Vincent Suraci said during the ceremony.
Gruet told QNS that she had inherited her love of dance from her cousin, who she grew up with. Coming from a family of teachers, Gruet and Kaye were the two performers of the bunch.
“[Kaye] did this program called ‘Up with People’ when she was 18. She toured with this program across the country singing and dancing and just trying to spread love,” Gruet said.
During the May 16 ceremony, Gruet joined members of the Green Team to shovel soil and mulch over the tree’s roots. The tree planting is one of the many service projects that the student landscaping crew has taken on to improve their school.
In its fruitful year and a half of existence, the team has redesigned the facade of the building, built a greenhouse, created a makeshift hydroponics system and started a farm-to-table program, and it’s about to put in a drip irrigation system to start conserving water.
“We got a plant sale if you got some cash on you,” said the club’s facilitator Chris Weiss with a chuckle.
The Green Team dutifully took part in the gardening work during the ceremony. Gruet said that for the most part her students hadn’t made the connection between the national news coverage of the Poway shooting and their dance teacher. But she did have one class that heard about so she talked to them in very factual terms about what happened.
“I feel like if anything at all comes out of this, it’s people learning about other people’s cultures. Once you know about something it’s not that scary anymore. I think the nice thing about having the funeral livestreamed, as weird as it was, was it hopefully normalized some of the cultures and traditions of that synagogue,” said Gruet.