I Love Tongs Guest Post: School Lunches, a Decade or Two Later

My wonderful friend Heather Shellen invited me to guest post for her food blog, I Love Tongs, about the school lunches that I ate while reschooling on each campus. Here’s Heather’s very kind introduction, and an excerpt of the post. Read the complete post here.

A couple of years ago, my dear friend Melia made the amazing and brave decision to go back to school. As in start over from kindergarten. I’m sure your initial reaction is “Well that sounds easy!” but you and I both know that you would be out of the game at 3rd-grade Geometry and you are absolutely not smarter than a 5th grader. But her ambition and dedication to this project are not the only reasons I love Melia. This is a woman who never turns down a costume party or an SF Mission taco crawl. She can also school anyone in a game of early 90s trivia. I asked her to share some of her experiences with school lunch here, and she graciously obliged.

With all the national attention that healthy school lunches are getting these days, you might wonder how the lunches at your own schools have changed since you were a student. I wondered the same thing, and a couple of years ago I happened to have a chance to find out.

I committed the fall of 2008 to a “do-over” of my schooling, like Billy Madison but for real. I got permission to spend a week in each of my old school classrooms in the San Francisco Bay Area: kindergarten, first grade, and so on, all the way through college. The project was called Reschool Yourself, and its goal was for me to make peace with 17 years of school that I had found did not prepare me for life. (You can read more about the project here.)

Along the way, I dedicated myself to “method lunching,” eating cafeteria food with my fellow students. If there were options that had been on the menu when I was enrolled the first time around, I ordered those and assessed how they stacked up. Here are some highlights from my school lunch adventures.

1. Elementary School: Hot Dogs
El Verano Elementary School, Sonoma, CA

When I was a kid, the only day that I’d buy lunch instead of brown bagging it was Friday, because it was Pizza Day. Miraculously, 23 years later, Friday was still Pizza Day, so I planned to buy “hot lunch” from the school cafeteria on that day of the week.

Imagine my disappointment when I saw hot dogs instead. “We barbecue the first and last weeks of school,” said the lunch lady. “It’s a special occasion.”

At least they were chicken dogs. Here’s what I wrote about my lunch that day (read the full post):

The principal, who was graciously helping serve lunch that day, gave me an extra helping of peppered macaroni salad, a slice of watermelon, and a chocolate chip cookie. At the end of the counter there were bowls of fresh fruit, mini bags of carrots, and boxes of raisins, all for the taking; I was happy to see a broader, healthier selection than we’d had in the 80s…

I (was) surprised that the food tasted so good, the buttery cookie in particular. The hot dog wasn’t half bad, especially with relish and ketchup, and the pepper in the macaroni salad gave it an original flavor. The flailing arms of the (kindergarteners) had slid my watermelon wedge onto the table, and I left it untouched, following one of the cardinal rules in education: No matter how hungry you are, never eat anything that has touched kids’ fingers or their tabletops.

The best part of the meal was the chocolate milk, that thick, rich chocolatey goodness packed into a tiny carton. Turns out that the secret to the thickness is….corn starch. Yum. I drank half, enjoying it thoroughly, and pitched the rest.

Read the rest of the post on I Love Tongs.

If I Could Do College Over Again

The young woman whom my mom mentors is going out of state for college in the fall, and my mom is compiling a booklet of advice for her. (Yes, my mom rocks.) Here’s my contribution:

If I could do college over again, I’d spend less time in the library and more time living. As a student, I had the attitude that the most important part about school was academic achievement, but now I realize that it’s about so much more. It’s about playing frisbee on the lawn at 10 pm. It’s about sitting around with your girlfriends in the dorms, giggling about silly inside jokes. It’s about the little moments that will stay with you the rest of your life. This may be the only time where you live on a campus with people who are all your age, so enjoy your time there. Don’t believe people who say that college is the best time of your life, but make it one of the best times.


Reschooling With Poetry: Ithaka

I’ve been waiting until New Year’s Day to share a poem that captures the spirit of both Reschool Yourself and the first day of a new year. The poem, “Ithaka,” is filled with the adventure, self-reflection, and excitement of learning that I hope infuses 2009 for all of us.

One of my favorite Santa Clara University professors, Dr. John Heath, introduced me to “Ithaka” during my recent visit to his Survey of Classical Literature course. He read it on the final day of class, to send students off with a reminder of what’s important about college, and life beyond it. He told them that college is less about absorbing information than about gleaning lessons about the human experience. Ten years after graduating college, they wouldn’t remember the minutiae of their classes, but they ideally would have internalized what had enriched their understanding of themselves and their own personal journeys. “Don’t worry about the details,” he said. “See what it is to be your own hero.”


Memory Walk: College Living Spaces

My five and a half hour memory walk took me to all of my old living spaces at Santa Clara University, and here are some highlights.

These are the three places I lived at SCU:

1) Swig Hall, the 11-story freshman party dorm. Yes, it is really called Swig, after Benjamin Swig. Upperclassmen delighted in yelling, “WAKE UP, SWIG!” from below as they passed by at all hours of the night. People often set fire to couches outside or threw items off balconies. Always seems like a good idea at the time.

2) McLaughlin Hall, a quieter dorm, for sophomores at the time. I roomed with my friend Charlotte, a fellow Psych major and Type A student. Our best friends Katie and Alicia were next door. I got to stay in McLaughlin for four days and three nights while visiting SCU a couple of weeks ago. I loved every minute.

3) A 2-bedroom apartment in a complex near campus. I lived there with Charlotte, Katie, and Alicia during most of junior year (we all studied abroad during the fall quarter) and senior year. We had a lot of dinners and occasional dance parties, but we were all latecomers to the party scene, and none of us really drank alcohol until after college. Because of the Silicon Valley boom in around the year 2000, I had to share a room during all four years of college, and we paid a pretty penny for doing so.

I’m experimenting with using a captioned slideshow instead of posting full-sized pictures, so leave a comment and let me know what you think. Click a photo, which has a caption underneath, and hover on the right side and click the arrow to advance.








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What have you remembered by walking around your college living spaces, or just looking at these photos?

Reschooling Tool #12: Memory Walk

During my visit to Santa Clara University, I had a conversation with one of my former Psychology professors that gave me a new understanding of Reschool Yourself. It helped me articulate why it’s important to revisit my schools, and what I’m taking from doing so.

As an SCU student, I had Dr. Jerry Burger as a professor, academic advisor, and supervisor for my thesis research. At the time, I didn’t realize that he was already doing extensive research on a topic closely connected with Reschool Yourself: making a pilgrimage home.

For more than a decade, Dr. Burger has surveyed and interviewed hundreds of people who journeyed back to the places they grew up: schools, playgrounds, local stores, and most importantly, their childhood homes.

“Their quest,” he writes, “was to connect with something only the place could provide.” He adds that he was surprised by “the large number of people who knocked on the door of a former home and asked the current owners if they could look around.  Without exception, the visitors were invited inside.”


Remember This? #33 College Dining Hall

The Benson Memorial Center dining commons, the place where I had ever so many a meal. This woman was there when I was in school and actually remembered me. I ate my favorite SCU breakfast, scrambled eggs and tater tots (pictured above), two days in a row. I doused them with ketchup, and their greasy goodness tasted wonderful….and then sat heavily in my stomach all day. It was worth it. Since I rarely eat fried foods, I simply had to eat all of those tater tots when given the chance.

To see the pictures below as a slideshow, click on one to enlarge it and then hover with your mouse on the right edge until the arrow appears.


When ordering, I noticed a common type of exchange between one of the cafeteria workers and a student. The worker was a Latina woman with a heavy accent who asked the girl, who was Caucasian, what she would like to order. The girl asked for “Just eggs.” The woman began piling tater tots on the plate, and the girl repeated, “No, just eggs.” The worker nodded and started adding eggs to the plate, and the girl said loudly, “No tater tots, just eggs.” Her tone wasn’t disrespectful, but she was becoming understandably frustrated at not being understood. Observing this reminded me of this type of uncomfortable tension between private school students and the older immigrants who serve them. I remember that when I was a student, noticing my relative privilege made me feel both grateful and guilty. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.


Trying to Process When There’s No Process

I’ve just spent the last five and a half hours walking around my alma mater, visiting every place I can remember that holds some significance for me. I visited places like my freshman year dorm, the study lounges, and the music building where I took piano and voice lessons. I took over a hundred pictures, wrote down memories, and then lay on the couch and stared at the ceiling because I was so exhausted.

How do I make sense of all this stuff, and what do I do with it? Those questions have been plaguing me for the nearly four months I’ve been doing this project. I have stories and handouts from nearly every grade that I haven’t yet been able to share, because once I complete one grade, I start the next. If there happens to be time in between, I always have new material to write about instead of going back and documenting the old.