Elementary School

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.

Video: Reschooling in Elementary School

If you’re curious to get a glimpse into my time in the classroom, I’ve posted three videos of me and the students at my elementary school, El Verano. They’re just super short clips and not edited, but they’ll introduce you to the kids I’ve written about and how they interacted with me. The first two are from the documentary shoot.

1) Competing against the third graders in Around the World, a math game that many of us played in class as kids (32 seconds):


Making Movie Magic

As I’ve mentioned, I feel fortunate to be included in an education documentary film called Something Far Finer. It will explore the possibilities for 21st Century education, especially the ways in which it could foster creativity in children. The director, Kaoru Wang, is profiling people who have outside-the-box ideas for the education system, as well as projects that put these ideas into practice.


Reschooling With Poetry: Field Trip, 1988

This is one of several poems I’ve come across lately about childhood, school, and growing up.

I’ve always written more prose than poetry, and most of my poems are from my teen years, when I was having trouble accepting that I was growing up. The poems are filled with nostalgia for a simpler past and often have a tinge of melodrama, since I use strong language when I’m passionate about something. This one was modeled on a Sharon Olds poem, inspired by a photo of myself at age seven on a school field trip to a local bird preserve. Remember that I was 17 when I wrote it, so please forgive any hints of cheesiness.


Library Magic

A weekly pilgrimage to the library with my mom and sister was one of the staples of my childhood. I’d sit on the yellow carpet and pull books off the shelf one by one, putting into my book bag the ones that piqued my interest. The novelty of nearly unlimited, free books never wore off, and it hasn’t to this day. My mom always said that she “felt rich” coming home with a bag full of library books.


A Week Down Memory Lane

I’m writing from a little library in the Maryland town where my mom’s parents live. They’ve lived in the same house since 1959, and they’ve actively refused to hop on the Interweb party bus. (I think my grandpa’s exact words were: “Don’t buy a computer for me. I won’t use it.”) As a result, I have 30 minutes to give you a brief update before I’m booted off the library computer.

I’m taking a week off between elementary school and middle school, which is giving me time to process my K-5 experiences. My scrawlings have filled a whole notebook with memories and observations, and I’m both eager to translate them into posts and petrified that I’ll lose the notebook before I have the chance. As always, I hope to catch up on writing in the next few days, and share more stories with you.

This week will generate some blogging fodder of its own, I’m sure. I’m spending a couple of days in Maryland with my mom and grandparents (Pop Quiz: 3 generations of anxious Asians + 2 days + 1 small space = ?). On Thursday, I meet two of my college roommates in the Boston area to see the new baby boy of our third college roommate. At my high school reunion, the mere thought of my classmates reproducing made me uneasy, so I’m sure seeing a close friend with an infant will blow my mind.


Cutting Class in Fifth Grade

I think I’ve gotten what I need from elementary school and am ready to move on. When I started fifth grade on Monday morning, I felt restless. I hadn’t slept enough, as usual, and I was feeling kind of spacey, with a lot on my mind (I’ll post about that topic soon). I was disappointed in my lack of focus, because I had the privilege of finally being in Mr. Neubacher’s fifth grade class. He taught sixth when I was in school, back when elementary schools were K-6. It was just my luck that my sixth grade year was the year that the junior high became a middle school. So I never got a chance to have Mr. Neubacher, who was beloved by the kids. I appreciate the brief time I spent in his class this week, and here are some highlights:

Doing a cool science experiment.

The Exploratorium, San Francisco’s hands-on science museum, is piloting a program at my elementary school (the first in the country to try it), and from what I’ve seen, the kids love it. This week’s unit is Magnets, so my “lab partner” and I made a compass by magnetizing a sewing needle, pushing it through a styrofoam peanut, and floating it in a bowl of water. Pop Quiz: In what direction did the needle point? (See end of post for the answer.)


Reschooling Tool #4: Swings

I’d forgotten how liberating it is to go on the swings. My fourth grade classmates invited me to join them at recess, and I was more than happy to. I sat down on a swing and wrapped my fingers tightly around the chains suspending it. Pumping my legs to push me higher was tougher than it used to be, since the swing was designed for kids with legs half the length of mine. I had to tuck them under me so that my feet wouldn’t hit the ground every time I swung over it.

As I swung higher, I felt the breeze on my face, my heart pounding, and the exhilaration of building momentum as I rose into the air. As a kid, I remember wondering if I could swing over the top of the swingset if I tried hard enough, and sometimes it looked as if I was getting close. (I watched a Mythbusters episode that concluded: “Under normal pushing power, whether solo or being pushed by others, there cannot be enough force generated to achieve a full, chain straight 360.”) Being much heavier than I used to be, I didn’t get nearly as much air this time around.