High 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.

Graduating Seniors Return to Their Kindergarten Classrooms

Reminiscing about the past isn’t just a way to pass the time; it’s an important way to understand its connection to your present.

When I decided to undertake Reschool Yourself, I was struck by how people found it odd that I’d return to my beginnings in a structured way. I thought it was odd that they wouldn’t, and that there wasn’t a rite of passage involving a pilgrimage back to the place you started from — especially to school, where you spent so many of your young waking hours.

I was pleased to see that one high school, featured in a NY Times article, has been holding such a rite of passage for about 10 years.

At Trinity, one of Manhattan’s oldest independent schools, a roomful of graduating seniors and their childhood teachers unearthed these pieces of the past at the annual survivors breakfast, a rite of passage for seniors who received all 13 years of their formal education at Trinity. Over coffee and bagels and chocolate Jell-O pudding doused with crushed Oreos and gummy worms (a class of 2010 culinary tradition), the students reconnected with teachers and dished about who, at age 5 , ate Play-Doh, sang well and cried whenever his mom left the room. …

… The breakfast was the brainchild of Tom Roberts, a fourth-grade teacher. About 10 years ago, he noticed that the graduating class seemed sentimental. They made frequent treks to visit their teachers and talked about how much they missed their early years. He thought it would be nice for students who spent all their school years at Trinity to return to where they started — on the day they graduated. Trinity’s kindergarten classrooms are directly above the Great Hall, where the graduating seniors put on their robes and line up for their class photo.

What a beautiful way to send graduates on to the next phase of their lives: by reconnecting them with the people and places that helped shape them into who they are today.

Five Observations While Coming Full Circle

This week I’m revisiting my schools in reverse order to record descriptive details that I couldn’t focus on while participating: students’ hair color, teachers’ vocal inflections, and so on. I went back to high school on Tuesday, middle school today, and am finishing up at elementary school tomorrow. The timing just happened to work out that way, but it feels right to come full circle and end in kindergarten where I began four months ago. Here are five observations so far as I return for a second round of reschooling:

1. I feel that I’ve neutralized the emotional charge that school used to have for me, and I hope it lasts. While I still feel compelled to help transform public education, I’ve come to appreciate the great things about my schools and have stopped dwelling on the not-so-great ones.


Remember This? #29 The Baby Project

If you do, leave a comment!

Remember The Baby Project? In my Christian Lifestyles class senior year, there were more girls than boys, so I partnered up with my best friend Katie to parent a flour baby. Most of the pairs in the class gave their babies trendy names like “Taylor Jean” or “Skylar Marie.” We named ours “Bossu Manon-Jean DiGuire.” Katie had just watched two French movies about a hunchback (bossu in French) named Jean (soft French pronunciation) and his lady love, Manon. We combined Katie’s last name, McGuire, with Dicker to form the fashionable “DiGuire.” Our classmates thought that naming our child “Hunchback” was cruel, but we preferred to see it as original. Katie grew up with such a common name that she wanted to make sure little Bossu stood out among her peers.

I’m not sure how much responsibility we learned from the project. I remember a couple of instances where Katie left our flour baby in our locker, or out on senior patio where anyone could have snatched her and baked her into cookies.

Aren’t the headless babies above a little creepy, especially the one that looks like it’s on a butcher block? (It’s actually an art table.)

Gratitude Upon Graduation

I have just a few minutes to post before I leave St. Vincent High School, so this post will be much shorter and more off the cuff than usual. I spent my lunch period talking with my old principal — who now teaches World History — and I ended up skipping Literature class because we were having such an in-depth conversation. We talked about how the school has changed and remained the same, what we hope formal education does for students, and how we’ve changed as individuals over the years. The conversation reminded me of how much I love St. Vincent High School, and that feeling has stayed with me all day. I’ve had similar conversations with several of my old teachers during the last couple of weeks, and they’ve been the highlight of my visit. I am trying to make sense of this paradox: I suffered quite a bit in the school system and believe it’s in need of major change, but I love this school that is a part of that system.

Even when I was a student, I always appreciated the teachers and the community. Even the teachers that have a traditional authoritative style sincerely care about their students, respect their opinions, and get to know them on a personal level. They make it clear to students that they matter. Although I believe that the school system has gone wrong in many ways — including memorization of specialized material, strict rules, and competitive grading — something is right with my high school, and with my elementary and middle schools. What’s right with my schools is the people. Generally speaking, the teachers are doing their best within a very complicated system that has taken on a life of its own, perpetuated by thousands of people and institutions, parents and administrators and the whole University of California system. Most don’t even realize that schools can look completely different than the norm, and that they may not need some of the components we assume they do.


First Week Back at High School: Highlight Reel

My first week back at high school was so overwhelming that I’ve been procrastinating writing about it. I participated in classes taught by my old teachers, took a few tests, ate lunch with current students, and had a lot of thoughts and memories flood my brain along the way.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m packing my high school experience into an intense couple of weeks, so I’ve already shadowed a freshman, sophomore, and a junior so far. I’d forgotten that shadowing was common practice at St. Vincent…for eighth graders scoping out the school, that is. The high schoolers deduce that I’m not in eighth grade and ask me, puzzled, “Are you coming here?” “What grade are you in?”


Five Assumptions About High Schoolers

In addition to helping process school memories, Reschool Yourself involves raising questions about the practice and philosophy of traditional schooling in general. I want to be clear that I love and respect all of my schools, and although I’m using examples from their campuses, I’m talking about school in general. I’m truly curious about why schools tend to operate the way they do, and what changes are possible within their circumstances.

This week, I’ve noticed a few underlying assumptions about students — which I’ve noticed at other schools, too — that give me pause. Whether stated or not, they seem to be taken for granted, and include the following:

1. Students wouldn’t come to school if they didn’t have to and are therefore thrilled to have days off.

My observation: The general merriment around the Veteran’s Day holiday. When one teacher reminded the students about it, one guy said sarcastically, “Oh yeahhh, I almost forgot. It’s not like I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks.”


If These Halls Could Talk

Walking into St. Vincent High School on Monday morning was like entering a time warp. Though I’d taken a tour recently during my 10-year high school reunion weekend, it had been on a Sunday morning, when the campus was nearly deserted. This week, seeing the school swarming with teenagers and squeezing my way through the crowded hallways has played tricks on my brain, transporting me back to the mid-90s when I was a high school student. This feeling has hit me at various times this week, as I sit in my old desks in classes taught by my old teachers, most of whom are still at the school. I’ve had more powerful memories at SV than I’ve had at my other schools, because I attended the school more recently and knew most of the 400 students by sight.