Middle 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.

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.


Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet

Although I’m in high school now, I’ll still be catching up on a couple of middle school posts.

It felt appropriate to close my time in middle school on Halloween. I always loved celebrating holidays in school, because everyone spent the day sugared up and in a good mood, and we didn’t get any work done in class. This week, on top of that, parent-teacher conferences had shortened Friday’s classes to 30 minutes each.


3 Things You May Have Forgotten About Middle School

Here are some middle school memories you may not have thought about in a while. Do you remember….

1) Being asked out by the friends of a kid in your class?

During lunch last week, a 7th grade boy approached me on the blacktop.

Boy: Ben wants to know if you’ll go out with him.

Me: Does Ben know that I’m 16 years older than he is?

Boy: Yeah. So will you go out with him?

Me: Well, since I don’t know him, I guess I can’t go out with him.


The Tech Wizards of Tomorrow

The use of technology at Altimira is one of the biggest changes I noticed upon return. In math class, I couldn’t get over the digital overhead projectors, which display 3-D color images. I’m not sure how they work, I kept staring in wonder at the image of the teacher’s hands in full color, instead of shadow. In music class, instead of using LPs, cassette tapes, or even CDs, today’s teachers have thousands of songs at their fingertips with iTunes.


Outdoor Education

Sixth-grade outdoor education stands as one of my all-time best school experiences. Visiting Mendocino Woodlands, which is located about three hours north of Sonoma, was my first meaningful connection with nature, and with my peers. Singing around a campfire and nervously hiking in dark woods together bonded us in a way that no activity on campus could. We went in October 1991 — 17 years ago exactly — shortly after starting middle school, and the trip set a positive tone for the rest of the year. I recorded in my journal that my classmates and I had named our small group “The Poisonous Flying Raccoons” (see reference below) and they had nicknamed me “Bob.” Don’t ask me why, but I liked it. I penciled in my slanting cursive about Outdoor Ed, “I wish it would never end.” As a senior in high school, I still remembered the week vividly and wrote the following poem about it.


8th Graders: No Longer Cooler Than Thou

I expected 8th grade to be as emotionally turbulent as I’d remembered it, with kids constantly eye-rolling, scoffing, teasing, and just generally being too cool to talk to you. I admit to being one of  the worst offenders. The current 8th graders at Altimira are nice. Let me repeat that: They’re nice! The ones I’ve encountered smile at me and each other; they chat with their classmates, even the ones they’re not close with; and they genuinely seem to care about each other. It’s not just for my benefit as a grown-up, either — the kids confirm that they think the school has a culture of tolerance this year.

In fact, most of the kids I’ve met and observed at Altimira right now act this way. I say “at Altimira right now,” because not all modern middle schoolers are like this. Having worked closely with other 6th-8th graders recently, I can confirm that some are the cruel little buggers that you may remember from your own middle school days: the stuck-up popular “mean girls” that have gotten so much press recently, or the kid who makes himself look good by calling attention to people’s weaknesses. Those I’ve talked to say that there were more kids like this at Altimira over the last couple of years, but they’ve either gone onto the high school or have transferred to the school for struggling students. My 8th grade buddy, whom I’ll call Janessy, says, “The popular kids act totally different when they’re in class than they are with their friends. They sometimes try to make their friends laugh by picking on people.” But for the most part, the kids agree that while there’s a known popular group in each grade, “the populars” aren’t that snobby or mean, and it’s not a huge deal if you’re not in the in-crowd. People do their own thing, and that’s fine.