Little homeschooler’s first McDonalds

Just a quick note, before I talk about the important, seldom-examined relationship between alternative education and fast food: I’m jumping up and down with joy (i.e. sitting at my computer and smiling a lot) about starting a series of guest posts over at The Innovative Educator. You can read the first one here. Thank you to Lisa Nielsen for the opportunity!

My mom has always been a big believer in healthy eating. Way before the Brooklyn hipsters were becoming vegans and those little raw food places were sprouting up all over Manhattan, she was growing a garden and refusing to allow processed foods into the house. Before people were carrying bags made out of recycled fibers that said “GO GREEN! GREEN IS SEXY” on them, my mom was using canvas shopping bags. Before CSAs were popular, she had joined one, and we were in the field, picking string beans for hours and hours, with the sun smirking and beating down on us.

We ate stuff that resembled normal foods. Things with normal-sounding titles, like “bagel,” and “ketchup,” and “palak paneer.” What? Doesn’t everyone eat palak paneer? The bagels were gray and lumpy and dense. The ketchup wasn’t anywhere close to red, and you could taste the old tomatoes in it. Tomatoes that had lived a long, full life and died surrounded by family and friends. Tomatoes that had never really been beautiful, even in their youth, but had always had a lot of character. You could always taste all the ingredients in everything we ate. But because we very rarely ate things with white flour and sugar and food dye, we didn’t really mind. I mean, we didn’t know the difference.

And then the library held a summer reading contest. We homeschoolers were all over that. My brothers Jake and Gabe were nine and six, I was twelve, and we were champion readers. Every day, as a part of our homeschooling, Mom read aloud to us. She read a chapter of a historical biography, and a chapter of a historical fiction book from the same time and place. She read a chapter of a purely fun book, like Harry Potter. And then we went off on our own and read some more. Jake was working on a parody of Lord of the Rings, so he read those books a lot. I thought they were incredibly boring and there were only like two girl characters and like twenty straight pages of epic poetry about the guy characters. I was writing a story called “Grandmother’s Journey” about a girl who climbs a staircase in the middle of a forest and finds herself in another world, where she falls in love with a shapechanger man named Tariff who has golden eyes and can transform into a buck. I mostly wanted to read books in which a woman and a man who seem too impossibly different to ever be together fall madly, helplessly, deliciously in love, and then face some terrible trials. And it seems like it just can’t possibly work out. But it somehow does.

At that point I had no idea that “tariff” was already a word.

Anyway, we read all the time. We spent whole days doing nothing but reading. And when we weren’t reading, we were writing. And when we weren’t reading or writing, we were illustrating the books we’d read or written. And when none of these things were happening, we were eating lumpy gray bagels and memorizing poetry (not from Lord of the Rings, thankfully) and having the occasional lightsaber battle (this was mostly Jake and Gabe, and never with Mom’s approval).

So when the library declared a summer reading contest in an effort to get the local kids excited about doing school over the summer, we were over there in like three seconds flat, signing up and carting bags of books through the scanners at the door. So were the four or five homeschooled kids who went to the same library.

The crazy thing was, the library gave out prizes for reading. What an idea. Prizes for reading books you wanted to read anyway. It was the funniest, best thing. We could read five books a week. We could do seven or eight, if we pushed ourselves. But we didn’t have to push, because we got prizes for reading one book a week. Little plastic animals, bendy bracelets, pens with a miniature version of those lava lamp bubbles inside their cartridge cases, and a free burger and fries at McDonalds.

(So bright and happy! source)

McDonalds. Forbidden wonderland of preservatives and grease and sugar. We had never been there. But of course we knew about it. The way you know that boys like guns, even if you grow up in a house where toy guns are strictly prohibited, and boys are encouraged to play with any sort of peaceful item they might be interested in, even if it’s pink, or has human features and synthetic hair. My brothers made paper towel tubes into guns, and all three of us knew that McDonalds would be perfect, even without having tried it.

Mom said, “This shouldn’t be a prize. I can’t believe they’re offering this as a prize.”

Jake said, “I won it. I read three books this week, and I won it. So you have to take us.”

It was really only fair. She gave it some thought, but we were so excited about the reading contest, and so devoted to ultimately winning, that she must not have wanted to disrupt the experience. So, grudgingly, and with a lot of laughing complaints about the library’s deviousness, she drove us to McDonalds, where Jake presented his special library coupon to the bored young woman at the cash register, and a burger appeared on a tray, wrapped in shiny foil. There was a cup of skinny fries, too, and a soda. Everything tasted incredibly good. Mom let me get my own burger, even though I was saving up my reading points for a trip to the tiny local exotic animal zoo (they had a giraffe and an emu!). I felt a little sick afterward, but it was worth it.

Jake got another coupon as soon as he could, and back we went, Mom rolling her eyes the whole way.

We won. The contest, I mean. The library held a ceremony at the end of the summer, and all of us little homeschoolers clomped up to the stage to accept our plaques, which read “home school,” under the part that said which school we belonged to. The mayor was there. He leaned over to me and whispered, “Where is home school?” I didn’t have time to explain, and I was also really nervous.

I think a school kid got a plaque, too, actually. But in general the school kids didn’t really have a chance. We were the ones who didn’t get to eat McDonalds. And milkshakes, as I was to learn after our second trip there, are extremely motivational.

(maybe if the library had given out these, fast food wouldn’t have been as motivational. source)

*  *  *

Wild fun: At the grocery store, pick out one thing that’s not on your shopping list, isn’t even remotely healthy, and you just want to try. My interest in McDonalds ended shortly after the summer reading contest, though I can’t seem to ever give up sugar. My mom thinks I don’t eat healthily enough, now that I’m grown up and out in the world, but I definitely don’t eat fast food. When I moved to Manhattan for grad school, I ate so many Zabars chocolate croissants that the people behind the pastry/bread counter got to know me. Which was beneficial, because sometimes they gave me a discount.

17 comments to Little homeschooler’s first McDonalds

  • Prizes for reading, that’s crazy! 😀 McDonalds, motivational? Really? 😀 I’m smiling while reading this post, thinking all the fun you had, unschooling and all. I thought unschooling parents apply no restriction on their kids, they can eat whatever and sleep whenever, or maybe that’s just the mainstream unschooling. Thank you for sharing.

    • kate

      Ha! Nope. Plenty of rules. Just not the usual rules, maybe…Rules like “Write in your journal every day.” And “No TV.” I’ll write a post about that later :)

    • I can elaborate a bit on the rules vs no rules thing in unschooling.

      Firstly, well, there’s not really any such thing as “mainstream unschooling”! But there are are couple of different, well, I suppose you could say types of unschooling (though there’s tons of overlap and people don’t necessarily fall neatly into one group or the other. It’s more of a continuum than anything).

      On one end of the unschooling spectrum, there’s what some like to call academic unschooling, which is putting the child’s/student’s education into their own hands. Taking away the elements of forced “learning” found in more traditional forms of education.

      Then, there’s radical or whole life unschooling at the other end of the spectrum, which is giving the child/teen control over all other aspects of daily life, not just academics: when and what they eat, bedtimes, etc.

      Many unschoolers who start out as academic unschoolers find that a progression to radical unschooling happens very naturally, as the parents let go of more and more preconceived ideas of what children are capable of doing.

      My family was somewhere in the middle of that unschooling continuum/spectrum/whatever for basically all of my pre-teen years, then phased into something that looked more like radical unschooling (no bedtimes [though we never really had bedtimes growing up either, come to think of it], no curfews, and no enforced “chores”) during my teenage years.

      I hope that gives you a bit better of an understanding of how unschooling works in regards to rules…

      • kate

        Thanks for clarifying this, Idzie! And your reputation precedes you. I just heard about your blog from Beatrice at Radio Free School. Thanks for reading!

  • I think that building a healthy lifestyle and relationship with whole, natural foods is really important from early on. It DOES foster good habits, and even when you eat fast food, I think that the natural tendency will be to get sick of it. But as always, balance is key. I like the challenge, though!

  • my son can win reading contests hands down.

    actually his last school (actually both is elementary AND middle school) had “mandatory” free reading requirements.

    we had to sign that our child read 20 minutes a night …we had to put our signature each night…EACH NIGHT that we forced our kids to sit and read 20 minutes.

    my son of course read a book every other day.

    I just got a stamp and smack smack smack the whole page each week.

    same with middle school. he was so far “ahead” of his 20 minute requirement I never bothered to worry about it.

    Now he’s a senior (technically a junior but graduating a year early) and he has to do some “free reading” and we just roll our eyes…

    I never took him for fast food because of it. He loves to read…SHEW that one was easy.

    I hope my little one loves to read as much. FUNNY, I wish I could instill a love of reading manuals or instructions in my “senior” as much as he loves to read his fun reading!

    that would be helpful.

    I think (hope) society starts to re-think what we offer as prizes and rewards …it’s pretty silly.

    did the mayor really not know what Home School Was? that is sad.
    I love that you are writing this blog! my husband and I are talking more about it now!


  • I am thoroughly entertained by these posts! Gloriously gross McDonald’s. I get sick just thinking about eating there, lol! 😀

  • Interesting article, was curious if you would permit me to link to it in a article im currently creating for my own site? Thanks

  • Ich will nur kurz etwas einwerfen: Bitte spendet für Haiti! Ich tue es auch… Die Menschen brauchen unsere Hilfe, wir müssen einfach zusammenstehen wenn so etwas geschieht! In den Medien, ist die Katastrophe etwas in den Hintergrund gedrängt, obwohl es weit furchtbarer ist, als alles vergleichbare! Deshalb auch hier der kleine Spendenaufruf! Es ist bald Weihnachetn, also ein perfekter Zeitpunkt etwas gutes zu tun! Danke

  • I was very pleased to find this site.I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.

  • Freezing here in London. Staying inside to surf the net and enjoyed finding this.

  • Usefull article can i translate into French for my blogs viewers? If thats OK what dort of acknowledgement would suit you best?

  • Cassie

    My mom always did the healthy food thing. We weren’t all organic or vegan or green or anything, but we always had a little garden, my mom cooked everything herself for scratch, and we used a lot of spelt flour for my asthmatic, pan-allergic younger brothers. Even so, every once in a really great while on a Saturday, my parents would take me and the siblings I had at the time to have breakfast at McDonalds. We’d get those sad flapjacks and a little hashbrown in a paper sleeve, but the big kicker was the whipped butter in the plastic wrap. It was such a big deal, I can remember it like it was yesterday. My mom, at home, made these awesome hefty, dense, hearty pancakes on this cast iron griddle on the stove. She’d put blueberries that we picked in them and we’d eat them with actual butter and honey and they were delicious, but they never held the mystique of the McDonald’s pancakes, that’s for sure. I think it was more the anticipation of eating out as a special treat than anything else, because we NEVER ate out.

    Mmmm. Memories. :)

  • Thanks for this post! I can definitely relate to the whole rabid reading thing, and to being shocked at how easy the goals for the summer reading club at the library always were… I really like your writing style. And congratulations for the guest post series at the Innovative Educator! What a cool opportunity.

  • It is rare for me to discover something on the web that’s as entertaining and fascinating as what you’ve got here. Your page is lovely, your graphics are outstanding, and what’s more, you use reference that are relevant to what you are saying. You are certainly one in a million, well done!

  • I came here mainly because this internet site had been tweeted by a woman I had been following and am happy I made it here.

  • funny. I homeschool the kiddos and we eat mostly stuff from scratch and were vegans for 15 years, took 1 year off and are heading back that direction, and do eat everything organic and grow some of our own food. Makes me laugh because my kiddos totally think like you did. lol. Though when they won the mcdonalds prize at the summer reading program, I didn’t let them go since it wasn’t kosher – I am sure secretly they wonder what it tastes like though.

    great post.

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