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)
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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.