A few years ago at right around this time of year, my Bronx Prep theater students decided to put on a bake sale. We were trying to raise $30,000 to buy a lighting system and convert the bare stage in our school's gym into a fully-functioning theater space. No one had any illusions that hawking home-baked snacks would generate this kind of cash, but the holidays were around the corner and it seemed like a seasonally appropriate move. There was only one problem. When the sign-up sheet completed its classroom orbit, eight kids had volunteered to bring paper products and the rest were split between Oreos, Chips Ahoy and Soft Batch. Little by little the truth was sheepishly revealed: no one knew how to bake.
At this moment I had what I can only describe as an out-of-body experience. My nervous system was hijacked by the spirit of my dear departed Grandma Patty, a sparkly-eyed firecracker and high school Home Ec. teacher whose after-school kitchen sessions lured even the burliest football players to ditch practice and spend time learning to bake from scratch. "Horrors! A bake sale with store-bought cookies?" I heard myself channeling. "Over my dead and prostrate form!" Before I could stop to think it through, I was inviting the kids to my apartment that afternoon so they could learn how to bake. As soon as it was out of my mouth I realized what an unrealistic proposal this was. My husband and I live in Brooklyn, an hour-plus train ride from the South Bronx. Would the kids' parents let them come? Even if they did, there was a prohibitive corniness factor in play. I mean, come on -- baking cookies after school with a 30-year-old white woman? Social suicide for your average urban teen. But to my shock, the kids said they would show up. And a handful of them actually did.
As it turned out, we never put on that bake sale because we ended up eating all the cookies before the kids left the apartment. Eventually, a few theater-booster board members stepped in to bolster our fundraising efforts and we finally clinched the deal on those stage lights, but in the meantime, a holiday tradition had been born. Since then, my students come out to BK every year before winter break to make cookies. Every year we pay homage to the "bake sale" charade, and every year the cookies are gone before the kids get back on the D train.
Let me be clear, here, that there is some pretty deep surrealism for me around this whole June-Cleaver-meets-Dangerous Minds type scenario. For one thing, I'm acutely aware of the potential boundary issues involved. These are kids whose Facebook friend requests I routinely reject with a kind but firm note referencing my standard teacher-not-friend policy, and yet once a year I invite them to wander at will through my home. Then there's the discomfort I feel trying to justify this strange tradition to their parents. On two separate occasions a student has forgotten to call home and I've ended up fielding worried phone calls and feeling a strange stab of guilt trying to explain to a frantic mother how the value of a baking session in Brooklyn could possibly outweigh the risk of a late night bus ride back through a rough Bronx neighborhood. And finally, no matter how enduring and solid our relationships have grown through the years, there is always the inevitable moment of awkwardness when the students first come in through the door, these boisterous, vivacious teenagers suddenly shy and fumbling as they stamp their boots and shrug off their coats, my own confidence momentarily shaken as that uncomfortable hallway scene seems to magnify every possible divide of race, age and culture that could separate us.
Which is exactly why the whole thing blows my mind: that an activity as simple -- as corny! -- as baking holiday cookies could somehow carry with it enough substance and firepower to hold its own against all of these deep issues and make everything -- at least for a brief moment -- feel okay. I'm sorry if this sounds like Chicken Soup for the Urban Teacher Soul, but this is just how it goes. We start baking together and suddenly the tension and weirdness drain off. We joke and banter and talk smack. Sometimes there is space to share concerns and brainstorm solutions to problems we're facing in the classroom. And sometimes there is simply an opening for spontaneity and grace.
This year's cookie fest was especially meaningful for me because it coincided roughly with the 10th anniversary of my grandmother's passing. It also fell on the last night of Hanukkah, a holiday I've never known much about, despite my (technically) Jewish roots, but which I've decided to celebrate and expose my daughter to as she grows up. Just as we were finishing up the last batch of chocolate chips, my downstairs neighbor (and gracious guide to all things Jewish) came up to see if we wanted to light candles and sing the blessings together. The kids were fascinated by the process and sat transfixed as Elana told the story of Hanukkah and showed them how to light the candles. There was no awkwardness now, none of that uncomfortable awareness of all of the things that separate us from each other. Instead there was a stillness and simplicity to everyone's movements, the same intense but expansive focus that takes over when we're rehearsing a scene on stage ... or measuring flour in the kitchen.
My grandma used to say that although she was proud to teach her students to make something delicious with their hands, the cookie baking was really just an excuse to get everyone in the room. She knew that the real learning was taking shape silently under the surface of things, in the quiet space that opens in the heart when the brain and hands have creative jobs to do. I feel exactly the same way about teaching theater. I think it's great for kids to learn how to dance and sing and build awesome sets with power tools. But what I'm really interested in is the deep transformational work that's happening under the radar.
Watching my students light Hanukkah candles at this year's cookie fest reminded me that ultimately, I'm interested in turning the content of "school," whatever the subject matter, into a container for all the mysterious, unspoken ways we are capable of connecting to and learning from each other. Prohibitive corniness factor or no, I'll say it unabashedly: I'm interested in keeping wonder alive in the world. But you've got to get the kids in the room first. And if that means enduring five minutes of awkward-dance in the hallway before the power of the cookie kicks in, I'm okay with that.
Happy Holidays ... and stay tuned as the young people get the mic for the next few posts and share their thoughts on subjects ranging from schooling to art to politics to personal growth. See you in 2010!