I love food in the classroom, always have. There’s something about sharing a meal with your students that immediately bonds you. While regular meals in the classroom can be distracting, I always look forward to opportunities that allow us to come together and break bread. Descriptive writing chapters are always fun to work with; and when I first started in the college classroom, I began making use of a popular lesson plan that asks each student to bring in a dish that we can describe and practice our use of figurative language on. It’s been a fun lesson plan wherever used. I first used it at San Diego State. We had fun and students brought in their favorite snacks. We all left smiling and happy; but returning home (to Guam) has made me more aware of things I took for granted while away.
There is so much talk in our community about how our island’s young adults have lost values of respect and ways of operating that older generations were allegedly better at. But for the most part, our kids do what we taught them. Sometimes, we’re not even aware of the lessons we’re instilling in them. Our younger generation is a product of the older one’s actions, influences, and priorities. We’re all in this together. Maybe we’re not always doing as bad a job as we think we are. Maybe our kids aren’t as oblivious to our values as they’re accused of being.
Conducting this lesson for the past few days made me think about how awesome our kids are, and how despite the many changes our island has had to navigate through, at their core, they still retain many of the things some claim are “fading or dying.” When I assign this activity, I always do it with an awareness of everyone’s financial situation. Food does not have to be elaborate or expensive. The truth is, anything will do. My students on Guam are less financially stable than most of the students in my California classrooms were. Many of them are also emerging from turbulent homes and trying to break cycles of poverty or abuse. I always remind them that if they can’t manage to bring something, it’s okay. Bringing napkins is just fine. But each time this activity rolls around on the calendar, their cultural values are put on display beautifully.
They walk in the classroom with large containers of local dishes (mostly Chamoru, Filipino, or Japanese food). They bring pots of estufao, red rice, beef kelaguen, hand rolled sushi, yakisoba, containers of Sisig, or pansit. Yes, a few bring simple store bought dishes and fast food (but only after coordinating with classmates to make sure larger dishes are there to anchor the table). This activity doesn’t have to be a huge elaborate feast (it works just as well with small snacks), but in a Guam classroom, it always ends up being a huge satisfying meal. They insist on it; and they bring more than enough for their class. I know that for many of them, creating this food took extra money and help from others in the household. Chamoru and Filipino party dishes require a lot of prep, and I can tell that many of them woke up early to start the process in order to bring what they offered. When certain students hint that they are only able to bring something tiny, they work together to make sure the table has everything they feel it requires. They make sure no one is embarrassed in the process of signing up for food dishes.
When they come in, usually without being asked, the young men begin moving tables, making sure there is a place to put the food. If they see me (or another female in the class) moving any kind of furniture, they immediately jump up to take over the task. As the tables are set, a female student, usually an older one, makes sure that food is placed on the table in a specific order. She wants rice, bread, and titiyas at the front, followed by meats, then salads, and so forth. When I watch them moving around their table, I notice that these are all things they have been taught at home. It’s automatic to them. They all know what to do.
When the table is opened, many of them linger back, too mamahlao to be the first to eat, not wanting to appear greedy. Once they do the quiet and graceful dance of pretending they aren’t eager to get their food, they all make sure that if there is one left of a particular food, they are not the one to take it. No one wants to take the last slice of pizza or the last piece of lumpia. They were raised not to. There is a little of everything left. If a dish is completely cleaned out, it is done after every other kid confirms they do not want it (sometimes, the confirming of disinterest takes two rounds of questions). If someone seems to want the last piece as well, they cut it in half. In some cases, they both back off completely, gently teasing each other. I notice that as the activity closes and students are done eating, they offer to take each other’s dirty plates to the trash. Whoever stands up first makes sure the people around them know they are willing to bring the other’s rubbish. They all wipe their tables, and as female students begin packing plates and closing lids, male students start picking little things up off the floor and wiping down tables and chairs. They are making sure the classroom is clean. A male usually offers to take the trash out to the dumpster at the back of the parking lot, and he does so without seeming annoyed by the task. He walks around with the open trash bag, making sure everything has been collected before we leave. I grew up with these behaviors and was taught them, but being away from home reminded me that this is not the norm everywhere.
For some of you reading this, you might not appreciate how nice this is for me to watch. But my California classrooms have helped me to appreciate our island’s young people in a whole new way. When I did this lesson plan in the Continental US, it was a completely different experience. Students brought little bags of chips, cookies, or processed foods (which is just fine), but there is no elaborate method of making sure the table has certain “staples.” In general, they bring the most convenient thing. The cheaper and smaller their contribution can be, the better. They usually walk in the classroom and dump their snacks on a table before sitting down, waiting for someone to tell them what to do or suggest they open it. There is no thought or order in the positioning of the food. I end up arranging things and unwrapping food for them. They need to be guided or asked to help during each step. For the most part, they assume the teacher should be in charge and do all of this for them. Male students sit still in their desks, waiting for the food to be ready. They are not eager to help with any kind of table preparation. When the table is opened, they shamelessly rush at the snacks, sometimes taking more for later or hiding a couple extra bags of chips in their jackets. They rejoice over being able to take the last piece of something, giddy that they got it before someone else did. When the meal is over, many of them have to be reminded to help clean up (some of them not really doing so anyway). They take back what they brought if there are leftovers, instead of offering it to others first. No one makes a move to wipe down desks, and the young men are definitely not patrolling the room for trash while picking up small pieces of food from the floor. I always end up lingering behind, picking up after them, which I never really minded or thought about until I moved home and noticed the difference. Occasionally, another student would stay and help tidy the classroom for the next group, but it was not the concerted effort to prepare and clean up that I see in my Guam classrooms. This isn’t a criticism of students in the Continental US. They were wonderful and I learned so much about myself and teaching from them. I truly enjoyed this activity when we did it together. It’s just that I can’t help but notice some of the cultural differences, differences that I didn’t realize were so beautiful until I was able to compare the two groups.
Within a small classroom meal, I am shown that our people (even our young ones) still value working together and helping those who are capable of less. They display a beautiful sense of humility and pride in the preparation of their gathering. They show a sensitivity to conserving resources and making sure there is enough for everyone. I’m happy to be home for many reasons, and this experience reminded me of them all. Don’t be too hard on our island’s young adults. They’re more aware than we think they are, and far more respectful than they get credit for. They’re picking up many of the lessons you think they don’t care about.
Also, it looks like our fiesta tables are safe from cultural erosion for the next ten or fifteen years. They’ve got us covered. ;P