Years ago, I taught in the Pre-Kindergarten program in an inner-city public school, and realized the students were confused when we read stories about Santa Claus. I finally grasped that it wasn’t the Jolly Old Elf who puzzled them, but the concept of a fireplace was totally foreign to a group of children who lived in government owned apartments.
We had recently learned about fire safety, so a story about someone landing in a “fire – place” . . . well, you can understand their confusion.
I thought about how I could show the children a real fireplace and it finally dawned on me — the perfect home of Southern hospitality with collard greens, sweet tea and a roaring fire was a short drive away at Cracker Barrel.
The manager agreed to host our class, and for just a few dollars per student, would provide a hot biscuit, scrambled eggs, sausage and milk, all served in front of their trademark stone fireplace. Since the school cafeteria only used plastic spoons and milk cartons, and the only time these children ate restaurant food was when it was a hamburger or taco from their neighborhood fast food joint, we launched into lessons on proper table manners.
The students were dressed in their fanciest outfits as we pulled the bus up to the rustic themed restaurant and their faces showed pure amazement over the bounty of pretty things in the gift shop. Other customers raised their eyebrows as we followed the waitress (which was another thing they’d never seen) to the tables.
The honored pint-sized customers scrambled into their chairs and placed the napkins in their laps, then broke into big smiles when they saw real drinking glasses. Only one thing was lacking. Even thoughit was the middle of January, the weather outside was a balmy 78 degrees, and therefore, no fire was flickering.
Once I reminded the manager of our ultimate purpose, he kindly built a roaring fire, which brought gasps from my wide-eyed students. I think the employees had to crank the air-conditioner down a few notches, which is a typical Southern reaction when we use the fireplace anyway, but they were gracious and kind as they treated the children like royalty.
Later that year, I also took the class on their first visits to the mall, movie theater and airport. You’d have thought we were visiting the Vatican when they saw the main terminal with all the beautiful art work and architecture — details most people rushing past didn’t even notice.
I tried to involve the parents in these trips and help them understand that riding the city bus to visit free museums or to spend a hot afternoon in the cool library for story time was within their reach and could greatly expand their child’s world, but many were reluctant to visit unfamiliar places, although most were located less than ten miles away.
Appreciating seemingly small niceties in life, like knowing what a fireplace is, or using a real knife to butter your biscuit, is something most take for granted. I realized wealth thrown at schools isn’t always the answer to producing well educated children. Instead, it’s the wealth of experiences that open the world to curious minds and encourage a lifetime love of seeking, exploring and learning new things.
Like most teachers, I was exposed to all types of personal family situations and learned that even in the swankiest of communities full of fabulous cultural opportunities, there are children who sit all day in empty homes with distorted television shows being their only link to the outside world.
I don’t think pre-K should be a standard option open to all, because as wonderful as it is, a good home life full of enriching activities is still best for young children and regular Kindergarten comes fast enough. But for those who are living in poverty or other critical conditions, I know in my heart that a simple brunch in front of the fireplace at Cracker Barrel can be a life changing experience. For both the student, and the teacher.
This story first appeared on AL.com and in the Mobile Press Register, Birmingham News and the Huntsville Times.