Counting blessings at Cracker Barrel

June 9, 2016

14  comments

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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    1. You always wonder. They were so young at the time. Several of the students traveled to Georgia to attend my wedding and one in particular would call me for years. I’d rather teach in a school like this than in a privileged area any day. They appreciated everything.

  1. I can only guess at the impact you had on those children’s lives. I am sure not a one of them will ever forget you and that field trip.

    1. Teaching is such a great career for the right people. I had such a great time and (sometimes) miss it. The state and federal regulations were starting to squelch all our creativity about the time I left.

  2. Love this story. What I heard, and hope others do as well, “wealth thrown at schools isn’t always the answer to producing well educated children. It’s the wealth of experiences.” And yet, experiential learning has been nixed for “academics”. The other thing I heard was “I don’t think Pre-K should be a standard option open to all.” I couldn’t agree more. This story opened my heart to search for ways to be a better servant. Thanks.

    1. Kathie, you must have experience in the education field to have picked up on those points. I feel strongly about pushing everything down, down, down. If all children are required to attend Pre-K, it will turn into a room of four year olds crying because they can’t sit still and read big words.

      And as for the money issue, I keep going back to the greatest generation who could do math in their heads, quote poetry, discuss literature, and their only expense was a pencil, paper and a few books from the library — if that!

      Thanks for reading!

  3. What a beautiful, well written story. Smiling with tears at such a precious learning experience for the children and their good fortune to have such a wonderful teacher!

  4. Leslie Anne, this just flat out blessed my heart! You just never know what a difference you may have made in their lives, and their parents’ too. And what a lesson for all of us. I bet there really are kids sitting in McMansions that would a whole lot rather have some moments of their parents’ time than another new toy.

    The experience is the thing, really. Madison Ave often tries to sell us that but we can probably come up with some fabulous ideas on our own.

    Loved it, loved it, loved picturing you as this teacher,
    Dewena

    1. Thanks so much Dewena. You’re right about privileged kids often being just as deprived as the poor in many ways. Thanks for taking the time to read.

  5. Wow, this article almost made me cry! Amazing the things we take for granted, and how they may be seen through the wondering eyes of child! What a wonderful influence you were on those little souls! 🙂 ~Rhonda

    1. Thanks Rhonda. I raised my own two boys with a different perspective because of this job. Amazing how that can happen.

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