Friday, April 19, 2019

Flash Taco Bar and the Teacher Lounge

Guess what happened last week? 

I told this story to my friend William Parker as we recorded our upcoming podcast.  *You can listen here for that podcast (and some other work we’ve done recently, and a whole slew of great stuff from Will).

What happened was so simple, and so surprisingly positive, and fun.  

It started with an email from a kindergarten teacher to the rest of the staff.  I have a roaster full of flour tortillas left over from a banquet at my daughter’s school, she wrote.  I also have tons of cheese and lettuce.  I’ll leave it in the lounge.  Bring your own taco filling and you’ll have lunch!

I clicked “Reply.”  I’ll bring a crock pot full meat for filling!

Not three minutes later, another email came in from a teacher named John.   I have a jar of salsa and a small tub of sour cream. 

And then, from a particulary witty teacher:  Hey, John.  I see your jar of salsa and small amount of sour cream.  I’m raising the stakes.  I’m bringing mild salsa, some hot sauce, and 2 cans of tri-blend beans. 

I hustled to the grocery for onions, peppers, seasoning, and about 20 pounds of ground beef. The emails kept coming.  By lunchtime the next day, we had a full spread. All the standard things, of course, but also sliced avocados, quartered limes, chopped tomatoes, olives, chopped cilantro, diced onions, and bags and bags of tortilla chips.  People had raided their refrigerators, or made a quick stop at the grocery store, or scanned their cabinets for whatever even-slightly-taco-ish items they could find and plopped it down.  Playful Amber even put two empty plastic pitchers with a sign:  “Imaginary margaritas!!!!!!!!” 

It was a full-on flash Mexican buffet.

Yeah, yeah, yeah—we all know feeding people is a great way to lift morale and make them happy.  Especially for teachers (like me) who abhor packing a lunch.  But this was better than a standard catered meal, because it was a communal effort  Anyone could come to eat.  Or not.  They could bring food.  Or not.  There was no expectation, mandate, guilt, or goal.  Everyone did what they wanted, what they could, what they felt like doing.  Or not. 

It was a great day.  The positive mood filtered into the air, somehow, as though this was exactly what we'd needed, at this time, for—and with— one another.

Teacher lounges are funny places.  I love and hate them, in the same way I love and hate—oh, I don't know.  Zoos.  Laundromats.  Tire stores.  Stories are found there, that's fo sho.  Lots of stories.  I’ve always thought it would be a great project to collect stories from teachers’ lounges across the country, in the same spirit as Humans of New York.  The laughter, the anxiety, the therapy, the human connections.  The friendship and awkward silences.  The way substitutes are treated.  The coffee pot, the toaster, the random Sweet-and-Low envelopes mixed in with salt packets.  There is a disgusting microwave, mismatched plates, random collections of cutlery, cabinets full of random-origin chipped coffee mugs.  Hundreds of different chunks of napkins left from hundreds of parent-teacher-conference night dinners.

And the food—oh, the food.  All day long, all year long, there are meals, breakfast and lunch and dinner and everything in between.  There is a steady stream of leftovers, forgotten tidbits left in the refrigerator to die—expired salad dressings, wilted lettuce, blackblackblack bananas, yogurt with an expiration date of 1992.  It isn't atypical for people to bring leftovers from home to share, or bring things they don't want in their cabinets any longer. They drop all kinds of things in the lounge, sometimes pre-announced with an email and sometimes just left on a table for communal consumption.  A half sheet cake from a child’s birthday party. A tray of sandwiches from a graduation. A box of Valentine’s chocolates.  Last month, someone left an entire case of Shakeology from the BeachBody Diet.   I chuckled at that one.  Abandoned goals, I guess.

Teachers' lounges have the reputation as being toxic places, but they don't have to be.  They can be awesome places, too.  Ours is tiny. Not everyone can fit—not by a long shot.  It's old and shaped awkwardly.  But it's a classic shared space.  Everyone has to walk through to get to the mailboxes and the refrigerators.  It is full of stories and laughter and human connection.  It is the place an entire Mexican-food buffet can pop up.  It is a place of give a little, take a little, leave a little, have a little. 

Just like us. 

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