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Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

Hey, Kid,
Pass the Lard,
Er, Doughnut

My assistant and I had doughnuts and coffee for breakfast this morning -- not just doughnuts, but our weight in doughnut holes. Somehow small versions of bad food seem less threatening than the original.

Todays children have been raised on a more healthful diet. Where the nutritional element in our hot lunches might have been the calcium in a sticky pile of macaroni and cheese, or some questionable vitamins from canned string beans, students today are used to fresh vegetables, the likes of which never graced our cafeteria floors.

And yet as our students become healthier (even going so far as declining the doughnuts, candy, and pizza we bring in on last-day-of-class parties -- something were allowed to do at the university level, which I understand would be impossible, if not illegal, to do in an elementary school) we so-called adults seem to be getting more and more unhealthy in our eating habits.

For example, our students are eating fiber, whereas we are limiting ourselves to lard-based or polyurethane products. Its only a matter of time before we just skip the food thats fried and go straight for the can of Crisco itself.

Kids, in contrast, now spend more time reading nutritional labels than they do reading textbooks, Highlights for Children,or newspapers. If we put John Miltons Paradise Lost on breakfast-food labels, every American kid would have it memorized by grade five, Nutrition labels might well become the most significant reading done by the class of 2027. It is perhaps why all writers and journalists will, by that point, be replaced by personal trainers. Pretty soon everyone -- without exception -- will get news in tiny decontextualized fragments while sweating on the treadmill.

Not only are there kids who cant eat peanuts or who have to avoid shellfish (not that lobster and shrimp etouffee often appear in the goody bags one brings to celebrate a 7-year-olds birthday), there are also vegan first graders and tikes who must avoid gluten, lactose, or anything made with actual material substances. My friend Laurie, who teaches second grade in Massachusetts, told me that Its getting to the point where Im simply going to shred green construction paper and give that to the kids to eat. Paper is the only thing thats not on the unacceptable foods list.

Apparently we will all have our heads cut off if we declare Let them eat cake!

Lets face it, our own parents stopped bullying us to eat right usually around the time they stopped paying our tuition bills. The eating habits of many teachers are not -- or, at least, have not always been -- what you might call exemplary. Who, during graduate school, did not live, for at least a few weeks, on Ramen noodles? (As far as Im concerned, the Ramen noodle people should offer scholarships at every major university, and even at some of the smaller liberal arts colleges.)

I had one friend who -- when she was getting her teaching certification while also working full-time at an independent school -- not only lived on Ramen noodles, but often found herself, at the end of her busy day, too impatient to wait for the noodles to soften. She would actually eat crunchy, uncooked noodles. It was not a flaw in her education. She knew better. She would have thrown herself in front of anybody trying to serve such a meal to a child as if throwing herself in front of an oncoming train. She simply ate the way she did because she was tired, she was hungry, and nobody was watching her. This seems to be the magic combination in terms of indulging our worst culinary habits, although I hesitate to put the word culinary in the same paragraph as crunchy, uncooked noodles.

In addition, by the end of her noodle phase, she also had a higher saline count than the Dead Sea. Yet she survives to this day and, astonishingly enough, seems none the worse for wear.

I have a deep suspicion that one reason that we are becoming obsessed, as a nation, with the thought that there are, hidden in the most benign substances, things that can hurt us, because we have realized that, indeed, many things that seem benign could, in fact, be dangerous.

Controlling what we put on our plate, or on the plates of the kids in our charge, gives us a sense that were in control of the universe. It helps keep at bay the fear that so much of the world is, in fact, unpredictable and scary.

If we can just take butter off the menu or remove all traces of trans fats, then maybe well be able to dodge global warming or global warfare.

Maybe if we cut out high-calorie snacks and replace them with high-fiber treats, well be able to avoid explaining to the next generation that the world were leaving to them is in pretty bad shape.

Yes, of course being healthy remains the greatest privilege of lifes many privileges, but, as far as Im concerned, it is followed very closely by the privilege of eating a cupcake, pleasure I think we should work towards allowing the next generation to understand. And if we cant bring scary foods such as chocolate kisses, Devil Dogs, Fritos, or -- gasp -- any sugary, carbonated beverage into the classroom, well just have to bring them into the teachers lounge. They will, naturally, be devoured not only instantaneously but also with the kind of subversive glee usually associated with the consumption of champagne, truffles, or other even more heavily controlled substances.

And while I dont want to underestimate the significance of good nutrition during childhood, Id also like to remind us that kids eat bugs.

They eat Play Doh. They eat paste. They will go through eraser tops to pencils as if eating Godiva chocolates; they will chew on fingernails attached to fingers that have just played with the class hamster (an often depressed creature, in most cases, who itself would like to break free from a highly regimented diet. It too, would like to eat green construction paper, or at least use it for bedding).

Kids will chew on their hair, on the edges of their notebooks, and on ball point pens they found on the floor. Its not like were talking about creatures who, apart from what appears on their plate, ingest no other substances. While we should take their food requirements seriously, it doesnt mean that we should become the food police in every area of our own lives, because, after all, it would be unfair to have to apply these rules to ourselves. After all teachers need all the help we can get and if that help comes in the form of a bag of M&Ms, a grilled cheese sandwich, or coffee with extra caffeine, then so be it.

Surely at some point, food will have labels that say on the back: Warning: This Product May Contains Ingredients.