I suspect that some of my readers who care about purity and form are going to be outraged by this, or think that I ‘cheated’ in some fashion. But Jason Miller has kids, and I bet… ahem — dollars to doughnuts, I think is the expression — I bet that Jason Miller will laugh out loud and heartily approve of this bit of strategic sorcery.
You see, this afternoon I have a meeting of my Debate Club. We go to the state Mock Trial qualifying round on February 2. What is that, 18 days from now? In eighteen days, a motley assortment of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders have to put a zoo on trial for negligence, or alternately defend the zoo against an outrageously over-empowered high school basketball star who intentionally provoked a troupe of gorillas into attacking, against the Zoo’s stated policies for guests and the advice of its tour guide.
They have to be lawyers, and multimillionaires, and basketball stars, and English naturalists, and soft-spoken primate experts with years of gentle experience in the field. It’s demanding work for these young people to portray these roles, and it draws on everything they know about a sixty-page packet of information, all that they’ve ever learned about acting and improvisation, and all that they know about asking and answering questions. They will also have had a full day of school, too, with Physical Education, and higher mathematics, and tests and quizzes, and all the rest. And a good four hours will have slipped by since lunch. And a good many of these children are giving up a run on ski mountains for this three-day weekend under the Friday night lights and artificial snow of Vermont in order to be here.
In other words, these kids: they’re doing hard things, at the end of a long day, and foregoing other pleasures in order to do difficult work and challenge themselves in a practice session for a competition that most of them have never seen before.
Of course there will be snacks. Of course I will bring snacks to them. Only idiots don’t plan to bring snacks.
The curious thing, of course, is that when you bring snacks often enough, other people bring snacks too. They see the work you go to, feeding them, and they think, “Oh, I should do that too.” I have a couple of parents, and my co-coach, who are stepping up with snacks of their own. One or two parents are planning the dinner on the night of competition, as well. And another parent has stepped up to organize the carpool which will get us to the competition.
But the Spell! I hear you cry. You were supposed to do a spell!?
But I did. I am. Did you not notice? I’m feeding hungry people a little bit, and in return, several major pieces of work are being done for me: dinner at the Mock Trial is being organized by someone else. The carpool is being organized by someone else. Other parents are stepping up and bringing snacks so that it’s not only my snacks. Children are getting fed, and so they’re less cranky — and they have the energy to do hard intellectual work on a Friday for nearly two hours after school. They’re eager to take on another school in competition. They’re nervous, but they’re empowered. They sound and act like lawyers, or witnesses, depending on what role they’re in. And they fight with words — with questions and answers — like valiant Musketeers fight with rapiers in an Errol Flynn movie.
With a box of snacks each week, I have turned a writhing chaos of middle school students into an elegant intellectual fighting force.
You see, a box is a container… but in another sense it is a fortress. It’s a place to hold things, yes — but it’s also a place to hold out what you don’t want. I don’t want tired, hungry, cranky kids for two hours on Friday. The microcosmic container of the box of munchkins is a macrocosm of the classroom set up as a courtroom. As the munchkins leave the box, and enter chewing mouths of the munchkins in the classroom, the children magically transform into lawyers and witnesses, and the room around them transform into a courtroom.
Feeding people isn’t flashy magic. It doesn’t require an odd number of candles, or a blue sigil inscribed on a Thursday with a consecrated pen at midnight under a full moon. It requires a little preparation, and the courage to leave work in the middle of the day, and a plan for how to feed them.
But the act of feeding people draws people into a community. It makes people feel connected, and it helps them imagine new possibilities for themselves. They can take on new roles. Feeding people, even if it’s quick and easy and cheap, is one of the ways that we help people move from being disconnected and dissociated individuals, into the tribe. This is how we make people feel welcomed into the Last Homely House East of the Sea: feed them, and demonstrate that you love them.
And then demand great things of them. They will respond with greatness.