Author: humbleswede

Back in the Kitchen

Yesterday marked the first day of the summer session for the summer learning program my wife runs.  Rather than teaching in the program, I’ve opted for volunteering in the kitchen.  I’ve written about it before, so you wouldn’t think I ‘d have much new to say.  I don’t, but that won’t stop me from detailing the day.  

Yesterday was our first time back in full lunch mode since the summer of 2019.  The following summer, the program ran in a fully remote mode, and last summer, half of the kids ate in their classrooms with boxed lunches, so that they could maintain safe social distancs.  The kids who used the dining hall used paper plates and plastic utensils.  Nevermind the social, environmental or financial costs of this plan, this meant that I had to go another summer without the industrial dishwasher, the springy rinsing faucet, and the challenge of the ten-plate grab.  

Yesterday was opening day for 2022, and it lived up to my anticipation.  I bounded into the kitchen, fist-bumped with Carlos, the kitchen supervisor, William, the chef, and Terry, my lunch distributing partner from last summer.  I washed my hands according to regulations, dried them thoroughly so the latex gloves wouldn’t catch, and I was ready to go.  Carlos gave everyone the rundown on the day’s menu and presented the quick version of the hygiene talk, and pretty soon the kindergarten-to-fourth grade customers arrived.  I had two new volunteers on my side.   I was able to pass along the wisdom I’d gained from previous summers:  When using the toothed tongs for serving the plain pasta, it works best to invert the tongs so the toothed side is facing up.  That way the noodles don’t get caught in the teeth. Nothing worse than clogged tongs.  They were very grateful.  We estimated a 17 percent time save for our customers.

I was stuck serving the peas and the garlic bread.  Peas are problematic for several reasons.  For one, they are not popular with kids.  I had to offer each one, of course, only to be rejected by 85 percent of the customers.  Another unfortunate aspect of serving the peas is the articulation challenge.  Wearing a mask as I was, I found it challenging to make “peas” sound different from “please” or even “fleas.”   Several kids thought I was correcting their manners. “Oh, sorry, garlic bread PLEASE.”  Others said, “Please, what?”  They had no idea what I was requesting from them.  Correcting their misunderstandings may have negated the savings from the tong inversion.  Such are the challenges of the serving line.

Fortunately, serving merely serves as the prelude to dishwashing.  As the eating time wound down, my heart began to pound.  I bid farewell to my new serving partners and strode to the adjacent room.  It had been two years, but it felt like much longer.  I swapped my serving gloves for a new pair and slowly, reverently approached my old friend, the industrial dishwasher.  I patted its stainless steel face and gazed into its pale blue power light.  “Hello, old friend.  It’s been too long.”  Terry had already powered her up, so she hummed her response.  For such a sleek and impressive machine, the dishwasher remains humble and stoic., always accepting the dirty plates and utensils without complaint, blasting, sudsing, rinsing, and drying without complaint.  As the first crate of cleaned plates emerged, shining and scalding hot on the conveyor belt, I paused to admire her work, waiting the requisite 15 seconds for the plate temperature to drop from molten lava to merely hot.  Then it was finally time for the first attempt at the ten-plate grab.  Five fingers from each hand descended between the plates on the front and back row, then clamped together, grasped, and hoisted.  Unfortunately, I was clearly out of practice.  Fortunately, I had resisted the urge to announce my first attempt of the summer, so no one else witnessed my embarrassment  as two plates slipped from the grasp of my right hand.  The plates fell unharmed back into the conveyor crate.  Still, it took two trips to the counter, not one, to empty the crate.  I vowed to do better on my next attempt.  I never succeeded.   Another consequence of the pandemic. The layoff had clearly taken its toll.

Today, on day 2, I shall renew my quest.  I will also try to avoid pulling out the utensil soaking tray that I mistakenly thought had a water-tight floor.  It did not.  Terry was very understanding  about the tsunami that I created in his kitchen.  “It’s okay.  You’re just a little rusty,” he said, reassuring me.  It was good to be back in the kitchen, among friends.

Bugging – Or, More Antics with M.

M. walks the hall, head down.  He’s not upset.  He’s hunting.  Earlier in the morning he had spied not one, not two, but three pill bugs on the tile floor near the art room.  Very concerned about their chances for survival, what with all the foot traffic, he had insisted that we transport them to safety.  Once outside, he attempted to place them on the leaves of a bush by the doorway.  Ignoring my mention that pill bugs tend to live at ground level, he  made three attempts to convince them of the wonders of high-rise living.  After their third plunge, M. had decided that perhaps pill bugs weren’t canopy-dwellers after all.. 

Moments later, spying yet another pill bug, M. proceeded to stomp this one beyond recognition.  It was a contradiction that took me by surprise.  M. shrugged and continued to his kindergarten classroom.

Now, it’s mid-morning, and after blurting some “red words,” an indication that math is over for M., we’ve decided to take another walk.  M. scans the floor for more pill bugs.  I wonder if I should be pointing them out or warning them to flee. Suddenly he’s on his knees again.  He’s spotted something interesting (and he didn’t stomp it).  I peer over his shoulder to see what he’s discovered.  

“Look!  It’s a giant ant,”  he exclaims.  He picks it up off the tiles and gently places it in his other palm.  “I think it’s dead,” he adds.

In his hand is a very large creature.  At first it looks like a wasp to me.  “Are you sure it’s dead?” I ask. 

“I think so.  It hasn’t moved since I picked it up.”  I take a closer look.  Sure enough, it is a very large ant, and it does seem very lifeless.  M. is fascinated.  He puts his palm up to his eye for a closer look.  “I want to keep him.  I love him,” he proclaims.  He’s back on the move again, no longer looking at the floor.  Now he can’t take his eyes off of his ant.  As we get close to the office I start thinking of the other people who might appreciate a cute, dead insect.  We visit the secretary and the assistant principal.  I don’t really think they’ll appreciate the ant, but something about being with M. brings out the mischievous.  I’m curious to see their reactions.  They express interest, but we notice that they don’t really get close enough to take in the details. 

Next is the workshop teacher.  She seems genuinely enthralled.  She takes a picture on her phone, asks lots of questions and suggests that maybe M. will be an insect scientist some day.  M. asks if he could just be an ant scientist.  We look up “ant scientist” on my phone and discover that indeed, M. could become a myrmecologist.  This pleases M., though as a kindergartener, he still has a bit of trouble with the pronunciation.  It comes out more like “mermaid,” which I inform him is not as realistic an ambition.

We continue down the hall, beyond the office.  Our next stop is the science lab.  The science teacher looks a bit distracted.  I sense that she has a class coming any minute, but she sets down her supplies when M. rushes in.  “Look!  I found something!”

“Hi, M., what did you find this time?”  M. is a proficient finder, and loves to share his discoveries.  He hustles over and shows her his dead ant.  She leans in to get a closer look, and they have a brief conversation. She suggests that we try to find a book in the library.  We’re about to head that way, but M. has another idea.  He looks further down the long corridor.

Nervously, I suggest that we skip the cafeteria, as some might not find his new friend so appetizing.  I’m relieved when M. agrees.  However, he realizes that we are close to the nurse’s office, and his eyes light up.  “Can we show it to Ms. Sandri?”  His eyes open wider. 

“Sure,” I say, thinking that a medical background might make her another interested staff member.  M. has other thoughts.

He walks through the door, holding out his precious cargo.  “What do we have today, M.?”

“IT’S A BUG!” he shouts.

“Oh, no thank you,” she replies.  “We don’t need any bugs in here.”

“It’s okay, it’s dead,” M. says, “But I was thinking maybe you could fix him.”   M. has great confidence in our nurse.  She has fixed many of M.’s scrapes and bruises this year.  The nurse gives a little snort.  I’m picturing her with the insect version of the defibrillator. You know, mini paddles, AA batteries.  “Clear!”  “Zap.”   “Phew! That was close. We almost lost him.”

“I’m sorry, M.  I don’t think I can help your ant at this point, but I can give you a little plastic bag to keep him in.”  M. settles for the bag.  He handles the disappointment stoically, and we head for the library.

On our way, we run into one of our reading specialists.  (She also happens to post slices on a certain web site).  She greets M., who truly has celebrity status in the halls of our building.  He proudly shows her his find.  Since Dawn is interested in everything, she leans in for a closer look.  “Wow!  That’s a really big ant, M.  Where did you find him?”  M. relates the tale of his discovery.  Dawn peers in again.  She’s a big one for observing.  “Do you know the different parts of an ant?” she asks.  

“Yeah, yeah,” M. says, pointing toward his silent friend.  “That’s the head,” he says.

“And do you know that part?” Dawn asks, pointing toward his midsection (the ant’s, that is).  M. is not sure, so Dawn helps out.  “That’s called the thorax.”

“Oh, oh, I know what that part is,” M. exclaims, pointing toward the hind section.  I’m about to be so impressed that M. knows the word abdomen, but I don’t have it quite right.

“What’s that called?” Dawn asks.

“That’s his booty!” M. shouts.

Dawn walks away quickly, probably trying to stifle her laugh.  M. and I head into the library to look for an ant book. It might add to our anatomical vocabulary, but will undoubtedly subtracts from the comedy.

M.’s Great Ant and her very large…abdomen