A Thanksgiving Classroom Story

People are always surprised when they find out I can cook. I can, really I can. It’s just that it’s not something I’d choose to do for fun. This year Thanksgiving dinner is at our house. After reviewing family recipes for gravy and stuffing, using my 800 number, aka my older sister, for some tips, and looking at holiday magazines, I recalled when the exuberance of youth and some pretty hefty pride led me to cook my first turkey.

For your Thanksgiving entertainment, I give you “Kindergarten Cuisine.”

True, all true! Mrs. Ball, the wonderful kids, my naïveté, and that little white stove that taught me about lots more than cooking.

“Is it ready yet?” a child’s high-pitched voice asked. The room was filled with the delicious aroma of turkey. Nineteen mouths were waiting to be fed. Was it Grandma’s house? No, it was my sunlit kindergarten classroom in New Jersey, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

When I was a young and single teacher, I was extremely dedicated to my job. I knew I made a positive difference in the lives of my young students. That November morning I was also suffering from one of those“I-said-I’m-gonna-do-it-and-by-golly-I’ll-do-it”moments. In my personal life, I prided myself on cooking as little as possible. Strange to some, but to each his own. Pots and pans I had received as apartment gifts still nested in their boxes. My oven had that over-brilliant gleam only seen in new appliances. I had never, ever, cooked a turkey.

I was forced to re-examine my indifference to cooking when I changed my teaching assignment from third grade to kindergarten. I moved to Room 101, a spacious carpeted room with cozy reading area, sandbox area, and housekeeping corner complete with sink and a real stove!

The previous teacher had received an educational grant to purchase the stove for cooking.  She had a positive zeal for multi-sensory learning. She did math lessons by baking brownies. Literature was a reading of Stone Soup and stirring up vegetable soup. Her classes finger-painted with chocolate pudding. Of course, her holiday feast of Pilgrims and Native Americans was topped off with the baking aromas of bread, or cookies, or cranberry or applesauce. Each November, aromas from Mrs. Ball’s classroom drifted upwards to the third, fourth, and fifth grade rooms, producing a remarkable increase in volunteers to “go help the kindergarteners.”

When Mrs. Ball retired, I inherited her classroom. How could I not carry on this culinary tradition? I could do the brownies, pudding, and stone soup. But what could I do for Thanksgiving that was really special? Got it! I’d cook a Thanksgiving turkey. How hard could it be?

To simplify, I had pre-cooked some stuffing the night before and crammed it inside any opening I could find in the turkey. The turkey was in the roasting pan when my munchkins entered the classroom.

“Look, there’s our turkey. It looks funny!” High-pitched gobbles filled the classroom. Small bodies demonstrated a kindergartener’s rendition of a turkey strut. We approached the stove, that sacred place where so many roasting pans and baking sheets had been placed in with loving hands and emerged bearing a tasty treat.

In went Little Tom, for he was just big enough to carve a taste for each tiny mouth, yet small enough to cook during the kindergarten session.

The wait was interminable. The Pilgrims donned their wide, white paper collars and large, but lopsided, black paper hats. The Native Americans pulled on burlap vests, which I had whipped up on my old Singer sewing machine. I may have been a novice in the kitchen, but I knew my way around a sewing machine.

“My mother makes the best turkey,” declared one outspoken Pilgrim.

“Who do you cook a turkey for if you live alone?” a young philosopher asked.

“How will we know when it’s done?” queried another little one. Hey, I had done my homework. I knew about that little pop-up thermometer.

Near the end of our kindergarten morning, the moment arrived. Out he came from the oven. Oh, he looked beautiful. Golden brown and juicy. “Aahs” mixed with the aroma as Little Tom made his debut. Now, to carve. I gave the blades of my never-been-used electric carving knife a test buzz. The children appreciated the drama of this.

Off came a diminutive drumstick. Zip! Off came the other one. Slicing down into the chest cavity, the blades snagged and stopped. Something glistened from the center.

What made me suddenly, but belatedly, think of it? Where were all the insides? Words like gizzard, liver, heart flashed though my brain. Anxiety gripped me. They were inside! The glistening was their wrapping. Paper wrapping—still inside.

Now when people are caught in an outright mistake, self-help books gently advise:  Admit and accept mistakes. Laugh. Move onHowever, it’s much better to tell how you have accepted, laughed, and moved on after the fact, not while you are in it. Pride takes over when you are in it. Save face! Regroup! Think fast!

I diverted my students’ attention by gesturing to our gaily-decorated table. “Let’s sit at the Thanksgiving table, my Pilgrims and Native Americans.”

Their little heads turned, their bodies moved to the table lured by the thought of actually munching turkey slices and downing apple cider.

Swiftly I got a death grip on the bit of paper poking through the chest cavity. With a twist and a tug, the bag of innards ejected with kind of long plop! I wrapped it in some paper towels.

“Well, my feasters, we’re going to have white meat and dark meat. No stuffing today. That part of it just didn’t work out.”

Most of them accepted this, eagerly holding up paper plates for their taste.  All but my loyal Pilgrim who looked at his meager offering and pronounced, “My mother still makes the best turkey.”Man and woman in chef outfit in kitchen

~~~

If you enjoyed this story, pull out your copy of Seedlings, Stories of Relationships, p. 118. Why not read it to your family? Seedlings also makes a lovely holiday gift. Click here to buy an author-inscribed copy with Pay Pal, or go to Amazon. 

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.


18 Comments

  1. Linda Walker

    Thank you so very much for the story; it helps at a somewhat sad holiday. Tom is no longer with us; he died at the end of July from heart and lung problems. He truly struggled with these problems for six years, and he said “I’m ready to go; I don’t want to leave the family, but I’m ready.” He died about 2 or 3 weeks later after 7 months in hospice care. We miss him terribly, but his long-fought battle is over. I thought that you might like to know. Linda Walker

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Dear Linda, Your thanks are appreciated but a small consolation for accepting this sad news. I’m so sorry. I know Tom struggled and I was glad to spend time with him when he could still get out and share some laughter. I will write to you.
      Thank you for sharing this

  2. Lori Conser

    Love it! I had a feeling that’s what you did. Thanks for sharing, and have a great Thanksgiving!

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Lori, I have some wondrous stories about teaching the munchkins. A special age!
      Thanksgiving was blessed as I hope yours was.

  3. This brought back memories of my teaching career. I laughed and thought about all my new experiences and all the way nes I messed up!
    Happy Thanksgiving to your family!
    You really cook?

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Bryn, We did have many “adventures” in our teaching careers, didn’t we? I think there’s a book in me about teaching experiences.
      We had a great Thanksgiving dinner – with turkey and stuffing- yes I cooked, plus contributions from Eileen and Joe and neighbors.

  4. Diane Rau

    Adorable, Ethyl, and well told.

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Thanks, Diane, I have so many lovely memories of teaching young children.

  5. Denise Jones

    Ethel, the story is adorable. I’m sure the little angels in your class will never forget the day their teacher cooked a turkey for them.

  6. . . . . I think this story was actually about ME!! The turkey I made right after disengaging from the USMC in 1968 . . .!

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Chuck,
      So funny! Maybe some day you’ll write it down.I’d love to read/hear it.
      We had a really nice turkey this year and lots of food at our table and brought by friends who joined us the Thanksgiving.
      Heard you had some pretty chilly weather back East.

  7. antoinette

    So much enjoyed…Your sense of humor is still intact. Having retired from kindergarten, I know the little ones can be easily amused and charmed.
    The teacher, of course, sets the tone for each event, pass or fail. I think you did just fine. Above all, I would bet the memory lives on from their fond perspective. Wishing you a joyous season. xo

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Antoinette, so glad to hear from you. I think of my Miller Place friends often and hope that the places we love are still magical.
      I find I am drawn to observing little children as we wait for a flight at an airport or see them in parks. They are so beautiful by the mere fact of being so young. I think there may be a book of teaching stories waiting to be told. How about you?

  8. Michael Lang

    Thanks for sharing. It brought me back to that sun soaked room that I enjoyed as a student in your Kindergarten class.

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Michael, Thanks for checking in. Wasn’t that the most wonderful classroom. Looking back, I see how truly idyllic it was to teach in a classroom with bits and pieces of the adult world- housekeeping sandbox, musical instruments, books and snack- but child-size and safe.

  9. ERMIRA Mitre

    Hi Ethel, what a beautiful story, I loved every piece of it! It brought back memories when we spent thanksgiving together which I miss a lot and I felt as if I was there. but also when I celebrated it with the little angels at the community school. I felt as if I was there because of the vivid description in the story!

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Thanks for checking in. I know you understand about little angels in any school. They are precious.

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