“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, 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 upward 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 precooked 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 by loving hands and emerged bearing a tasty treat.
In went Little Tom, for he was just a four-pound turkey. He was big enough to carve a taste for each tiny mouth, yet small enough to cook in a half-day 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 on. However, 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 ploppp! 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.”