Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When the sixth graders do the serving

By my calculations, last night’s Sixth Grade Spaghetti Supper was, I’m fairly certain, the 35th annual of its kind. If I’m right, I was at the inaugural one in 1975, and as far as I know, this fundraiser has taken place every year since then.

We attended throughout the years that my sisters and I were in junior high, of course, and then I resumed the habit when my family moved back to town in 2001. Most families with children younger than high school do attend, and so do plenty of singles and couples without children at home. For many Carlisle children, the annual foray to the school cafeteria for the Spaghetti Supper, throughout their toddler and preschool years, is their first and definitely formative peek at the campus they will eventually inhabit for nine (or, if they attend preschool there, ten) years. For kids and adults alike throughout the community, it’s a much-anticipated chance to gather for an informal and always upbeat evening meal.

And every time I attend, I’m struck anew by what a great tradition it is. It’s typical to wait in line for at least a half-hour, but in the crisp October early-evening air, that’s never unpleasant. Dozens of kids run around on the school plaza; adults catch up with friends. By the time you finally get seated, you’re hungry enough that the rudimentary menu of spaghetti, tomato sauce, garlic bread and iceberg lettuce salad tastes delicious.

But the best part is the wait staff, made up of the entire sixth grade class. Wearing white shirts and pants or skirts, white aprons and typeset nametags, the kids are at their absolute best: attentive, respectful, cheerful. In fact, in years past, I thought the kids had to audition for this job and only the best were chosen, because in nine years we’ve never had a single sixth-grade waitperson who performed without the above qualities. But now I know that every student is required to participate, and how they all happen to be on such impressive behavior is simply this: it’s a special occasion and they know they’ve been called upon to show their best side.

This year was the first time I witnessed this as a parent rather than just another member of the public. I expected Tim would be a little bit grudging about the requirement that he put in a 90-minute stint waiting tables, as he’s not normally an extrovert or a laborer. This is the same kid who has never yet poured himself a glass of water without first arguing with me about why I should do it for him or gotten up during dinner to find himself a knife rather than ask me to do it. Wait on other people? Tim? To my ear, it was a contradiction in terms.

But as most teachers and many parents with more experience than I have already know, this is what happens when you pose a challenge to an entire class of kids and make it clear you expect them to succeed at it: they succeed at it. It’s that simple. Like all the sixth graders of previous years, Tim and his classmates did a wonderful job. Because we were willing to wait in line for a little extra time, Holly and I were able to get seated at Tim’s table, a ten-seater, so not only did I order from Tim myself but I got to watch while he served other diners as well. “Hi, I’m Tim,” he said, exactly the way the parents on the service-training team had taught the kids to do. “What would you like to drink? Do you want regular sauce or vegetarian? May I take your ticket?”

With its absence of restaurants, pubs and coffee shops, Carlisle lacks group gathering places, so evenings like this when so much of the town shows up for one event are a big deal. A small number of similar celebrations dot the calendar throughout the year: the Christmas tree lighting in December, the Fire Department barbeque on Old Home Day weekend in late June. But this one is a little different because it involves kids at their best: working hard and rising to the occasion.

That’s not to say it didn’t take nearly every single parent of a sixth grader working behind the scenes to pull off this fundraiser. We started back in the late spring and continued working throughout the summer on efforts such as recruiting auction donors and disseminating publicity, not to mention the efforts in the past 24 hours to prepare 1200 meals. From an objective point of view, the serving the kids do is a very small fraction of the overall effort required to make this event work. But at the same time, for them, in my opinion, it’ s a developmental leap forward when they are the ones doing the serving, and in that respect it’s very different from other community events.

Tim surprised me, and many other parents probably felt the same way about their children. Twenty-four hours ago, I wasn’t sure he could do what was expected of him: talk to strangers, find out what they wanted, serve them with polite efficiency. But he never indicated that he had any doubts about doing it, and now I see why. Given the chance, he and all the other kids proved themselves up to the job. I’m proud of all of them, and I hope they are just as proud of themselves.

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