Waco, TX. The first day is the hardest. These students know that they have enrolled in a research writing class, but they don’t know what exactly we’ll be researching all semester. I welcome them warmly and then immediately start passing out snacks. It’s an ethical form of bribery; plus, it’s on-brand. Then, I start by asking them why I just gave them food. “You want us to like you.” “Good student evaluations.” “Afternoon classes are the worst and you don’t want us falling asleep.” My pride is a bit wounded, but I can’t reject any of these pragmatic answers. “Anything else,” I practically beg? And a student speaks up, “Because food brings people together.” My-Mr.-Chips-teaching-heart swells. “Why yes, yes it does,” I beam, “food is something tangible and essential to everyday life, but it’s also connected to something beyond the material. It has the potential to create environments and experiences that bring people together emotionally and spiritually. It’s often a topic that gets passed over, but we’re not going to ignore it this semester.” At this point, I can sense the fear rising up in them. Surely not, they think. “Surely yes,” I say aloud—answering their hidden darkest fear. Our topic of inquiry this semester is food. Yes, you heard right. Don’t choke on that snack; sit back and enjoy, my friends.
After my students get over the shock that you could spend an entire semester talking about food, they receive another in the form of their very first assignment: to watch Robert Kenner’s 2008 documentary, Food Inc. The first year I taught this course, I assigned the documentary sight unseen, little realizing I was asking them to watch cows living in their own manure and underpaid workers dousing packaged ground beef in a cocktail of chemicals to make it “safe to eat.” I’m not actually trying to make vegans out of everyone in the room; I’m trying to establish that there is a problem with the way that we, in America, fail to imagine the world that the food we eat entails. If the course needs a “why,” then this documentary provides it. But, perhaps, what surprised me the most when assigning this documentary is how students translate the horror they feel—how they almost immediately seek to blame various components of a corrupt economic and political system, instead of coming to terms with their own actions and complicity. In discussion, every time someone suggests voting with their purchases, another student jumps in saying that won’t do much. What was intended to inspire exigency often inspires passive despair.
On the next day of class, I assign three essays by Wendell Berry as a kind of balm and apology. By now, after several semesters assigning this favorite author of mine, I’ve become ready to face student responses to his writing. One student informed me that it’s just a guess, but she felt like this was written by “an old man who seems to hate technology and how it’s changed us.” I found this description hilariously apt, and so did Berry. When I told him this student comment at the FPR conference last fall, he told me that the student was right—and that “there’s a whole world outside her phone if she’d only look up.” For lovely reasons similar to this one, Berry is usually dismissed as crotchety, unpractical, or simply just not enough. His writings, they complain, do not provide a comprehensive solution. And they’re right.
But this semester, amidst students’ most sustained moment of despair over the overwhelming nature of our busy-ness, our neglect of the earth, and our perpetuation of the industrialization of food, we turned to our final Berry reading for the day, “Word and Flesh.” I asked what “solution” Berry proposed in this essay, and one student cautiously contributed, “Well it’s not quite a solution, but it’s something like loving your neighbor and city you live in.” There was a silence in the room, something tangible and sweet. Finally, here was something they now had the ability and responsibility to do. In “World and Flesh,” Berry writes, “How, after all, can anybody—any particular body—do anything to heal a planet?” (197). Caring for the planet, Berry argues, has allowed us to ignore the world around us, the only remedy for which is love. He writes,
Love is never abstract. It does not adhere to the universe or the planet or the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field, ‘the least of these my brethren.’ Love is not, by its own desire, heroic. It is heroic only when compelled to be. It exists by its willingness to be anonymous, humble, and unrewarded. (200)
In this essay, Berry moves the conversation from common nouns to proper ones and implicates us all in something deeply practical and doable, yet inexplicably difficult: to love our neighbor, the person right next to us, and the land beneath our very feet. In that moment, if just for a moment, my students saw how a neglect of the personal and the local undergirds so many of the problems we face today. In a way that Berry does best, he made the problem ours and called us to the mundane, not the heroic.
I am sure I’m not alone when I say that my expectations for teaching and for myself are chronically too high. Each year as the semester begins, I don’t think I’m just teaching basic levels of critical thinking and inquiry; I think I am responsible for shaping hearts and minds to love what is good. I don’t think I’m introducing my students to ways of writing about the topic of food; I think I’m responsible for connecting them to the land, bringing back family dinners across the nation, and raising a generation of cooks who meditate upon the beauty of onions. I have learned that the moments of humble triumph—like a student recognizing that local love is a habit that can change culture—are not the norm. At the end of the year, when I asked them their learning highlights from the semester, they talked about learning how to organize an essay or use a search engine. I know that they have learned tangible writing skills, engaged with new ideas, and become more civil in conversations. I’m delighted. Yet I know that somewhere in my heart I’m hoping they say that they will never eat the same way again. Each year, I learn that the norm of teaching is the steady, long journey through the valleys, not an exhilarating climb to the mountaintops. Transforming hearts and minds is not the work of a single semester but of a whole education and, truly, a whole lifetime. Like transforming how we eat, my work as a teacher is full of the very best proper nouns—students’ names and lives—and it is slow and normal and mundane and good.
But I want to end with one of those rare mountaintop moments—one that wasn’t in the classroom and had nothing to do with my skill as a teacher. A gracious fellow-teacher (who just so happens to be a chef extraordinaire) joined forces and classes with me to make a meal with our students at the end of the semester. And not just any meal. We gathered in the industrial-sized kitchen in my church’s parish hall and cooked up homemade pasta and ragù, just like Samin. The kitchen that night was loud and hot and full of a tangible kind of enthusiasm, as we sang along to Taylor Swift music and crudely chopped onions. Judging by our excitement, you would have guessed we had achieved creation ex-nihilo as homemade noodles took shape from eggs and flour. And it was very good. We were clearly the first humans to ever do something so wonderful, to make something so delicious. The table was candle-lit, and we sat around for hours eating our well-earned pasta and talking about the permanent things—like, “if you were a breakfast food, what would you be?” (delegating table questions to the students was the best decision we made that night).
I think this evening is a lot like the long work of teaching. There are some days when you are the host, not the teacher. And you set a table of ideas for your students, and they work on them and contribute to them, and on that day everyone enjoys the feast. Then they leave and go back to their old eating or thinking habits, and that’s okay. Because you know that that embodied moment was truly beautiful and that beautiful things are hard to shake; they form us and teach us to love them. And maybe, one day, a long time down the road, one of these students will make another meal that gathers friends for hours around the dinner table. And maybe he won’t know where he got the idea, but he’ll do it, and he will bless the community around him. And this student might not change the political landscape, but he just might become a person who uses proper nouns instead of common ones, and that will make all the difference.