Teri Orr: It’s about the blueberries…
December 5, 2014
Years ago, so many it was more than 10 or 12, maybe even 15, the then-school superintendent brought in a speaker to inspire the teachers before school started. The really smart man (whose exact name and occupation I forgot) was both an inspiring and entertaining speaker. He had left the private sector, I remember that, and had become an advocate for educational reform. And he told us the story of the blueberries.
In the interest of those who might have been there at the time, let me admit, I might get a bit of this a little wrong. Time can compress and stretch stories all at once. And muffle some details. And over-accentuate others. But here’s mostly how I remember his speech…
This man was talking about a friend of his who made the best ice cream in Somewhere, East Coast. A small, high-end, rich, flavorful creamy treat with the fullest of natural flavors. Real peaches and plump cherries and big, fat, juicy, "just right" blueberries. The ice cream man couldn’t understand the whole problem with getting consistent results in education. Why good teachers couldn’t be hired to teach all kids. Damn it, just teach them with excellence (like he made his ice cream) and the results would be guaranteed.
The businessman-turned-education-advocate thought for a moment, and then asked him about the blueberries he used in his ice cream. The dessert broker responded. "Once a week the trucks back up to the dock and we pick the very best blueberries out of the boxes. The plumpest, bluest, perfect-skinned, just-ripe blueberries."
The now-educator thought for a moment and responded. "No wonder your ice cream is so delicious and consistent. You have great equipment and recipes and you use only the very best ingredients." Mr. Goodbar nodded. "But here’s the difference in education. When those trucks back-up, every single morning and are filled with students/our blueberries — we don’t get to pick the perfect ones, the juicy ones, the unblemished, flawless ones. When those students arrive, we have to take them all — the misshapen ones, the bruised ones, the over/under ripe ones, all the berries. Every day. No matter their condition."
It was something like that anyway. At that point my own kids were out of college and hadn’t yet started families of their own. My contact with kids then was an independent creative-writing class I taught once a week with at-risk middle school kids. They were the blemished berries, by no fault of their own. I watched them navigate bad parenting and dysfunctional classrooms and mean kids. I didn’t tell the teacher I would prefer the whole kids in happy families who showed up well-rested and well-fed. I could see those kids were gonna get the attention they needed. They would get blended in to the creamy crop of good kids and happy families.
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"My kids" one year included a brother and sister whose father had killed their mother, yes, here in Park City. A boy who painted his nails blue in 8th grade in the late ’90s. A girl who was always tired. She cooked and cleaned for her younger siblings. Her single mom was involved with lots of men and lots of drugs. Lots. I have no idea how they felt but I looked forward to our lunches each week more than I wanted to admit. I threw them all in a van I borrowed and we’d hit another diner in the county. I’m sure this would be against all rules now.
They learned if they were hens or roosters when they had to navigate the restrooms at the old Spring Chicken Inn. I gave them quarters to play Patsy Cline in the jukebox at the, now long gone, Kamas Kafe. We talked about movies and books and how to tell a good story. They had to write a newspaper article or rap song or anything, really, about the excursion. Our final event was the Bill and Nada’s diner in Salt Lake City where they could choose brains and eggs if they wanted. For about five years I had a different group of kids. When the counselor I had worked with for years was transferred to another school and given other duties, our little made-up program fell apart. Years later I learned the boy with the blue nails went on to become a screenwriter. Won an award from Sundance. The brother and sister joined the military/started a band, got married.
I miss those blueberry kids.
And I understand only a tiny bit of what our teachers face, who watch those trucks roll in every day, every day and deliver 22 percent of district children who qualify for free lunch. Kids who come to school hungry and leave on Friday afternoon, not knowing if they will have anything to eat until Monday at lunch again. Here, in this community.
Next Wednesday, the Sunrise Rotary Club will once again host a little holiday party for the youngest of those beautiful blueberries. They have gathered 600 small gifts and wrapped them. There will be a cake walk and snacks and music and laughter. And for a few suspended hours… it will be a holiday. That club can use some help in providing this important evening for 600 young children who live in our town. If you want to help, reach out to a nice guy, email@example.com, who is gathering just a few small things to make the holidays bright, for a few minutes. Ask if they need a hand. Hand out some presents, load up a plate for a child, and admire a community who understands our just desserts are the berries, all the berries… all our days, even Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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