Wednesday, January 12, 2011

First Grade Soup and Crackers

Busy day at work. Proposal due today. One due tomorrow. Two due next week. And as usual when in the final throes of a proposal submission, a critical piece of paper is needed that requires me to spend an hour in a tizzy tracking down a bureaucratic document that likely no one will even give a second glance to. In this case, the required form will assure the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services that we, Dakota State University, are in total compliance with all applicable federal policies pertaining to civil rights and discrimination. I know we're in compliance, the State of South Dakota knows we are in compliance, everyone and their uncle knows we're in compliance, but without Form HHS-690, Health & Human Services is just not so sure.

With the form now safely on it's way to the vast and faceless bureaucracy in Washington, DC - which is undoubtedly snowed in today anyway - I could quickly take time for a fast lunch. Today's gastronmic destination: The Marketplace at the Trojan Center (aka the DSU Student Union). Ah - there it was Tomato Bisque Soup. A perfect lunch entree for a day that's minus 10 degrees. I filled the carry out container, and periloulsy negotiated my way across the ice and snow back to my office in Heston Hall.

Once at my desk I took the lid off my soup and the aroma of vine-ripened tomatoes and sun-drenched basil with a hint of garlic filled my office. A lovely counterpoint to the frost encrusted window through which an optimistic sun was making its presence known. Springtime and garden planting can't be all that far away now. I have sunshine and the seed catalogs to prove it.

In the meantime, I needed warm sustenance. I picked up the saltine crackers that came with my soup and as I started to crunch them up in their clear cellophane packet I had an instantaneous flashback to lunch at Warren Glen Elementary School, Lower Pohatcong Township, New Jersey. Yup - you guessed it, my alma mater. I heard Mrs. Hinchman's voice ring out over the table of ravenous first-graders "Don't you Boys break-up your crackers like that." Her voice was so clear, this could have happened yesterday.

There was always an issue on soup days because while The Girls would decourously open their packets, take out one cracker at a time, break it delicately into small pieces and drop it gracefully into the soup, followed by a wiping of hands on the napkin before picking up the spoon and quietly sipping the soup with the grace and delicacy of ingenues at the debutante ball. But The Boys? Their mission was to reduce the crackers to microscopic dust while still in the confines of the cellophane packet, rip the packets open with the force of a tsunami, thereby spraying their bowls, their neighbors, and half the table including The Girls trying to keep their dresses clean. (This was about 1959 after all!) This action would of course require them to lunge across the table, reach past 3 or 4 of their student colleagues seated to their right and left in order to purloin additional cracker packets, and repeat the process all the while accompanied by shoving, guffawing, pounding, and snorting. Feeding time at the zoo had nothing on these kids. "Boys! Boys!" Mrs. Hinchman would admonish. They would settle for about 90 seconds and then the entire first grade would be treated to a repeat performance.

I freely admit that my first grade experience was 52 years ago. I marvel how the smallest everyday experience stays with you. How the seemingly most insignificant act, the opening of a cellophane package of saltimes, can trigger such intense and vivid memories. I see Mrs. Hinchman standing at the end of the table, I see the boys being rowdy and obnoxious, I can even smell the tomato soup and taste the grilled cheese sandwiches our cook always made with hamburger buns. And I marvel at how happy this whole recollection makes me feel.

I have no doubt that when I am deep in retirement and I sit down to a bowl of tomato soup and crackers I'll remember this day in January 2011. I'll see the bright sunshine of the South Dakota winter sun, I'll see the proposal detritus spilled acoss my desktop and I'll hear the noises of the office just outside my door, the printer, the copier, and the occasional phone ringing. I hope then too I'll feel the satisfaction of the work I do. Maybe think that in the midst of everday living and ordinary experience, I will have made a difference.

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