I grew up enjoying homemade trail mix which consisted of three ingredients: peanuts, raisins, and M&Ms. We slipped this treat into movie theatres, snacked on it during long car trips, and nibbled from shiny white ramekins while watching television.
As a child, I lined up the M&Ms in my gently cupped palm–red, orange, yellow, green, tan, brown. The colors were handsome together, and for some reason I was certain the red and tan tasted best. (I know, I know. They all taste the same, you are thinking.) My brother would even test me, giving me different colors while my eyes remained closed.
And then in 1995 I ripped open a bag and discovered that the tan M&Ms had been replaced by a species of blue. This was not a soft robin’s egg blue, but rather a fluorescent color that eliminated the calm order that had always been. My little line up was no more. Why, oh why, did this company change what had worked beautifully for years?
Sometimes it seems like we have overcomplicated nearly everything.
My best friend in kindergarten was Melinda, a girl who lived at the very end of our lengthy street. We were companions by default, as our mothers were partakers in a health food co-op, one of those lovely deals where women flooded a church basement like swarming bees, stirring, and divvying up natural peanut butter kept in enormous white buckets, the oil separated and floating thickly on top. As women scurried about, gossiping while bagging oats and nuts and seeds and honey and peanut butter and laundry soap, Melinda and I played tag and colored our Holly Hobby booklets.
Our family subsisted on healthier foods than most of my friends. No Twinkies, Oreos, or Doritos in our New England home. Tofu was the prominent dinner guest, as were soup and salad, topped with produce fresh from our garden. And yet somehow we were eccentrics amongst this fastidious co-op where sugar remained the arch enemy. I say this because in the midst of tofu and salad and natural peanut butter, we also enjoyed ice cream on the regular with decadent homemade hot fudge sauce. Once a month or so we cruised downtown for pizza. On those particular evenings, my brother and I were allowed to choose our own Fanta soda, orange or grape, fizzy and sublime. Does anything taste better than hot pizza and ice-cold soda? I think not. Also, we were no strangers to Dunkin’ Donuts which we frequented on the way to my grandparent’s home on Washington Street, all: Boston Cream, if you please. So clearly, we had a thing for sweets.
Melinda’s mother, on the other hand, was a health food fanatic. It was honestly rather disturbing. There were so many complicated rules, and meals in their quiet, dark house felt like work, not pleasure. Melinda and her older brother were forbidden to partake of anything overtly sweet or salty, which promptly eliminated nearly everything delicious. She was not even allowed to enjoy trail mix at our house.
In fact, her mother concocted a different sort of mixture, which she referred to as Gorp–a name which sounded every bit as awful as it tasted. Instead of M&M’s, she purchased massive quantities of carob chips through the monthly co-op, mixing them with unsweetened banana chips, which tasted stale, plus unsalted nuts.
The first time I tasted the mixture, as a kindergartener, I assumed the carob chips were chocolate chips. What an unpleasant surprise. This handful of Gorp was chalky tasting and caught uncomfortably in my throat. I asked for a drink of water, but Melinda’s mom thought it would be a perfect time for me to down a glass of milk. I never drank milk, and could not, without gagging.
Our family thrived upon copious amounts of iced water, with an occasional twist of lemon. Not milk. So rather than telling the truth to Melinda’s mom, I slipped off to the bathroom and cupped my hands beneath the sink, lapping up water, again and again. This was to be my first and last experience with Gorp.
Melinda was the only classmate I knew of in school who was not allowed to buy Friday’s cafeteria special which included a slice of pizza, tossed salad, a fruit cup, plus an individual milk carton. Her mother instead sent her to school with a bulging tuna or egg salad sandwich. It was the thickest, driest, most abysmal homemade bread on planet earth. This dark bread tasted like sawdust and crumbled mercilessly over her waxed paper wrappings. Mayonnaise (which should be paired with tuna or egg salad, right?) was taboo, adding to the dry state of affairs. The entire mess was virtually impossible to swallow, and believe me, I knew this to be true after having dined at their house on previous occasions. After being once bitten I was twice shy, and thus typically returned home from play dates famished.
I felt sorry for Melinda, who was growing increasingly sad whenever she opened her lunch box. I remember asking her why she had darkness under her eyes. She shrugged her shoulders and told me that she was so tired.
Those of us at our small lunch table shared our fruit cups and granola bars and goldfish crackers and Cracker Jacks with Melinda. I even offered half of my beloved pb&j layered on soft bread. She seemed hungry, longing to eat our offerings, but after one bite pushed the food away, probably conflicted between disobeying her mother’s fastidious eating regimes and enjoying a bite of good food.
On the upside? She always enjoyed my Friday milk carton, which I was only too delighted to give away, as I drank from the water fountain. It was a system we patched together, as best as first-graders can.
Melinda’s father, Delvin, was an engineer, and had a twin brother named Melvin.
Delvin and Melvin.
Melinda’s father once shared a childhood story. He and his brother were in junior high at the time and had left for school one day. Their mother was at home when the milkman arrived to collect his weekly payment. She had forgotten to go to the bank and borrowed the few dollars from Melvin’s piggy bank in order to pay her bill. Later that morning, she ran errands in town, withdrew the necessary cash from her bank, and returned the money to her son’s room.
Within an hour from returning home from school, Melvin approached his mother, icily asking who had touched his money. She explained the situation, and asked how he even knew?
Of course I knew, Mother. I check the serial numbers every day.
His mother was stunned.
Melinda’s father laughed as he told this story. I did not think it the least bit funny. It was creepy.
I might have been young, but it sounded an awful lot like the behaviors dominating their current household, making my best friend increasingly sad. It was becoming far more fun for me to play with my other friends, who were fairly happy-go-lucky and were free to enjoy an ice cream cone or cookie or trail mix. Not Gorp.
I also felt helpless, wishing someone would help my friend.
It finally happened, in second grade.
She wore fun, dangly earrings and smiled as each student entered her second-grade classroom. And yes, this was her classroom, a point she made perfectly clear on our first day of second grade. Miss White’s icy blue eyes matched those of Chinook, her gigantic mixed breed dog that she frequently brought to school, unleashed. He thumped down by her desk, a calm, obedient, and panting creature, whom I hugged as often as possible. Miss White encouraged me in my canine affections, allowing me to brush him before going outside for recess. It was delightful.
This woman ran the strictest of classrooms and loved each one of her students. She spelled out her few rules clearly, from the beginning, and then cared enough to enforce them, disciplining and correcting us as needed. Never mind the silly baby-talk–she spoke to us directly as though we were real people, who of course we were. She taught thoroughly, pausing lessons to show us a praying mantis on the classroom window, and even inviting a woodworker into our studies who showed us how to cut jigsaw puzzles. She crafted interesting unit studies, one regarding Alaska and the famous Iditarod race. She cut flowers from her personal garden, carrying them to school in a lovely vase and teaching us the names of each kind, encouraging us to sniff these beauties. God’s creation was her playground, and we were invited to revel in it.
Miss White lavished praise upon us only when due, which stretched our spirits with a longing to obey and work hard. Her classroom was the safest spot, as rules never wavered, and her generous kindness abounded. I did not have the specific words then, but she was deeply fair and she paid attention. We learned to improve our cursive penmanship, wrestle with those horrific fractions, and memorize maps. But it was the practical character lessons that threaded a tender path through our classroom.
Miss White did not fear students, parents, or anyone else for that matter. Her classroom was her classroom, and one day she proved it. I will never forget the day she became my hero.
It started off as a normal school day. Miss White passed out our fast math worksheets, and as she did so, I glanced at Melinda, who was seated next to me. She was clutching her stomach and looking pale.
What’s wrong? I whispered.
I don’t feel good.
Tell Miss White, I said.
Melinda shook her head.
I finished my math paper and took it up to our teacher’s desk.
Melinda is sick, I told her.
She pushed back her chair, stood up, and approached Melinda.
What’s wrong, dear?
Did you eat breakfast?
No, whispered Melinda.
Are you hungry?
I have some pretzels in my bag and I want you to eat them.
Yes, you can.
No. My mother said today is National Hunger Awareness Day and I am not supposed to eat anything until breakfast tomorrow.
Miss White’s eyebrows furrowed. Why not?
To help me remember what it feels like for starving children in other places.
We are people of dust, designed by God as humans in need of basic things: food, water, sleep, comfort, compassion.
In the pitch-dark forests of life are sparkling treasures–glimpses of beauty, truth, and goodness.
Miss White shone brightly with all of these. I was sitting in her classroom where small kindnesses ruled the day. I was her pupil, paying attention.
Here is what her actions declared:
Do the right thing, no matter what.
You might be made fun of, cast aside, defamed, slandered, and hated.
Be fearless and obey God, anyway.
Miss White stared for a long moment at her listless student.
This is my classroom, Melinda. No student of mine is going to be hungry as long as I am their teacher. You will come up to my desk right now, eat pretzels, drink an entire glass of orange juice, and then feel better. Understand?
But my Mother–
You leave that conversation with your mother to me. Now eat.
Something rose up in me that day. A spark that I would carry even to this day, decades later.
This woman had such courage. She fought against something wrong, something dangerous, something skewed.
There are a plethora of moments in life when doing the right thing will be difficult, but it is still right.
My teacher had zero fear of man. Of the consequences that might spring up around the bend.
Her instincts were noble, clear, and deeply good.
It was beautiful, indeed. I remember.
Melinda nibbled the pretzels and drank the juice, thus restoring color to her face. My stomach relaxed. Chinook licked her hands, and being the good dog that he was, offered a gentle paw to Melinda. That dog had a kind, fair master, and it showed.
Later, in the school cafeteria, we pooled our resources as Miss White had instructed us to do, creating a delicious feast for Melinda who was now happy to eat. She even tried my famous trail mix, lining up the colored M&Ms and eating them all, one by one.
He has told you, O man, what is good: and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?