I run to the Independent Living classroom from the Bible class where I’ve spent first period giving a test to sophomores. The room feels full, even though there are only the normal number of students, because everyone is running in frenzied circles trying to get ready for today’s final cooking project, the Tea Party. I am here to help grade, an extra set of eyes, ears and taste buds for one of the two teams preparing a small party for themselves and few staff members.
Independent Living, this generation’s Home Economics, is a required course at BFA, sometimes over the protest of students trying to get into Yearbook or a third AP course. Since many of our students spend high school mostly out of their parents’ homes–places where presumably cooking, home maintenance, sewing and personal finance instruction might take place–we seek to provide them with these critical skills before they enter the big world of college life. The hope is that no college freshman is forced to subsist on ramen or to throw away the shirt that has lost a button. All complaints aside, students generally agree in retrospect that Independent Living was important to their quality of life after high school.
The team I’m observing has set their table with a travel theme, festooned with hand-painted international flags and little paper airplanes for place cards. At precisely the right time they greet their guests and introduce their fare: Swedish meatball “boats” with cheese and toothpick sails, deviled eggs, blueberry scones and tiny cheesecakes. Once the guests have eaten, I take a few bites of each treat, and record on my grading sheet that they are universally delicious. These students have been well taught.
I’ve sat in on a few Independent Living classes and hosted many of their community dinners, in which a pair of students plans and prepares a meal for a family. Though taking the class would have meant dropping one of my eight semesters of orchestra, I confess that there are times when I’m almost envious of these students, getting to spend class time learning something of such practical value to their lives. Many of the truisms that they patiently write down and reproduce for quizzes I had to discover by trial and error, a few mistakes at a time.
Still, I have to wonder what we mean by the title: Independent Living. Are our students truly “independent” once they’ve mastered this course? Or do we just hope they are? Certainly, many of them will touch down in foreign cities–foreign either by passport or lack of experience–in a few months, ready to take on a host of new impressions, procedures and expectations. Have we prepared them, we wonder, to meet these challenges?
A few months ago, a senior girl exclaimed to me that she would make the “worst wife ever” because she didn’t know an arcane detail about the proper storage of garlic. “I would just put it in the refrigerator!” she wailed. “How should I know that it’s supposed to be a room temperature, with air circulating around it?”
I laughed then, and reassured her that I didn’t know it either when I was her age, and that even if she never learned about garlic she still wouldn’t be the Worst Wife. I did, however, tell her and the students around her that learning–independent life skills–don’t stop accruing. Ever. As long as you’re paying attention, you can keep learning for the rest of your life.
Yes, I learned to use a sewing machine when I was eight. But I never mowed a lawn or changed a tire until I was 21, and such skills were necessary to maintain the house and car I’d suddenly acquired. I mastered pizza dough at age 25, and salad dressing the next year. What I eat now is almost completely different than the things I prepared for myself when I was twenty years old, living in my first rental house and eating tuna melts and pasta with jarred alfredo sauce.
At this time of year, we’re eager to get in our “last words” to the graduating seniors, and in many ways this is fitting. There is supreme value in words of blessing, this benediction that they carry with them to their next chapters. But the contents of their final exams, the last lessons that we teach? We can see in their sun-soaked eyes that those aren’t what they’ll remember.
The students are victorious when they finally start to clear the table, aware that their job was well done. And it was, I tell them. I’m not their teacher, so I resist telling them that what they’ve really learned here is not how to make deviled eggs, a trick that they’ll drag out for parties once a year, but how to follow a recipe. Our students are truly independent only when they have the tools to keep learning, when they can follow a recipe, research a topic, ask a coherent question, have an intelligent discussion.
Perhaps they’ll graduate, these seniors, without remembering exactly who Henry David Thoreau was, just quite the formula for discovering the volume of a sphere, or the proper method for measuring butter exactly. If we’ve done our jobs well, they’ll still be fine; their journey is just beginning, and we’ve taught them how to read the map.