Monday our semester begins and I’m struck once again by how fortunate I am to begin again, to start over. How many professions offer the chance to start fresh twice a year? Unlike most years, I haven’t spent my whole break obsessively planning my courses. I’m trying to focus more on my own scholarship and writing, so I decided not to start working on my syllabi until the weekend before. In addition, the recent horrific events in Haiti have made it difficult to focus on much else. Images of trapped bodies and starving children force our attention to the most essential of things: food, shelter, safety, life.
When my daughter came home from kindergarten Monday, I asked her what they did to celebrate Martin Luther King day. “We made pictures of being kind to people,” she said. “I drew about helping the Haitis [sic]” she replied, “by giving them, um, apples. And bread.” The disjointed logic reminded me of the eternal slippage between the teacher’s points and what students understand. But her answer also illustrates how distant both the civil rights movement and the problems in Haiti are to most school children, and to most Americans.
Like hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti was a horrible natural disaster that brought the world’s attention to a set of intolerable conditions that have existed for a long time. Even before the earthquake, one quarter of children in Haiti suffer from malnutrition.
In my Culture of Food course this semester, I’m using The Hungry Planet, a riveting book about an excellent photojournalism project that showing average families from around the world sitting with their typical week’s food. Looking at these photographs highlights the disparities between our food consumption and that of many poor countries. And yet, like many Americans, I imagine, I did not send money to Haiti until this past week.
Although Martin Luther King has come to mean little more than a vague notion of ‘kindness’ to most schoolchildren, many of his statements were much more radical and offer a thorough critique of global poverty: "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." I wonder when this will be taught in our schools?
As for me, well, I am grateful, in the words of Meryl Streep in her recent speech, ‘to have the dollars to help and this day and the next and the next.’ The beginning of a new semester symbolizes the ability to begin again, fresh and clean. And while I sometimes believe the future depends on creating the perfect syllabus, the ultimate abstract plan of how we will spend our time, I know that the course will depend on the actual human beings who inhabit the space with me.
One the first day of my food class, I pass out bread to demonstrate commensality and to initiate a discussion of the many food metaphors that permeate our language. And to remember that the essential ingredient is meant to be shared.