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Holiday Greetings: Family Style!


Lamarck may have had it wrong—critters don’t evolve on demand—but I’m always amazed at the speed with which certain things can become so ingrained in our consciousness as to constitute a kind of species memory. Vast tracts of my brain are devoted to old advertising slogans, songs I didn’t care for very much, character names from sitcoms long forgotten, and images; I’m never surprised when others of my vintage can produce or at least recognize the same mental detritus of times past.

It’s the images that are often embedded most firmly, and probably few artists have done as much to both capture and then concretize these as eternal cultural iconography as Norman Rockwell. Rockwell gave our holidays, especially, a kind of sheen and even substance that we have a hard time sloughing off.

I dare you to close your eyes and imagine a holiday dinner table—roast beast, multiple generations, heaping helpings, eager faces—without seeing it somehow as limned by Rockwell, with bright colors, odd details, happy and hungry grins. In some way our holiday dinners are all striving to be, well, Rockwellesque, life imitating art.

Over the past several months I have had occasion to experience at a number of so-called “junior boarding schools” (explanation and exemplars here) something almost forgotten at many day schools: sit-down, family-style meals. Rather than the free-fire zone of cafeteria lines and unrestrained boisterousness of student-only seating, I’ve sat patiently while student waiters brought trays of food to be served out by teachers at tables where something like old-fashioned, or even Rockellesque decorum prevails (complete with odd details and happy grins, mind you; these are kids).

For one accustomed to a faster, louder school dining experience, family-style meals are at first quaint, then a pleasant contrast, and at last wondrous. Conversations can occur; food is apportioned according to the number of people at the table, not the immediate desire of each hungry individual. Seconds are available. Salt (and pepper!) are passed upon request, napkins go immediately to laps, and what my mother always called the “boarding house reach” is expressly discouraged.

At such meals I’ve learned a great deal about the other people—students and teachers alike—at the table, and I’ve eaten my fill, too. I haven’t noted any absence of joy or exuberance, just an absence of excess noise and questionable manners. I’ve also enjoyed the mixed-ness of ages, grade levels, and perspectives, qualities generally lost in the clique-y homogenization of cafeteria lunch tables. Each meal is a little workshop in social and emotional learning.

The other day I heard on NPR a piece on school lunches and the ever-declining amounts of time kids in many schools (mostly public, but that was the focus of the segment) have to eat them, and the crowded and rushed conditions under which many kids have to eat. The whole nutrition question, it seems to me, is mooted when “speed eating” is the order of the day. Listening made me appreciate even more the joys of family-style meals.

When my extended family sits down together in a few days we’ll all be privately aspiring to achieve Rockwellesque-ness, and I will regret for a few moments at least that the eating experiences that most schools provide students aren’t a bit more this way on a regular basis.

This may just read as the sad ramblings of an old man from a bygone era; family-style meals aren’t going to make a comeback in schools, and I should get over it. But where this tradition persists, kids and adults share something every day that the rest of us will find ourselves yearning for as we gather ceremonially with family and friends to tuck into our roast beast. It probably doesn’t matter much in the great scale of things, but I’m a fan.

I’m also a fan of relaxation and taking pleasure in both leisure and the company of loved ones. If I could invite all readers to a holiday feast (served family-style!) at Not Your Father’s School, I would; but since I cannot, I herewith pass along all my best seasonal wishes to you and to ours.