Some years ago here in the great state of North Carolina, the Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) issued a rather curious prompt for the tenth grade state writing test. Although DPI never publicized the prompt (you know, the questions contain top secret stuff that might compromise our national security or something), students reported that they were instructed to write about “indifference as a social conflict.”
Billy Taylor, a sophomore student at the time who attended Northwest High School in Greensboro, looked around his classroom and noted from the looks on the faces of his classmates that he wasn’t the only one wondering what the heck that was supposed to mean.
So he did what seemed to him the most logical thing to do: he challenged the whole premise behind the test in the essay itself.
In his essay he wrote, “I believe that this test is extremely contradictory to the basis of which it was given. According to my English teacher, this test was formulated as a means for the school board to determine how the literary skills of the 10th grade students in Guilford County compare to others like them. Now I was just curious as to how they plan to accurately obtain this information when the students receive prompts on subjects such as indifference. I know for a fact that at least fifty percent of the students in this room do not have the slightest idea of what indifference is, nor have they ever heard the word… The only problem I have with all of this is that the students must conjure an essay, to be evaluated on literary use and content, which must be centralized on a controversial, social issue that may not accurately be applied to any student’s life style. How do you expect us to respond to that?”
Aside from the regrettable fact that so few of his classmates knew what the word “indifference” means, the kid had a point. How could you expect to fairly evaluate students on their writing skills if you give a prompt a good number of students won’t even understand?
Because he didn’t actually address the topic, Billy fully expected to fail the exam, and even said so in his essay. But the district was so displeased with the piece, they took things a bit further.
They suspended him.
And because his mother considered the suspension unwarranted, she got her hands on his essay (not sure how, what with these being such top secret documents and all), and asked if the Greensboro News and Record would publish it, along with a story about her son’s suspension.
The newspaper was all too happy to do so.
The district was clearly embarrassed, the suspension was revoked, apologies were issued, and Billy went on with his life. I doubt many people still remember the incident, but it was one of those small victories where a child challenges something that is wrong and broken within the system purportedly designed to serve him, and despite initial attempts to silence and punish, he winds up vindicated in the end.
I love these kinds of stories. I love these kinds of kids.
And so I was enthralled when I learned recently of Martha Payne, a nine year old Scottish girl who took the seemingly benign act of photographing, posting, and blogging about her school lunches, and wound up causing a worldwide stir in record time.
As many of us know, the majority of public school lunches in the United States are the most nutrient poor, barely edible foodstuff one could possibly imagine eating. And not just here, of course…. Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution was born in the United Kingdom, and there is much work to be done in many western countries to stem the rising tide of childhood obesity and type-2 diabetes, among other health concerns. Too many western school children eat large quantities of dairy and processed food-like products in their school meals, with barely a nod to fresh vegetables and fruits. A typical meal might be chicken nuggets (complete with pink slime) served beside a few tater tots, canned corn, a carton of chocolate milk, and peaches in syrup.
It sounds bad. I’m sure it tastes bad. And thanks to Martha Payne, we now know that it looks bad, too. Never Seconds is the blog she launched in April where she simply takes a photo of her school lunch each day and posts it on the web. Accompanying commentary and rating scales indicate how tasty the food is, how healthy the meal is, and even if any hairs are found in it! She’s a clever girl who does not critique the food in a hostile way at all – her comments are rather matter of fact, and even if the food is nutritionally lacking, she’s nine years old. If she likes it (and most of the time, she seems to), she says so.
“The soup was chicken noodle but I don’t think it has actual chicken but it doesn’t matter because it’s lovely without.”
Her blog was an instant hit, and it had immediate impact. Martha didn’t set out to be a food advocate, but because her photos got other kids excited about doing the same thing, that’s what happened. Her school realized it should adhere to its own policy of providing unlimited salads and bread to students. Students from around the world began to share their lunch photos as well – from delicious looking falafels served on colorful plates in Israel to dye stained spaghetti, sweet milk and gummy bears in the States. Jamie Oliver himself quickly became a fan. Martha was written up in Time Magazine. Although she’s rarely outright critical of the food, she does raise interesting questions about where the school’s hot dogs and chicken come from. Just by being charming and engaging, she’s brought attention to school lunches in a whole new way.
But she didn’t stop there. As awful as we know malnutrition can be here in the western world because of an abundance of bad food, Martha is well aware that in much of the developing world, the lack of any food at all is a serious detriment to children being able to live, much less attend and learn in schools. Since her blog had become so very popular all around the world, she also endeavored to raise money for charity. She asked her followers to donate to a cause called Mary’s Meals that provides nutritious, local foods to children in Third World nations, and gives them some kind of hope for the future in the midst of very bleak conditions. She started the donations herself by contributing the money a magazine had paid her for the use of her school lunch photos, and in a few weeks she had raised a few thousand dollars for the cause.
With all of this amazing work, one would imagine that her local town leaders would be quite proud of her.
Instead, the town council made the decision to ban cameras from the school.
Why is it that adults in power can be so small when it comes to young people doing remarkable things?
Clever though they may have thought they were, the town council was no match for our young Martha. She is a global rock star (only infinitely more humble). The outrage poured in, and although a few efforts were made by the town council to resist, they had no choice but to quickly lift the ban. In classic backlash fashion, the temporary censorship actually generated a HUGE amount of publicity. Martha’s blog now has literally millions of followers, and there is renewed buzz about improving school lunches. Even more exciting is the fact that the press she received has spearheaded a surge in donations to Mary’s Meals – somewhere around $150,000 in just about a week or so.
All because a nine year old took a few photos and decided to share them with the world.
Don’t you just love it?
It’s awesome to be able to write about something with a truly happy ending this week. Martha’s charm and generous spirit speak for themselves. The real inspiration here is that when one is genuine and approaches life with a generous spirit, one’s work, however humble, can be the catalyst for great things.
I’m so inspired, in fact, that for each Instant Wellness Author Package sold from this point on, I will donate $17.00 to Mary’s Meals, the average cost of feeding one child in the Third World for an entire year.
Because just like Martha, you are.
Speaking of school lunches and nutrition, I see that the American Medical Association supports an initiative to require “obesity education” in public schools. I can’t be sure, because I haven’t researched it yet, but this sounds like one of those ideas that appears noble on the surface, but may well be a disaster in the making. Yes… I’ll address it in next week’s article.
In the meantime, exciting new things happening with the Wellness Wordsmith these next few months! I don’t go on vacation till August, so we’ll busy through the thick of the summer. Thank you for reading my articles. Don’t hesitate to let me know what you think of them, and tell me if you have ideas for upcoming topics. Stay cool and hydrated this weekend. Enjoy!