When I was a kid attending Catholic school at Mt. Carmel in Agat, the hour I looked forward to the least was lunch. This must come as a surprise to you, and it should – what kind of weird kid doesn’t want to take a break from classwork? Better yet, a break to eat?
Well, of course, I looked forward to stepping away from the books and note-taking – the interruption itself is not what I dreaded. It was the dining experience; rather, what it became. Allow me to elaborate.
In early September 1972, when I first stepped into the food hall, the meals, to my first-grade palate, were wonderful. They mostly consisted of a portion of rice molded by an ice cream scoop warmed under some sort of creamy stew fortified with frozen vegetables diced into small cubes. The pleasant, grey-haired CHamoru women who crafted this ambrosia knew exactly how to blend the flavors and textures that might please native children. We enjoyed the choice of white or chocolate milk and on special days, the same two kinds of ice cream in half-pint plastic cups with cardboard covers you folded like taco shells to use as a spoon.
The year here is important. In 1972, the nuns in the school were dressed in long, black and white habits and looked like they stepped out of the Sound of Music.
To my young mind, they floated rather than walked; they stared silently at you and nodded instead of speaking.
But all that changed in the second grade when in the autumn of 1973, the gravity-defying nuns suddenly had legs that poked out from under short blue and white dresses. They noticeably had hair on their foreheads which you could not imagine possible under a white wimple. The most stunning change, however, was that they all shared loud voices. Suddenly, instead of staring prayerfully at you, they were scolding you.
The other big change that year was at mealtime. Now, a comfortably dressed nun, the principal, walked slowly between the tables making sure every portion of food was eaten, and every carton of milk drunk until empty. In 1972, her presence would not have affected our dining experience much, but the new era sadly lacked last year’s lunch ladies.
What once was cherry Jell-O one day became an insidious impostor known as canned cranberry sauce. Pure wicked trickery, it was luscious red and jiggled – an almost 8-year old brain signaled gelatin to anticipating taste buds. I happily ask for, and receive, two heaping scoops.
At the table, my expectations are severely and irreparably lowered. I hate what I am tasting - the gelatinous matter in my mouth isn’t even cold! Just as I begin to delicately return it onto the spoon that deposited it, intending to discard it entirely, our principal presses her index finger onto the back of my head. Instructions, loud and clear follow: “Some children in Africa are starving. You finish that, mister.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see her finger pointing at the wall in front of me.
I look up to a giant poster of a brown child, about my age, in a torn t-shirt. His face is tear-streaked. He is holding an empty bowl while sitting barefoot on the ground. He looks desperate and hungry.
At the time, I did not recognize the strange word written across the bottom of the boy. Later I learned it was UNICEF.
Sister did not float away. She stood there in all her earth-bound determination to ensure I swallowed every drop of that horrible canned cranberry jelly. Over the school term, others attempted daring dispositions. One girl tried to hide her peas in her milk carton. I still see her large eyes, watering as she brought it to her mouth to drink them down as instructed.
In truth, the short-dress wearing nuns were not the only ones making sure children ate everything on their plates. We can be certain that parents and grandparents across the land in the 1970s, and for decades before that were doing the very same thing. But what was not happening at home was the attempt to shame us by the sight of a barefoot brown kid in a torn shirt. In fact, the minute we came home from school, we took off those good clothes and put on our old clothes, our bahaki.
Then off we went, like UNICEF children, laughing, overfed, into the dirt.
Dan Ho, a native of Agat, is a writer and teacher and holds a Ph.D. in indigenous studies. Follow his garden adventures on Instagram @HoandGarden.