My ancient Chinese secret to classroom volunteering

fortune cookie

Whatever, this is NOT food.

GateHouse — Because I’m idiot-lucky enough to work either at home or at coffeeshops — such as this one, next to two guys currently talking with spirited middle-aged titillation about real estate in North Dakota and its connection to fracking, and if any of this makes sense to you you should be putting a down payment on something in Fargo RIGHT NOW, you’re welcome — I’m able to volunteer semi-regularly in my older son’s classrooms. It’s one of the best things about my work arrangement, because I can feel like an attentive, mindful part of my son’s education, and also because I can totally spy on him.

In recent years I’ve brought in and operated an iPad for a presentation about the weather (my son can’t be trusted to bring home both of his shoes every day, let alone something shiny and fragile), and served as a mentor for “Junior Achievement,” a five-week program on first-grade level economics that ended up being primarily about coloring pictures of fruit carts. Once I gave a short talk about my great-grandfather’s immigration to Ellis Island, a colorful and historically accurate speech memorable mostly for being interrupted by a classmate named Olivia who really, really likes Chee-tos.

So right before Christmas my son’s class hosted an International Food Festival to commemorate the holidays. His class comprises a pretty equitable cross-section of backgrounds, so I was looking forward to sampling some authentic cuisine, while subconsciously revealing to him that there exists a bright diaspora of food outside the that which comes in nugget form. Naturally this was a hysterical failure but whatever.

My son’s chosen culinary homeland was China, and as a parent volunteer my job was to deliver the authentic Chinese food he insisted on bringing: fortune cookies. I know. Also, I know. And yes, we repeatedly told him repeatedly, in repeated form, that fortune cookies are less from China and more from the Chinese restaurants that can be found in strip malls under bright usually broken neon signs that say CHINESE and are usually next to Shoe Carnivals. But he insisted on them, because, I suspect, they are fun.

Pictured: The closest Piggly Wiggly to my house

Pictured: The closest Piggly Wiggly to my house

They’re also godawful. Even when I was my son’s age I remember regarding fortune cookies at the Chinese restaurants we frequented like, wait, there’s no way this is a food right? Because it looks more like packing material, or something that ancient civilizations would have used for building small waterproof  dwellings. There is nothing that signifies “edible” about a fortune cookie, not the least of which is that they’re stuffed with scraps of paper with incongruous series of numbers on them. Foods don’t usually come with their own documentation. I never had a steak with a note in it, is what I’m saying.

Anyway, I also had to be there to man a small water heater, because my son’s other contribution was green tea, which, according to Wikipedia (which he is tragically coming to regard as a legitimate source of knowledge) is an ACTUAL CHINESE THING, even though we got our green tea at a grocery store called Piggly Wiggly, which is not. And since green tea is a heated beverage and since I can’t exactly ship my third-grader to school with a device intended to raise water to finger-scalding temperatures, I figured I should tag along. Bonus: Somebody’s mom brought fajitas, which were an awesome breakfast.

On the whole, the Fest went pretty well. One kid named Cody, one of the dozen or so to try our mysterious Piggly-Chinese beverage, reported that the drink was so minty that it made him cry, so yeah, I showed up at school and made a third-grader cry over a hot beverage, so I felt PRET-TY good about myself that day.

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Related, sort of

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But I neglected to think of something crucial: Apparently I’d purchased deeply existential fortune cookies that contained such advanced prophecies as, “Man Is Born To Live But Not Prepared To Live.” Such grocery-borne Zen wisdom resulted in a bunch of third graders hitting up the very nice and unawares teacher for explanation about what in the world the cookies were talking about. Next time, I’m just bringing something from the Chinese joint by Shoe Carnival.

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About Jeff Vrabel

Writer for GQ, Time, Men's Health, Billboard, Paste, Nickelodeon's NickMom, the official Bruce Springsteen site and The South Magazine. I'm also a syndicated humor columnist in "newspapers" and a father of two (the younger of whom has been personally approved by Springsteen). View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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