“We need tongs for these bowls of chips, people! Over 150 hands are goin' in!” I yelled out in the Los Angeles Times kitchen while helping prep lunch at a WriteGirl journalism workshop. I had not only volunteered to be a creative writing mentor for this amazing nonprofit organization that helps teenage girls find their creative voice, I also signed up for lunch duty that day.
It was my first time as a mentor, and I wasn't too sure what was on a teenage girl's mind these days other than the classics like boys and deflowerment—the ones who still had their flower, that is. But I was paired up with Graciela—an eighth-grade, doe-eyed, unpollinated innocent, and while I was relieved she was not the poster child for the morning-after pill, I wasn’t sure how to connect with such a young girl. I have purses older than her, for chrissakes. So I asked her questions about school, her family and hobbies and hoped she wasn't visualizing a big yellow sign on my chest that said FOGEY ON BOARD. Relating to kids doesn't come naturally to me since I’m not really the warm and fuzzy type until you get to know me. And then it’s not so much fuzz as lint.
But prepping lunch for the girls and their mentors—that's where I shined. When 160 foil-wrapped burritos arrived, the woman in charge told us to cut them in half because there weren't enough to go around. As I was cutting, I noticed little shards of foil getting into the burrito filling. “Make sure not to get any foil shards in the burritos!” I said to the other burrito cutters with burrito-cutting authority. “I had a traumatic foil-eating incident in my youth,” I shared with a kitchen full of strangers. But I nipped my overshare in the bud and left it at that. The truth was I had swallowed a small piece of foil from a veal parmigiana tv dinner that was somehow big enough to scar me, my mother and our carpet for life. To this day I haven’t eaten veal. Never mind that I’m morally opposed to it and wouldn’t eat it anyway. But veal in a tv dinner? Who came up with that idea? Or to kill baby animals in the first place? Was it someone who wasn’t that hungry and said, “I’ll have a little beef,” and the host went out back and slaughtered a calf?
“Plating, people! It’s all about the plating!” I yelled as we started assembling the burrito halves on large platters. I noticed when I talked, people listened. Sure, it could've been the volume, but I liked the new me. When the woman in charge of lunch referred to me as the “food safety inspector,” I beamed. “Could this be my new calling?” I thought. Bacteria, foil and E coli, oh my! Then after lunch, the head of the nonprofit came over to the lunch helpers and said, “I heard we had the best lunch crew of all time today.” I beamed again and knew she was talking about me.
Meanwhile back at the mentoring ranch, I helped Graciela with an article and gave her suggestions on how to write a good headline. Sure I knew how to do it myself, but teaching a girl was a whole new ball of syntax. Would I be any good at this or was it too soon to tell? I tried not to get all judgey on myself. She was bright and interested in learning and listened when I talked and didn't sext, tweet or Facebook once. And as our five hours together came to an end, I said, “I really enjoyed working with you.” And she said, “Me too. You’re really nice.”
My heart melted. That felt almost as good as being called the “food safety inspector.” All in all, it was a win-win kind of day.
TV dinner image from theimaginaryworld.com