I’m currently teaching a summer enrichment program at a local high school in Richmond. It’s actually a great course, and I wish they offered it at every single school. It is more catered toward the honors/AP students who want to get ahead. In other words, it’s where the smart students become even more adroit with their onomatopoeias, their personifications, and most importantly, their ongoing desire to learn learn learn about the world world world.
Once, a teacher from my own high school said to me, “AP kids–they don’t think! It’s like robots just regurgitating information and when you ask another question they all panic and it’s like bam!” I understand where he’s coming from, but I thought and still do think it’s very flawed. Perhaps he’s just not teaching the critical thinking skills or as educators love to call it–climbing up the Bloom’s Taxonomy ladder.
Anyhow, this entire experience has been rewarding and challenging as I try to find ways to challenge the students. So, what the hell does Happy Birthday Jello have to do with teaching an enrichment program you ask?
I slouch over my laptop on a dark oak desk, sized too wide for my frame. I am clicking the Refresh button on my Firefox browser for the latest pins on Pinterest.com beneath “Humor”. I come across some mediocre memes and some worthy of an almost chuckle, a short-lived exhalation in staccato bursts. Two of my students race across my periphery.
“Ms. Bui, I came up with something for you.” My incoming senior, hair blunt and ash brown, squeaks off the Expo dry erase cap. She writes on my board MS. HBJ. “This is your thug name.”
“Oh god.” My eyes still on my laptop. I finally glance up. “What is HBJ?”
“You don’t know?” Her arms flailing, brown eyes round. “Happy Birthday Jello!”
Let’s back track for a bit, like two weeks kind of a bit. I tell my students tons of stories and if I know you–I’ve probably talked about you. No worries no names were hurt during this process; I’ve kept everyone anonymous with my favorite reference “my friend.”
I’ve told my students about my family’s tradition and how we’d have Happy Birthday Jello at all our family parties. I grew up not really thinking much about this amalgamation of food coloring and flavors. Then I started inviting friends over and their turning down of the Happy Birthday Jello started to get me thinking.
I started realizing maybe it’s not just a Vietnamese thing–then the horrific epiphany: oh shit my family’s weird. Thinking back, none of my friend’s families ate Happy Birthday Jello. On birthdays they’d have cake, and on holidays they’d order dessert or bake. Granted my family does it cake, we’re not martians. We just like to have our Happy Birthday Cake Jello on the side too. You know, like an option, a plan B, a sidekick.
Personally, it’s not one of my favorite things to eat. I usually do it to make my mom happy. I remember being a sophomore in high school when my mom offered to make Jello for my teachers before the holiday break. This was a special occasion–this was not Happy Birthday Jello. This, was Christmas Jello.
“Aw mom it’s okay.” The 16-year old version of me said. I was trying really hard to get out of it.
“Just give it to them. Here, I’ll even put it in the ziplock back for you. How many teachers do you have?”
“Six.” I knew I had lost the battle.
Vietnamese mothers are not like the ones you see wearing an ugly sweater on a Coca-Cola commercial baking cookies with her children. My mother didn’t understand paying a lot for gift wrap, let alone give Christmas Jello in a fancy bag. I could have frisbee’d that Jello and really hurt someone in the face come to think about it.
So I dreaded and even became anxious giving my teachers these Christmas Jellos. Most of my female ones were ecstatic, receiving such “treat.” Really though, by the time the Christmas Jello hung out in my Jansport in 5th period it was gliding along, leaving its thin film of sugar on the ever so classy ziplock bag. Then I got to 6th period.
Today I use my 6th period history teacher to teach the word monotony. He marveled a framed photo of George and Barbara Bush. He became upset when I would fall asleep in class when it was he who turned off all the lights and held us hostage with the droning of his voice OHMMMMMMM.
So I gave him the jello and he plucks it by the tiny corner of the bag. “Uh, thank you.”
I don’t exactly remember what I did, but if I may dare say I know myself best, I probably was 1 relieved and 2 stalked away with a hunched shoulder.
Who would’ve ever thought Happy Birthday Jello would make it this far in my life. Hm, the wonder to ponder.