It was the first full morning of school—pre-K for my youngest—and we had been told to go downstairs to the cafeteria, because every morning before class, the Catholic school he’s enrolled in—let’s call it the Church of the Superholy Awesome Ascension—feeds the kids breakfast.
The cafeteria is not an inspiring place. The stairwell down to it is dark and caged off with something that looks a lot like chickenwire. Much of the school, which hasn’t been upgraded since the decades when the Upper West Side and Manhattan Valley were very stabby neighborhoods, has this security fencing inside, as if they have a plan for penning wilding teenagers in if they have to. The cafeteria itself smells like lunchlady at every hour of the day, has big flickering flourescent bulbs, and rickety cateferia benches.
But there, lined up neatly in front of the other per-kindergartners, was something that made me very glad indeed: little plastic boxes of Cocoa Puffs.
This is breakfast at Awesome Ascension. On Tuesdays. On Mondays it’s an off-label cereal called Marshmallow Mateys. I am pretty sure that last Thursday I saw a pancake and a cookie on each plate. On Fridays, I assume, they line up pixie sugar straws so the kids can snort it like blow.
So why would this make me happy?
It’s a long story, but it starts probably from the moment we first got pregnant and began to become, by virtue of demographics alone, a part of one of the most precious and unbearable communities on earth: Manhattan professionals who have children. Our cohort in this group are, to paint them broadly, neurotic and overempowered and hovering and terrified of sugar. If a Whole Foods megastore hadn’t finally come to the Upper West Side a few years ago, I do believe that the hundred thousand yoga moms who were screaming for a way to get more flax in their toddlers diets would have just gone ahead and built it with their own hands, like an old-fashioned barn raising.
These were the people who clearly designed and populated the bloodless, sugar-fearing Montessori school I sent my son to last year. I wrote a little bit about the first hints of oddity from the place here. Suffice to say that things got stranger from there. Enamored with her own sense of order, my son’s teacher rebuffed him when he hugged her, confiscated his jello (too much sugar) and generally was a nightmare of yuppie rulemaking. All at the low price of $19k a year.
So we chose Catholic school. Not because we are Catholic. We are not. My mother-in-law is, but we are unmoved. And I have a beef with any bureaucracy that would harbor child molesters while attacking gay rights inside and outside their church. But there’s another side of Catholicism, one that involves a lot of soup kitchens, righteous stands on immigration, and, generally, lots of mitzvah. Among those mitzvahs, in our neighborhood at least: they offer the only affordable pre-K.
Which brings us to the Cocoa Puffs. I know it’s bad for my kid. Marshmallow Mateys are undoubtedly even worse. My wife was similarly unamused when one of his new teachers suggested that she “pack a few bags of chips” so he would have something to snack on during the long afterschool program.
But there’s something meaningful about all that junk food being presented as breakfast and snack: it reminds me of the schools I was in growing up. I remember thinking this all throughout that long, tetchy Montessori year with my son last year (they had a no refund policy, so we were, quite simply, stuck): screw all this advanced parenting and hyperintentional educating. When I was a kid, I was taught by obese women who loved me. Same with all my friends. We got hugs and little plastic cups of some fluorescent drink they couldn’t even legally call juice. We ate chicken nuggets that probably had no chicken. And breakfast at my public school was always some processed cereal with a little carton of chocolate milk.
In my mind, a little junk food comes with a lot of love. And that, more than a ruthlessly healthy diet, is what I want for my boy.