Teaching Rugged Individualism and Patriotism at Thanksgiving

One of the most surprising events at the beginning of my administrative career in Education took place when a School Board member named Yancey in a small nearby mountain district proposed a vote against free breakfast and lunch for impoverished children whose family income made them eligible for this benefit. My friend, Chris was the teaching-principal-superintendent of this district. He felt truly distraught when this modern day Jeremiah Johnson board member stood up for rugged individualism and self-reliance for 5 year olds.

“With Thanksgiving on the horizon,” Yancey explained to the few people at the board meeting, “we need to forward the same spirit of independence that built our country. You never heard about free lunch for the Pilgrims, did you?”

A few days later, Chris and I went out for a beer to talk over the whole situation. After a healthy round of cussing, telling each other what an asshole, chicken-shit this guy was, we tried to analyze his psychology. We knew he was a small businessman- rancher who worked other jobs when he could, mainly construction or renting out heavy equipment to CDF (California Department of Forestry) during fire season. If he was lucky he could be called to truck his huge Caterpillar D-9 Bulldozer with that model’s legendary steel blade to an area near a forest fire and get paid $400.00 per hour to cut and construct instant roads through parts of the forest that had not yet burned. These Bulldozed roads served as life-saving fire breaks when the wind shifted and fire fighters were forced to beat a hasty retreat as the fire line quickly moved in unpredictable ways. The best outcome was to have the fire switch directions and head away from his equipment. This happened more than one would imagine. Yancey loved the idea of trucking his equipment across mountain passes to fight an elemental enemy such as fire, but felt no connection to the government that paid him.

But this didn’t explain why Yancey or anyone would want to take food away from hungry kids. Piecing together statements Yancey had made, and thinking about his attire, we slowly figured out a version of the kind of ideology that would lead to this proposal. Yancey brought up the free lunch issue in October after he voted in favor of it in August when the school year started. It was as if he experienced a radical change of heart. To outline the program, the federal government bought (and still buys) food commodities and distributes them to schools at low cost for the free breakfast and lunch program that is targeted to kids who qualify due to the economic circumstances of their families. Parents complete an application when they register at school and the kids eat daily for free, or for a reduced price. Furthermore, the federal government allotted each district a pot of money to buy the reduced price food and any other food that met nutritional guidelines.

When Yancey voted for the program in August, he voted to provide local funding if the federal money did not cover expenses. In small districts where economies of scale were hard to come by, every district took this stance and lobbied for more money at the same time. But this time, Yancey had not simply proposed to hold the spending to the federal allotment for the cost of the food served to the kids, as some tax payer associations advocated. He had gone further and proposed that the free breakfast and lunch program be cancelled completely. From the perspective of the tax payer associations, it was important to separate the Education dollar (teachers, books, busses) from the welfare dollar (food, nursing, clinics on campus). Everyone was surprised at Yancey’s new stance since so many children in this little district depended on the food for normal and healthy growth and development.

It started with a statement he often made that, “People needed to learn to take care of themselves and kids can’t learn that too early.” He was naturally always in favor of fund raisers in which children tried to sell various products to the community in order to raise money for school equipment of for a special field trip that cost too much for the local district to afford. He often said he didn’t want anyone to learn to be dependent on the state.

He also took pride in wearing clothes that seemed to fit somewhere between Jeremiah Johnson (Robert Redford as mountain man) and Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid (Robert Redford and Paul Newman as sympathetic outlaws). These 1970’s movies stirred a longing for a kind of idealized independence, now long gone in a multi-ethnic country of city dwellers. Through his clothing, cowboy hats and fringed buckskin jackets, we thought he associated himself with wild and courageous frontiersmen who lived on the edge of civilization through authentic, rugged individualism and self-reliance. You never saw Jeremiah Johnson line up for free lunch. He had to kill his food and kill Indians if they got in the way of his killing his food.

This board member, Yancey, was also rankled by the idea that he owed anything to anyone due to contemporary societal or historical injustices. He had never owned slaves so why did he have to pay taxes for welfare for black people? He had never killed an Indian, so why did he have to pay taxes for special programs for the local Native Americans? The language of America was his version of English so why did he have to pay taxes for special programs to teach foreign kids how to talk the way all Americans were expected to talk? The best thing for everyone was to simply let every kid struggle and the best ones would win. If some had an advantage, then that was just the luck of the draw. You had to learn to play the hand you were dealt and not whine about it. If the kid was hungry, it was up to the parent to find food for him or her. It was not up to the taxpayer to take care of the problem.

In order to forward his ideology of independence, this board member relied on time- tested methods to be applied in public meetings. Chris and I came up with a good list of adjectives to describe this guy that included bombastic, braggart, bully, baiting blowhard and boorish, just to name the ones that started with B. Going backwards, the list of A’s included argumentative and asshole. Jumping ahead, the foundation of the C words was chicken shit.

At that time in our careers, Chris and I were taking classes at the local state university in school administration, although not together. I was one course ahead of him in the program. In a fortuitous twist of fate the week after our beer, cursing and psychoanalysis of the asshole chicken shit board member session, I learned that the Federal government started this particular child nutrition program in 1946 after an investigation revealed that a huge number of draftees were rejected during WWII due to the effects of malnutrition in the Great Depression. In other words, if you let the kids starve, they are not fit to fight for their country. I called Chris and we met to plot some strategy over another beer.

The solution was immediately clear. We (actually Chris) could skewer this buffoon on the most fundamental idea in any rural community: Patriotism. While Yancey hoped for a symbolic vote to eliminate free breakfast and lunch in November, he got something he did not expect. Chris prepared a one page memo to the board and the school community that outlined the history of the free breakfast and lunch program and its relationship with malnutrition, the draft in WWII and the need for all patriotic Americans to stand up for the defense of our country and support healthy kids who could become strong defenders of our freedom, independence, self-reliance and rugged individualism. Fifty people, practically all the parents in the district, arrived at the board meeting to express support for Chris and his patriotic memo about free lunch.

The five-member board discussed the issue of cancelling the free lunch program but it never came to a vote. Yancey bristled in his buckskin and fringe under the shade of his cowboy hat (the lights were on in the board room) and glared at Chris. Yancey left in a huff but had only been gone for a minute when two other board members brought up the idea to vote to sanction him. They hoped this would help them to separate from Yancey politically. But an experienced board member shared his opinion that Yancey would only wear the sanction as a kind of badge of honor.

“Just think about this whole experience like it’s a warm pile of muffin shaped cow shit in your pasture. Best not to kick this meadow muffin anymore,” he wisely suggested. “Just let it crust over.”

With that, the meeting adjourned and Chris was a hero. Smiling and shaking hands, he also went home but much happier than Yancey.

Over forty years later, I read of another mountain school board member voting against the free lunch program that provided nutritious food to most of the impoverished children in his district. He was quoted as asking, “What next? Do we have to buy them all bikes too?”



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