I Wouldn’t Eat That!

I-Eat-ThatOne characteristic of numerous exceptional students is that many, not all but many, come from home environments where they are not afforded the same social and recreational opportunities as their mainstream counterparts. Because of this I always had a recreational component in my programs. I would take students on cultural outings to local museums, arts galleries, live theater or historical landmarks to increase knowledge and broaden their cultural experiences.

I also had an athletic component where they might bowl, do archery, downhill ski, cross county ski or complete an obstacle or elements course that promoted team building and problem solving.

Then there was the outdoors component where the students were taken on two and three-day wilderness camping trips. These trips were meant to teach outdoor and self-help skills along with team building, social awareness and personal improvement.

Now you need to keep in mind that I worked mainly with social, emotional and behaviorally impaired students, some of which have Asperger’s Syndrome or mild Autism.

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I mention this because I have a vivid memory of one particular camping trip I took with 12 students and three staff. We backpacked approximately three miles into a wilderness area in the Okanogan Highlands in Northern Washington. The staff had scoped the area out on a forestry map and determined that it had a reasonably open area to build covered sleeping quarters with a stream very close to the open area for cleaning and cooking.

When we got to the site we had selected by map it was exactly what we had expected with one exception. The stream was at the bottom of a rather steep hill about 200 feet long. This made the collection of water for cleaning and cooking a major undertaking.

The kids, many of which complained non-stop during the hike in, were less than pleased they had to hike up hill carrying containers of water. Most of these kids did very few outside or physical activities so carrying water uphill was a major feat.

During these camping trips the staff had the students prepare all meals as a skills building and self help activity. This particular evening Christian, a 14 year-old Autistic student, was assigned to make the Top Ramen Noodles for the entire group. He was informed that he needed to take the large boiling pot down to the stream and fill it with water then bring it back to the camping stove, put all 12 packages of noodles in the pot and keep stirring them until they were hot and ready to eat.

So Christian being a young man of few words, fewer questions and very little motivation plods down to the stream and scoops up some water. He trudges back up the hill, plopped himself next to the camping stove, opens all 12 Top Ramen packets and places them in the water to cook.

Now remember Christian has been told to stir the noodles regularly to keep them mixed and cooking evenly.

Although it was not my night to oversee the dinner prep students I happened to walk by Christian and glance down. He was sitting next to the camp stove casually stirring the pot of Ramen noodles with his right hand. No spoon, just his right hand! Normally this in itself would have been bad enough, but Christian was sitting with his left hand resting palm-up on his knee and it was almost black from the dirt of the day.

I calmly asked Christian to remove his hand from the pot and explained that stirring was done with a spoon, especially with food that was being heated to a boil.

When Christian removed his hand from the pot I noticed it was almost completely clean from the palm down, but black dirt filthy from the wrist up. Apparently Top Ramen is also an excellent cleaning agent! I asked him if he had washed his hands before starting to cook and he informed me that he didn’t then stood up and wondered off to wash them.

After he left I looked into the pot of noodles and not only was the broth a Top Ramen color I’d never seen, it had small sticks, pine needles and an occasional piece of moss floating in it. I’m sure there were also small insects that used to be living, but were too small to detect amongst the noodles and rather dark broth Christian’s soiled hand had created.

Apparently Christian did as he was told and scooped water from the stream, but he was never told you don’t scoop water from the bottom of the stream, or if you do be sure to remove any foreign objects.

To make matters worse the meat for the night was to be stream trout, but those students burnt the fish so badly it was inedible. This made Top Ramen Noodles the main course that night, along with some dried fruit that most students hated and avoided at all cost.

I stood there staring down into the pot wondering whether or not I should say anything about Christian’s culinary preparation skills. Deciding that most of these kids had probable eaten worse I reached in with a spoon and plucked out as much of the stream debris as I could.

When serving time came the group ate every ounce of soup, some coming back for seconds. Two students commented it was the best noodles they had ever eaten. The other two staff members, whom I informed about the prep issue, chose, as I did, to just eat dried fruit that night.

I did make sure the noodles came to a complete boil before serving and luckily no one got sick.

This story reminded me that there is no such thing as oversimplifying a task for some students.