Milk carton analogy

breakfast for all if they want it
during COVID,
so they enter the cafeteria,
pick up a bag with a biscuit or
cereal or french toast sticks
(without syrup;
the cafeteria ran out of it yesterday)
or breakfast pizza, whatever
that given day provides,
and wait for a neon-vested
safety patrol in fifth grade
to send them,
one by one,
to my colleague or to me
so we can seat them

protocols say they can’t sit facing
one another at the diagonal,
spaced-out tables
so seats fill up fast,
and a lengthening line
of masked, bag-clutching children
must stand until somebody in the
crowd finishes eating, meaning that
my colleague or I must dash over
with spray cleaner and a paper towel
(that won’t absorb)
while calling for safety patrol:
“I can take one here!”

the children seem so dazed, sometimes,
like they don’t recognize this planet or
maybe even humanity anymore
but once at the seats,
they open the bags
to eat

forgot the jelly

go back and get it

I need a spoon

it’s in your bag, look again

and invariably, the one thing
most often prompting a
little raised hand:

I can’t open my milk

I see. Have you tried?

shaking of small head

well, you must try

some little fingers are more adept
than others…some little faces light
up upon realizing: they actually can
open the milk carton, without help

some must be told, no, not
on that side, see the side with
the arrow, it says open here,
push it back, all the way back,
see these words, push here,
no, not smush, more like pinch,
like this, see?

one by one, the cartons open

like windows in the mind, for one
does have the ability to do things
not attempted before, and the secret
is really in the trying, not relying

learned helplessness

is what I am thinking about
as I scrub my hands five times
before I can go finish preparing
four training sessions
for teachers tomorrow,
on professional learning teams
and problem-solving
in the time of COVID
even though I’m already tired
and the day’s only just begun

yes, we can
we must try


special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge

24 thoughts on “Milk carton analogy

  1. Fran – this is absolutely perfect! So expertly written – I was nodding my head in agreement throughout.
    Loved the lines:
    …I must dash over
    with spray cleaner and a paper towel
    (that won’t absorb)
    while calling for safety patrol:
    “I can take one here!”

    Thank you for keep trying – I know this small moment very well!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for such a heartening response. Not to contradict myself but sometimes it really comes down to what Yoda said: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Things are what they are and we must press on, daily – I will say that as we make small gains in student independence, our spread-terribly-thin staff is developing a deeper sense of interdependence. Every one of us is absolutely needed!


  2. I can see the scene so clearly, and feel your exhaustion. It’s not in the physical activity, but in the constant reteaching of the concept of “try”, of the repetition of seat-clean-call out, the weariness we all feel when faced with these pandemic routines. If you have a moment, take a peek at my Monday blog post at ; perhaps you will see yourself in the hero’s journey. You are a hero, my friend!


    • I am glad you pointed me to your other blog, Chris, for I so enjoyed that post on the hero’s journey and “the soul’s high adventure.” I expect I’ll be revisiting it. Pandemic routines…I wrote only of my assigned breakfast duty, but it now takes 3-4 times as many staff members to cover lunch duty. A whole grade level can’t all be in the cafeteria at one time like we were able to do before COVID. We have part of them them eating outside on a patio (how will that work when the weather turns cold?) and part on balance-defying, seesaw-like plastic floor seats in hallways… even admin and office staff are assigned lunch coverage. We are less than a skeleton crew. We are barest pieces of bone. It doesn’t feel heroic…it feels like “this is what must be done and I must do it.” That’s surely in the mind of a hero, although for me it is matter of not removing one more bone for a potential Jenga-like toppling. I am always grateful for your words and insights.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I will have this breakfast duty for the first and third quarters; it is assigned by admin. Our cafeteria serves 90+ children in about 25 minutes. There is hardly time to think…just to act! When safety patrol began helping, the process really began to work like a well-oiled machine; those fifth-graders guiding the line take their job quite seriously (speaking of empowerment).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fran, “Yes, we can!” Just like a six year old opening her milk carton for the first time! Yay. I love the idea that the students are wondering about humanity…

    “the children seem so dazed, sometimes,
    like they don’t recognize this planet or
    maybe even humanity anymore”

    So true!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is hard to describe the dazedness in the breakfast experience, Denise. I think part of it is that masks hinder communication, and part seems to be not comprehending gestures like a beckoning (“come here”) waving of the arm. It’s definitely related to children’s overall uncertainty. I am happy to say that requests for milk carton openings have decreased dramatically! Perhaps this little act will lead to greater self-confidence and certainty…


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