Monday, August 20, 2007

In a Cooler World

“In a cooler world, I’d be allergic to school,” says my 8-year-old son.

Alas for him, he’s not allergic to school, and today is his first day of third grade. The first day is always a tad traumatic. First, there’s the annual “Dragging him bodily out of bed” ritual, because despite our good intentions we let bedtime slide the last few weeks, and now he’s used to sleeping in.

Second comes the lively “No you can’t watch cartoons, you’ve got to get dressed” debate – a perennial favorite.

Third, of course, is the “Oh, no, look at the clock, we’re going to be late!” dance, which no back-to-school morning is complete without.

Then, once we get to school, I’ve got a whole additional set of annual kick-off traditions, including reminding his new teachers about his food allergies, visiting the lunch lady to make sure she’s got the allergy table set up for all the allergy kids, and asking the principal for a time to demonstrate EpiPen usage to the new staff.

For some of you, those last three annual routines may be really challenging. I am lucky -- I love my son’s school because the administration and staff have been understanding about food allergies since day one. One of the reasons I worked to get my son into this school (it’s a charter school) is because the school has a policy of not allowing food (in other words, candy) to be used as rewards in the classroom. That wasn’t because of food allergies – it’s because we Americans have gotten into the bad habit of rewarding ourselves with food, and the school’s original principal wanted to start kids out with a healthier approach to food. So right way, my son’s already better off in this school.

Then, when I and another mom of a food allergic child approached the staff about accommodating food allergies, they were willing to listen. They set aside a table in the lunchroom for all kids with allergies. Half the table is dairy-free and nut-free; the other half is just nut-free. The kids with allergies are invited (but not forced) to sit there. Other kids can sit there, too, but only if they bring a “safe” lunch and have a note from someone the lunchroom staff trusts saying it’s safe. That way, best friends can join their food-allergic pals for lunch.

The lunchroom staff have a separate bucket and rag to clean the table with, and a sign declares the table off-limits to non-allergic lunch eaters.

The funny thing is, the allergic kids view the table as kind of a club. It’s fun to sit there; they feel special. When a new kid shows up, it’s cause for celebration. If someone tries to sit there with danger foods, the other kids speak right up and let the kid know they need to sit at another table. The allergic kids don’t seem to feel ostracized – quite the opposite. They feel bonded with each other.

So with all the challenges of starting a new year of school, it’s nice to have one small thing going my way. I’ve talked to other parents from other schools who fight constant battles over how to keep their children safe at lunch. I still have to worry about whether my son is swinging from monkey bars smeared with peanut butter from another kid’s hand at recess, but at least I know that for lunch he’ll be sitting at a safe table with kids he knows he can trust.

It may not be a cooler world as far as my son is concerned, but as for me – well, I’ll be adding one more item to my list of back-to-school rituals: making a special point of thanking the folks at my son’s school who go out of their way to keep him as safe as they can.

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