The Next Barbara Lynch? In this Sept. 25, 2009 file photo, high school senior Ahna Ramos, 17, stirs a pot of sweet potato and pear soup. Students in the Culinary Arts program at Lamar High School in Houston learn to prepare and serve meals in their school's cafe. (David J. Phillip/AP)
I am the youngest of seven children, and my father died one month before I was born. I grew up watching my mother juggle three jobs at a time to keep us off welfare. You could say that that instilled a strong work ethic.
But the 1970s were a turbulent and chaotic time to be a teenager in South Boston, especially for someone who wasn’t very disciplined and didn’t think much of academics. Because of the busing crisis, I was sent across town to Madison Park High in Roxbury; for a while, every day was just about survival. I didn’t go to many classes. But there was one that I never missed: Home Economics.
That’s partly because, from the time I was 12, I knew I wanted to be a chef. What that meant to me as a kid was that I might one day get to own a sub shop or a pub. There was one of each on every corner of my neighborhood, so I knew that meant I would always have a job.
In Home Ec, though, I came to realize that kitchens could mean more to me than a steady paycheck. Madison Park High had an incredible program that featured a student-run restaurant for the faculty. There, I very quickly discovered that cooking came naturally to me – that the kitchen was where I belonged. I instinctively knew, by smell, when a roast was ready to come out of the oven; I knew how dough should feel as I worked it with my hands. Plates came back to the kitchen clean – the teachers loved every bite! For the first time in my life, I felt good about myself at school.
Luckily, the program head, a professionally trained chef named Susan Logozzo, saw something in me. She convinced school administrators to let me do more than the minimum home economics requirement and keep learning in her kitchen. That kept me in school for four years, and it set me on my path to becoming a chef and restaurant owner.
Today, it’s a different world. It’s hard to find a school anywhere – in the suburbs or the city – that has a home economics program, and most children don’t grow up with a parent teaching them how to make family recipes or bake bread from scratch. Even though food is now “hot” – it’s sexy, it’s political, it’s entertaining – and even though we know we need to pay attention to what we eat and where it comes from, we have abandoned home economics courses in our school curricula.
The result: We are denying a generation the chance to learn basic cooking skills. We are also denying countless young people the tools and the inspiration to forge a successful career path that might not include formal education beyond high school.
Growing up in the projects, I didn’t know anyone who went on to college. After high school, most people stayed in the neighborhood and found blue-collar jobs. Among other factors, they just couldn’t afford to go to college. And with today’s skyrocketing costs, that’s true for many people – which makes life skills and vocational training all the more essential in high school.
School should do more than teach students to read and write. It should do more than train them to pass year after year of standardized tests. If we really want to serve students well, we need to expose them to a wide array of disciplines and give them a range of tools that will help them find success and satisfaction in life. And that’s why it’s time to reassess how we prepare our young people for life. It’s time to come home to Home Ec.
In June 2012, Lynch spoke about her formative Home Ec experience in a TEDx Boston talk entitled “Back To The Basics: A chef shares how basic skills like cooking can educate and nourish children for a lifetime.”
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.