Break Bread

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 23:  Volunteers prepare free Thanksgiving meals at CityTeam Ministries on November 23, 2011 in S
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Volunteers prepare free Thanksgiving meals at CityTeam Ministries on November 23, 2011 in San Francisco, California. CityTeam Ministries in San Francisco fed nearly 400 Thanksgiving meals to homeless and underprivileged people. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Designing lessons around Thanksgiving, at least in inner-city Los Angeles where I teach, has for a while been out of fashion.

I used to try in my own ironic, subversive way -- having students read about the politics of hunger (Margaret Atwood's short story, Bread, for example) or having them read and write poetry or prose about some of the treachery visited upon the people of this hemisphere by European explorers and settlers.

But if the point of this holiday is to be thankful for what we have, to appreciate our wealth -- however humble our own may be -- and to maybe reach out to others in some way, then maybe such lessons ought not be considered trite. If Thanksgiving, for all its ambiguities and deceptions, can bring us together -- if we can break a little bread and get past our differences and grudges -- then perhaps it is worth learning about one way or another.

I came to this conclusion a few years ago after a basketball practice the week of Thanksgiving.

This was before the school at which I teach, had its own gym. We practiced -- as we had for years -- at a local park. The rec director was a good guy, always trying to do whatever he could for people in the community. I'll call him Daryl (not his real name). Daryl had built up the youth sports program. He went out and got Title-1 food for children who hung out at the park all afternoon and who might not get dinner when they got home, if they had a home.

Daryl always tried to figure out ways to keep the price of our gym rental affordable to a basketball team without a budget. I'm sure he broke the rules to do it but he saw what I was doing for the young men and women, many of whom he knew from his youth leagues, and knew that the time we were using the gym it would have been empty anyway. The annual rental discount, though, required that I buy him a couple of frozen turkeys the week of Thanksgiving for his community dinner.

One year he held it a few days early and it was going on when we showed up for practice. My players didn't like it -- the heat from the kitchen, which was adjacent to the gym through a rusted door, and through that kitchen we got a glimpse of the make-shift dining room of folded tables and plastic table cloths and a side table with turkey and sides and soda and coffee and the people in there represented to my players everything they disliked about humanity:

-- Poor people. Most of the guys on my team lived somewhere near or below the poverty line, which was perhaps why they had contempt for the really poor people in their neighborhoods, homeless men and homeless or nearly homeless families with children whose clothes were tattered and smelly.

-- Old people. Lonely souls, I imagined, who had seen a flyer somewhere for a "community dinner" and assumed it was a place to connect with other lost souls. Some of my players recognized some of these old people, the busy-bodies of their street who always snitched on them when they plotted mischief, the annoying old man who blocks the road for five minutes backing out of his driveway.

-- Gang members. Guys, at least, that my players believed to be -- and I have no reason to believe they were wrong. Daryl, the park director, had always welcomed guys from the local Crip set into the gym and tried to get them into the sports programs as players and coaches and created a tutoring program to try and lure the dropouts back into school. Sometimes, when our practices were over, the gym would fill up with those guys in their dark blue baseball caps and Chucks. We never had any problems with them. They seemed to respect Daryl enough to leave their senseless war and their criminal habits outside the premises. Sometimes they'd watch our games and clown my players if they didn't perform well. Their presence in the gym had a sobering impact on athletes and everyone else and probably prevented on-the-court fights from breaking out. But the players didn't appreciate the gang presence. The Crips and Bloods were a menace in their lives and the lives of their families. Some had fathers and/or older brothers who had lived and died as members of one of these gangs. They had all worked hard, often at their own peril, to avoid that path. Sometimes, when they felt safe to do so, they joked about the gang credo and talked the gang lingo, the way survivors of a war might find humor in their peril. But now, seeing gang-bangers scarfing turkey and dressing just a few feet from their sacred basketball practice, they felt invaded and they expressed resentment.

They went to the bathroom in pairs, like elementary school children on a field trip and seemed a little sullen and distracted through the beginning of practice, but eventually seemed to forget about it. Then, after practice, the park's assistant director -- who doubled as turkey cook -- invited the guys to come eat. I thought they would refuse but I suppose it was unrealistic to think any basketball player would, under any circumstances, refuse a meal after practice.

So a few moments later we found ourselves sitting around those long folding tables, paper plates piled with food.

There was a lot of cutting and chewing at the table. Almost no eye contact. Then an old woman in a gray scarf bellowed: "Let us pray."

And most everyone stopped eating, then waited obligatorily. A young mother slapped a little girl sitting next to her to get her to quit chomping. That seemed to make the rest of the basketball players and gang bangers put down their plastic forks.

I don't remember much of her prayer. Pretty generic stuff. Thanking God for the food. What I do remember was the last thing she said, right before she said, "Amen." She said, "Let us find relief of our hunger. And all other hungers. For now and from here on."

Which seemed to be a signal to start eating again, but for just a moment no one did.

Perhaps we were waiting for her to eat first.

But there seemed also to be a realization of something -- of all the ways that all of us were hungry and all the ways we all shared in that hunger. Hunger not only for turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes but a hunger to be recognized, to be understood and appreciated and to have a future.