At today's job, the merest glance at the kids skittering around the halls and into various labs and offices on their before-school errands tells me one thing right away: they have better nutrients coursing through their systems on a daily basis. Because all schools in the district serve the same cruddy carbo-loaded breakfasts and lunches, the kids in the "good" neighborhoods are getting plenty of fruits and vegetables and quality protein at home and in their nifty designer lunch satchels (Hannah Montana, Justin Beiber, the Disney Cosmos) that I lock into a special cabinet at the beginning of the day. A shocking pink sticky screams "Guard the lunch key!!!" I learn early on that sneaking Hot Cheetos onto campus is the major snack offence, and several of the kids warn me about a boy named Gage, who is apparently an expert smuggler and dealer of this toxin.
Hot Cheetos kids are round, greasy, somnolent and depressed. And because their diet is mostly sugar they get childhood diabetes at an alarming rate and often develop fatty livers which lead to cirrhosis, and then they need transplants. Also, Hot Cheetos kids who live in Fresno don't develop normal lungs so their brains are always oxygen deprived.
Just before lunch I march the kids to the computer lab for their weekly 50 minutes of online slogging through approved websites--math and spelling games, mostly. The district has diligent blocking software for forbidden sites like YouTube, but I have to patrol the room carefully to make sure the students don't find some obscure, potentially soul-damaging "content" floating around. (Most schools haven't been transformed by the computer "revolution." They simply sequester banks of PCs in a single "lab" and load in each class, K through 6, for a weekly dose of keyboards, mice, and graphics. I don't think anyone's really figured out yet how to nourish children with this technology).
Today I'm intrigued by the teacher's instructions for the computer lab: "Tell the kids they have to donate 300-500 grains of rice before they can sign onto Supermath or the NASA project."
"What the blue blazes is this thing about rice?" I ask.
"It's 'Freerice.com,' says Taylor. Today I have two Taylors, both female, one of whom has an identical twin named Trinity, three Aarons, two Serenities, a Galaxy, and an Odin (I confirm that yes, he's named after Thor's dad, played by Hannible Lecter in the Marvel movie).
Freerice.com turns out to be a site that donates ten grains of rice for each vocabulary question you answer correctly. There are about 60 or so levels of increasing difficulty, but even the really hard, unabridged OED questions still send only ten grains--an amount you could pick up with a saliva-moistened fingertip--overseas to the needy and starving. Sample question from the high end:
Look it up.
"So," I ask the class before they clap on their earphones, "Why don't these guys just send the rice? What does answering questions have to do with it?"
Trinity explains: "The advertisers who appear at the bottom of the page when you answer questions pay for the rice."
"How many meals have you guys donated to starving people?"
"Lots!" they chorus. After a bit more chat it's apparent that they really like this activity and do it at home, too. It makes them feel good, they say.
Then I can't help it: "Is the rice being donated polished rice or brown unhusked rice? Because in the picture here on the home page that looks like polished rice to me and that means it might be contributing to Beri Beri."
"Beri Beri? What's Beri Beri?"
The kids like the sound of the word so they repeat it several times. It's one of those utterances they like to roll around in their mouths like Jolly Ranchers--things like "fruit bat," "woop woop," or "Lake Titicaca." Often the terms become creative insults or means of mojo stealing.
"Why would you polish rice? Like the floor polisher?"
Beri Beri, in case you don't know, is common in countries that have a high percentage of caloric intake from rice that has had its husk, bran, and germ removed, meaning it can be stored longer but is totally lacking in B vitamins, especially B-1 or Thiamine.
My father was a doctor, and Beri Beri was one of the diseases he enjoyed telling us about on family outings, along with my biggest childhood fear, rabies.
"If you get Beri Beri you have trouble walking, seeing, have severe pain, and sometimes people swell up--I mean really gigantic like a parade balloon."
"You can also get Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which means you can't form short-term memories anymore. You can remember stuff that happened a long time ago, but if a Tyrannosaurus smashed through the window over there and yanked one of you out, a thiamine-deficient person wouldn't remember it three seconds after it happened."
"Cool!" "No way!" This gets discussed and various horrific things get suggested that a victim might instantly forget.
"Well," I say, "the people you're donating to probably get to eat potatoes and tubers and beans and things like that so they get vitamins they need. And Drew Barrymore gives them cups of nutritious porridge. She was that little girl in E.T but she's all grown up now."
"What the deuce?" This is a favorite phrase of grade-schoolers because of Stewie on Family Guy.
"But it's still an important question," I continue. "Are you contributing calories to keep people alive or are you contributing to Beri Beri? And how could we find out for sure?"
I assign the project of finding out to the twins Taylor and Trinity. "Scour that website and find out what kind of rice is going out."
At the end of computer hour they've found nothing--the FAQ is useless--but a there's a Contact page which warns that Freerice.com is too busy to answer many e-mails, but they'll try. I have the twins compose and send question about the rice, then it's time for lunch.
I eat a $2.00 salad that I purchase in the teacher's lounge and after lunch, because I'm tired and don't feel like doing the boring California history lesson, I get the kids going on a discussion of the merits of Whole Foods vs. Trader Joe's. Then we play boys vs. girls dodge ball ("If I hit you you'll get Beri Beri!") and go home.