“An apple for the teacher” is a timeworn cliché, so when the CHC Canada 150 Food Blog Challenge announced that “School Food” was September’s theme, we at Canadian Literary Fare agreed that it was time to go back to school and reconsider the significance of student-teacher food exchanges.
In particular, we wondered what it means when the direction of the food-gift is reversed, such as in the opening scene of Gabrielle Roy’s Children of My Heart. On the first day of school, the young teacher gives a terrified five-and-a-half-year-old boy a red apple, quieting his tears with the knowledge that school is “a treat” (10).
A Governor General’s award-winning novel and one-time nominee in the CBC Canada Reads Series, Children of My Heart is Gabrielle Roy’s fictionalized account of her own experiences working as a teacher in rural and urban Manitoba schools. Set in the 1930s, the novel is filled with gifts of food – edible tokens of affection that Roy’s character bestows upon her students. So why are Roy’s teacher-pupil relationships punctuated by these exchanges?
In her study of American cinema from 1909-1939, Heather Weaver sheds light on the fact that student-teacher relationships were often portrayed as romance narratives, many of which used food symbolism. This notion of teachers “winning students over was rather new to the twentieth century,” Weaver notes (9). Gone were the days of corporal punishment and harsh discipline. New educational theories suggested teachers should nourish “the emotional lives of children, or what pedagogist Jasper Bennett had in 1888 called the ‘heart culture’ of pupils” (Weaver 9).
Biographer François Ricard notes that as a young, modern teacher, Roy followed a similar practice of “light-handed discipline, affectionate relations with the children, a great deal of time for games, picnics, stories, and demonstration lessons” (113).
In keeping with her generous spirit as an educator, Roy-the-writer incorporates the romance genre with her storied memories. One sign of this literary re-construction is Roy’s modest self-presentation as the teacher-hero, a role that Weaver argues is especially prominent in North American film: “the teacher meets the student; the student is unsure what to think of the teacher; the student falls into peril or otherwise demonstrates a need; and the teacher saves the student, thereby winning the latter’s approval and affection” (10).
On her first day of work at a Saint-Boniface elementary school, Roy’s character gazes at 35 uneasy young faces and thinks, “We’re going to be friends” (11). As the novel unfolds, readers witness Roy’s character winning the affections of her students through gifts of food, such as wrapped Christmas cones filled with candies, walnuts, a Brazilian nut, an apple or orange, and a small toy (27-28).
As the teacher-hero, Roy’s character bolsters her students’ confidence and sense of belonging, a life lesson that is especially crucial since many are from immigrant families struggling financially and socially to build a new life in Canada. Her teacherly concern and its impact are communicated through the language of sweets. When Roy warmly greets the single mother of an impoverished student, the boy is “radiant . . . , the tip of his tongue emerging to taste – you could imagine – a touch of honey on his lip” (27). Later, when he appears on her doorstep with an unexpected gift of an old Irish handkerchief, Roy feeds him chocolate cake and milk. Her praise, gratitude, and food infuse the young student with the joy that comes from participating in meaningful relationships – a social and emotional experience that lies at the heart of learning.
Recipe Note: This week we opted for Anna Olson’s recipe for a French flourless chocolate torte. It’s rich yet surprisingly light, like a baked chocolate mousse. To be reserved for favourite students.
Ricard, François. Gabrielle Roy: A Life. 1996. Trans. Patricia Claxton. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999
Roy, Gabrielle. Children of My Heart. 1977. Trans. Alan Brown. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000.
Weaver, Heather. “Beyond Apples and Ice Cream: The Teacher-Student Relationship as Cinematic Romance, 1909–1939.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies. 39.1 (2009): 9-20. Project Muse. Web. 23 Sept. 2017.
Text Credit: Shelley Boyd
Photo Credit: Alexia Moyer (unless otherwise indicated).