By Ray Lesser
I never would have volunteered for the applesauce project at my son’s elementary school had I clearly understood that I’d be held responsible for a group of eager 6, 7, and 8-year-olds wielding razor-sharp knives.
I should have been tipped off by the desperation of the message left by Jean, the volunteer coordinator, on our answering machine. “I know I’m calling late, but we really need parents to come for the Wednesday and Friday morning shifts of our applesauce project. Please call me if you’re available.”
When I was picking up my son the next day, Jean, like any experienced volunteer coordinator, ran up from behind, grabbed my arm and refused to let go. “Sure, I’ll be happy to help on Wednesday,” I enthusiastically lied. Though, like every other parent, I was much too busy, I was also more than qualified to help supervise. In addition to 18 years as a Dad, I was once a camp counselor, as well as an assistant teacher of first and second-graders, long before I had any children of my own. I’d been through the wringer of experiences with little kids, so how hard would it be to make applesauce?
Besides, the applesauce project was so inherently good. The kids in my son’s class had come up with the idea of making and selling applesauce to raise money for cancer research, after finding out that one of their classmate’s moms was fighting the disease. Being a Montessori school, the teacher and staff agreed that this would be an excellent learning project, and that all the kids should have a chance to participate in as many of the steps of making applesauce as possible. The project started in a slow and manageable way, but after being advertised in the school newsletter for $2 a pint the demand for applesauce exploded. By the time I volunteered to help, the kids had already sold $400 worth of sauce and most were working a half-hour shift every day to try to fill the additional orders that continued to pour in.
When I arrived on Wednesday, Jane, an experienced volunteer, had already set out three large containers of sauce and stacks of empty plastic pints and scoops for the first group of four kids to fill. Four little aprons were neatly laid on four little chairs of the lunchroom where we were working. The beginning of the calm, orderly morning was shattered when the kids, including our own sons, appeared and began shoveling scoops of sauce into the containers. Gooey sauce began to overflow the sides of the plastic pints and pool on the table, or drip onto the carpeted floor. It splattered aprons and clothing, and coated fingers, which soon made their way into hair, ears and eyes. Then fights broke out over the different scoops and ladles, and who had or had not had a turn with each. Meanwhile, I searched in vain for a sponge or damp cloth to wipe down the sticky containers after the kids had smashed the lids onto the overflowing contents. Eventually I secured a bunch of brown paper towels from the bathroom, which I used to smear the applesauce around on the various surfaces. By the end of their half-hour the first group had successfully loaded the teacher’s room refrigerator with 40 filled pints, and left us with vats of saucy remnants to try to clean before the next group arrived. “That wasn’t so bad,” I commented, trying to scrub applesauce off my shoes with a disintegrated paper towel.
“Now’s when the real fun begins,” said Jane, unloading four huge bags of apples from a pantry. Soon a second wave of kids had filled the sink with water and were gleefully pouring apples into it, submerging them, and splashing each other as the ripe fruits bobbed back to the surface. Meanwhile, Jane was preparing cutting boards, peelers, corers, and enough knives to fully arm both the Jets and the Sharks for a revival of West Side Story. By the time I gathered a load of cleaned apples to bring to the table, one of the kids had already grabbed hold of an eight inch long chef’s knife, and was waving it at his tablemates. “Better let one of the parents use that one today, Kevin,” said Jane. He obligingly picked up a paring knife, instead, and began chopping away with the blade poised millimeters above his little fingers.
“Wait a minute,” I shrieked, as I grabbed Kevin’s arm. Hold the knife like this, and cut like this.” I began directing 6-year-old Kevin in the techniques of a professional restaurant prep-cook, while thinking of my own eight-year-old, who sometimes has difficulty spreading butter with a butter knife. The sharpest object I’ve ever allowed him to use is safety scissors.
“Oh, don’t worry,” assured Jane, “Kevin’s done this before, haven’t you Kev?”
“Yeah, this is my third time.”
Jane was calmly splitting and coring apples, while the children efficiently went about terrifying me with their death-defying knife handling. Kevin repeatedly pulled up his sleeves, and his extended arm and knife kept coming perilously close to making me an unwilling blood donor. But all of the children had rapidly moving knives and apples and fingers. I couldn’t possibly keep my eye on all the potential dangers at the same time.
“Here,” said Jane, handing me her knife. “Why don’t you do this while I go get some more apples?”
“Don’t leave!” I wanted to scream. But instead, I took a deep breath and gave in. “This is no different than watching a Hollywood horror flick,” I thought. “I’m sure I can make it to the finish if I just try not to look at the scariest parts.”
In the end the kids did great. They made gobs of great tasting applesauce and money for charity, while learning skills that they can show off at home to terrify their parents. Most importantly, they’ve given everyone who knows about this project, hope for the future, because these are just the kind of unstoppable kids who are going to do whatever it takes to cure diseases, help their families and communities, and transform the world.