My students and I wait all year to hear the words, “School’s out for summer!” but this year is a little different for me, because I was chosen to host a June Foodbuzz 24×24 party. The Foodbuzz 24×24 “highlights unique meals occurring around the globe during a 24-hour period.”
For my unique meal, I wanted to create a whimsical, nostalgic picnic celebrating my memories of elementary school. The best part was the guest list: a handful of ladies I went to elementary school with and hadn’t seen since! School’s IN for Summer!
It was the early 90s. I was in elementary school, jamming out to Ace of Base on my walkman, collecting everything that had anything to do with cats, and rocking one-shoulder-unhooked overalls. I’m not even going to bother apologizing for those, because I know you were wearing them, too. And probably poofy bangs. So shut up.
Don’t, like, do your hair for picture day or anything, Julie.
My entrepreneurial spirit was strong even back then — over the years I created a stuffed animal school, a stuffed animal savings bank, and a lotion company (wherein I mixed several of my mother’s lotions together and sold the result with a handmade label. Sorry, mom.)
I was also already a writer (albeit of questionable quality). I started writing a collection of stories on my toy typewriter called Julie and the Strawberry Point Patrol that I was sure would eventually be a profitable series of detective novels. I also, in all seriousness, sent off a handwritten/drawn book manuscript to Harper Collins. I was That Kid. If only I’d had some thick coke-bottle glasses.
Those were definitely days worth remembering, but more importantly, there are so many people worth remembering. That’s why this past weekend, I threw an elementary school mini-reunion picnic and invited three lovely ladies I hadn’t seen in years. I wish all of Lebanon Road Elementary School class of 1996 could’ve been there, too, because it was so much fun.
I set the picnic table in bright primary colors with sunflowers, foam ABCs, striped party straws, and gigantic candy jars full of nostalgic treats: Ring Pops, Pixie Stix, Dubble Bubble gumballs, Pez dispensers, Nik-L-Nips, and Tootsie Pops. A homemade party banner and some balloons stretched over our picnic table. Everyone brought childhood photos, elementary school yearbooks, mementos, and tons of fun memories to share.
The Cast of Characters:
Amber was a pint-sized dynamo in elementary school. She was tiny, but she took gymnastics and could do all sorts of amazing things. I remember thinking Amber was the sweetest friend in 4th grade, when we were both in Ms. Oatman’s class together.
Amber, then and now.
Now, Amber is married to her high school sweetheart, Patrick. She’s a nurse and lives in Charlotte with her zoo: 4 dogs and 2 cats!
Amber in elementary school.
Oh, yeah, and she’s still a dedicated athlete. Amber’s now a powerlifter, and, um, she could totally kick your butt:
Photo by Jeff “Boomer” Alred
Alisha was my BFF from second grade until distance finally got the best of us: she moved away in the middle of fifth grade. We lived down the street from each other, so almost every day would find me scuttling off to her house to play with her and her sister, Lauren. Her mom, Loretta, is also so important to me — she drove me to church youth events with Alisha when I was little, in addition to driving us home from school, driving us to get ice cream, driving us to the moon and back. You get the idea.
Alisha lovvvved Bradley Hood — well, most of the time.
Alisha and I were the perfect pair of friends: she was the cute, social one and I was the strategic, nerdy one. When our powers combined, we could tackle anything. I still remember the day 6 or 7 years ago when she called me and told me she was going to be a mommy! Here was the girl I’d played in the creek with at 7 years old, and she was going to have a baby of her own. Now Alisha and her daughter Olivia live in Mt. Pleasant, where Alisha works at an eye doctor’s office.
Alisha and Olivia
Ashley was so sweet in elementary school (and still is)! She lived down the street from my friend Tamara, and in fifth and sixth grade I’d go over to their neighborhood and we’d all hang out. She jokes that she had horrible hair in elementary school, but I always thought her hair was adorable.
Ashley, then and now.
Today, Ashley works in sales at a software company and is married to — get this — a guy we went to elementary school with! His name is Scott, and he was my buddy in second grade, before he moved to another school. Though he and Ashley are both from North Carolina, they actually reunited in Georgia after college. Now that they’re married, they live with their dog and their pet pig, Clyde.
Ashley and her future husband, Scott, in elementary school.
The Menu: School Lunch Redux
I set a nice table and invited a fun bunch, but a picnic’s not a picnic without the food! To make the menu match the theme, I took foods you might remember from your cafeteria tray or lunchbox and updated them for adult tastes. Thanks to my coworker Anne for this fun idea!
Here’s the lineup:
Cardboard-like, square lunchroom pizza became a homemade Fig and Prosciutto Pizza topped with fresh arugula and shaved Parmesan. Instead of a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I made a bright Italian Pressed Sandwich. Baggies of grapes and potato chips morphed into Pickled Grapes with Goat Cheese and Savory Sour Cream and Fig Cookie Spirals, slathered with whipped cream cheese and fig jam. Fruit Roll-Ups and Hostess Cupcakes became homemade Straw-Raspberry Basil Fruit Leather and Fauxstess Cupcakes. We drank lemonade and root beer with our updated lunchroom fare.
During the picnic, we shared scores of memories. We talked about Terilyn Cunningham, our sweet friend who died from an asthma attack after elementary school. I remember her having an attack one day in gym class and the teacher asking me to walk with her to the classroom to get her inhaler. On the way, she explained what it felt like to be unable to breathe. In just a year or two, she was gone.
On happier notes, we laughed at our sixth grade newsletter, The Leopard’s Roar, written on an early 90s Word Processor with a big block font. Alisha recalled the field trip when I called out to Bobby Joe (and his dad, who was chaperoning) that she liked him. Oops. We remembered teachers and administrators — Mrs. Shaughnessy! Ms. Oatman! Mr. Meserve! Mrs. Foster! Mrs. Hildreth! Ms. Horne! Mrs. Borders! Mrs. Taylor! — as well as friends who’ve been flung far and wide over time.
The Inevitable Near-Disaster
Right smack in the middle of our meal, though, this happened:
Picnics and parties never seem to go off without a hitch, and this one was no exception. Though I’d made a point to check that the picnic area we were using hadn’t been reserved, turns out it had been! After all the work setting everything up, we had to quickly shuffle everything back into my car and relocate to another picnic table to finish up.
The girls didn’t miss a step before pitching in, and a helpful park employee assisted. In no time at all, we were laughing about the mess, eating, and picking up our conversation where we left off. The new picnic table might not have been decked out quite as nicely, but it was in the shade and turned out to be the perfect place to continue the festivities. All’s well that ends well, right?
And things did end well! The huge candy jars I filled for table centerpieces doubled as party favors. At the end of the picnic, each of us grabbed a treat box to fill full of candy. It might have been easier to sort through the candy when it was sitting on a pretty picnic table, but at this point, we weren’t above scrounging through the jars in the parking lot. Not even a little bit.
I had so much fun with these interesting, successful, strong, lovely ladies, and I can’t wait to see them again soon! Despite a few obstacles, the elementary school throwback was a fantastic blast from the past, and worth every ounce of this:
Tons of picnic planning.
Over the coming weeks, the following recipes and crafts will appear on Willow Bird Baking. I hope you enjoy these updated cafeteria classics as much as we did!
P.S. A special thanks to Taylor Mathis for bringing his pretty blue tablecloth and gigantic diffuser to help me out!
What’s your favorite elementary school memory?
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