One of the most memorable class periods in school I’ve ever experienced was that “How to Make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich” lesson in probably second or third grade (I remember the lesson but, strangely, neither the teacher nor the classroom). I think this “exact instructions” segment is pretty standard as far as elementary school programming, and for good reason. Here’s how it went in our class:
The teacher placed a bag of sliced bread, a jar each of peanut butter and jelly, a knife, a plate, and a napkin on the desk in front of her. She then asked for a volunteer to tell her how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and the volunteer (we’ll call him Matthew because there was definitely a kid with that name in the class) began by saying, “Put the peanut butter on one side of the bread and the jelly on the other.” The teacher put the jar of peanut butter to the left of the bag of bread and the jelly to the right.
“There!” she said.
“No, you have to take the bread out of the bag first!” said Matthew. The teacher began tearing the bag open from the bottom.
“No,” said Matthew, “Take off the plastic thingy on the other side to open the bag!” The teacher did that, opened the bag, took all of the bread out, and put it on the desk.
“You only need two pieces,” said Matthew, so the teacher put all but two slices of bread back in the bag and looked at Matthew expectantly.
“Ok, now spread peanut butter on one piece of bread,” said Matthew, trying a more explicit approach. The teacher picked up the jar of peanut butter and wiped the bottom of it across the surface of a piece of bread a few times.
“No, you have to open the jar first!” said Matthew. “Then spread it on the bread!” The teacher, who must have been having a really great time at this point, took the knife and started sawing at the side of the peanut butter jar.
“Unscrew the lid!” called a kid who was probably named Jennings and had been having trouble containing himself throughout this process. The teacher followed this direction and opened the peanut butter jar, then put her full hand in and began scooping up a generous handful before Jennings again interjected, “NO! Use the knife, not your hand!” The teacher nodded as if NOW she understood how this was done, cleaned her hand, picked up the knife by its blade, dipped the handle into the jar and began wiping one side of a piece of bread with peanut butter.
“Wrong way!” called Matthew, “Hold the knife on the other end and use the sharper part for the peanut butter!” The teacher complied, successfully applied the spread to the bread, and asked Matthew what to do next.
“Now open the jelly jar by taking off the lid and then use the sharp end of the knife to spread jelly on the other side to make a sandwich,” he said. So the teacher picked up the knife, dipped it into the jelly, flipped over the piece of peanut-buttered bread, and began spreading the jelly onto the other side of it. “No,” said Matthew, “The other piece of bread!” Things progressed from there until a fully composed peanut butter and jelly sandwich, sliced crosswise, sat on the plate next to the napkin. Matthew, having earned the distinction, was given the honor of delivering the sandwich to the head of our lower school, an exceptionally tall woman named Brenda Lloyd whose height was further augmented by her beehive of black hair shot with silver, an updo uncannily reminiscent of Marge Simpson’s, that famously caught fire one Friday when she bowed her head too close to the student acolyte bearing the candlelighter at chapel.
School didn’t prepare us very well when it comes to life skills like filing tax returns, scheduling duct cleanings, managing investments, cleaning refrigerator coils and dryer vents, or how to do things like install an automatic washing machine shut-off valve, but we certainly learned a valuable lesson that day, one that I’m reminded of frequently as we navigate this crash course of life. One child of mine, in particular, requires absolutely explicated, exhaustively specific, pointedly precise instruction when it comes to even things that feel like they should be intuitive, like how to use a knife and fork (at the same time and with separate hands). Recently I taught her how to make nachos, and we thought it would be a good idea to take notes, so here you have it:
The end. Except don’t forget to turn off the oven.