"Give a Piece a Chance." — Books. Blog. Pie Classes. And a Pinch of Activism.

The Pie Teacher

When I was 22 I took a career interest test. I had always wanted to be a writer but my parents didn’t consider writing a real job. But if not a writer then what would I be when I grew up? In a fit of desperation to find out I consulted a career counselor. The test results suggested I become a hair dresser or a florist. What???! While I recognized the value of these jobs and the fact these high scores showed I possessed a strong sense of aesthetics, I was, at the time, insulted. (Okay, fine, I was incensed.) Further, I was advised by the career counselor, “You scored lowest for teaching. Do not ever plan on becoming a teacher.”

Which is why, on Thursday — 26 years after taking that career test — I found it somewhat miraculous to be standing in a classroom in front of 26 high school students at Cardinal School in Eldon, Iowa, teaching them how to make apple pie. Me, a teacher.

I was originally invited to speak to the freshmen and sophomore Literature Enhancement class about my career as a writer. That’s right. After trying on many other salary-earning pursuits for size – sales, public relations, coffee entrepreneur, and a summer as a forest ranger — I finally mustered up the courage to defy my parents regarding my career path. I had had a lot of practice defying them for everything else, but my professional life was somehow the last stand I took against them. I officially became a writer after my Grandma Genny died and left me just enough of an inheritance to buy a laptop and printer and pay for a UCLA Extension class called “How To Write for Magazines.” I was 30.

Fast forward to my current age — and no, I’m not going to lie about it, I’m…cough, cough, 48 — where I can say I’ve been successful because I have accumulated a fat portfolio to show for it, with articles published in magazines including Elle, Shape, Fitness, Sports Illustrated for Women, Travel & Leisure, and, don’t tell my mother, Playboy. I’ve written a memoir about living in Germany (for better or worse, not published). And I have been writing this blog, The World Needs More Pie, for the past three years. It was because of the public nature of my blog – and its dependence on technology — that the teacher, Patti Durflinger – or “Miss D” as she is called — brought me into the class.

The technology component is significant because the school has a well-funded program which provides each student with their own Macintosh laptop. Lucky them. The school’s mandate is to utilize the computers to the fullest in their curriculum, which is why Miss D originally suggested I give my talk via Skype. Seeing I live four miles from the school, I thought this was a ridiculous notion. “Let me come in person,” I said, adding, “and I’ll teach them how to make pie.”

I can’t explain exactly how I made the leap from writer’s lecture via Skype to teaching pie-making in person. Maybe it was because of my own history, how I rebelled against a high-tech (high paying) web producing job in order to do something tactile. Creating virtual environments online made me in turn crave creating something tangible, something you could touch, taste and smell, for god’s sake! Technology and its simulation of real life is no substitute for, well, real life. So during the height of the dot com boom I traded one extreme for another and became a (minimum wage) pie baker in Malibu.

The adorable Miss D

I promised Miss D, however, that in spite of my apparent conflict of interest I wouldn’t bash on technology. I would instead try to tie the benefits of technology into my lesson. After all, I would sooner cut off my arm than live without high-speed Internet. I also suggested as a compromise they video tape the lesson, so they could still use their tech equipment and I would have some instructional footage to use for my pie website.

In spite of my best intentions I was dreading going to school. School, to me, has always felt akin to being locked in a cage — too confining and so contrary to my free-spirited nature that I spent most of my student years looking for ways to escape. I won’t go into all of my bad, detention-awarded behavior, but my parents, principal and I found a win-win in the end with me graduating a semester early from high school and a full year early from college. I’m no brainiac; I’m just impatient. As the saying goes, “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” I was born with an abundance of will.

Unlike my own high school track record of tardiness I made it through the door of Cardinal School well before the final bell at 8:15 a.m. After all, I am a responsible adult now! And I am no longer a student but a teacher! I carried my tub of pie supplies into the Home Ec room and laid out all the rolling pins, bowls, measuring cups, and pastry brushes, and awaited the onslaught of hormone-raging teenagers.

They filtered in, coming in waves, dressed in sweatshirts and jeans, backpacks slung over their shoulders and with cell phones firmly placed in hands. Miss D kept count so when I heard her say “26” I knew it was show time.

I have taught many people how to make pie over the years, but never in a group of more than eight. The size of my pie classes is contingent on available oven space. The Home Ec department at Cardinal has five ovens, only four of them work, but based on capacity of eight pies per oven, we could accommodate this large group. Well, the ovens could accommodate. I wasn’t sure how I would do.

If you have met me then you know I am bossy, opinionated, and when I get set on an idea there is no getting me to back down. I put these personality traits to work in my new role as school teacher. I greeted the class, briefly introducing myself as world traveler, writer, widow, pie baker and Native Iowan, and then immediately engaged the kids by having them wash their hands and choose an apron from my personal collection of the most hideous, old-fashioned aprons one can own. After that the next three flour and sugar-filled hours are a blur. It was as if I entered an altered state, a place where my focus was so extreme nothing else outside of the present moment existed. I wonder now, is teaching always like this? Is it the kind of job where you’re so engaged you not only don’t watch the clock, you’re not even aware if there’s a clock in the room? And if it is, could this be a good job for me?

I could explain to you how everyone was spread out around six long tables, how I had to stand on a chair to be seen, how I had to talk loud and fast and deliberately to keep everyone’s attention, and how I raced around the room (thank god I wore my sneakers…and deodorant) from student to student to student to offer my assistance or approval on their pie progress, but I’ll let the videos below speak for me. I can only shake my head when I watch the clip of me giving apple peeling instructions while standing on a chair in my overalls and checkered apron. I’m part schoolmarm, part stand-up comedian. Did the students think I was bitchy or funny? I couldn’t tell, and I didn’t have time to care. We had 26 pies to get in the ovens!





I used the 45 minutes of baking time to give my speech. My life story. At least a few snippets of it. And I used the opportunity to convey a few lessons I’ve learned in life: 1. Learn a foreign language while you’re young, it’s harder to learn as you get older. 2. Good communication skills, including proper grammar and ability to write, provide the foundation for everything else. 3. Exercise. A strong body is a strong mind.

My talk was interrupted by smoke billowing out of one of the ovens. It was nothing serious, just overflowing pie filling, but it signaled the pies were done.

What a sight to behold. Twenty-six pies lined up on a table, surrounded by 26 beaming, bouncy teenagers who couldn’t wait to cut into their works of art. Every single pie looked perfect. Perfect in that homemade, no-two-are-alike kind of way. They weren’t allowed to cut their pies until after lunch, when they had cooled, and it gave them time to think about whom they would share their pie with. Sticking with the theme that “Pie Heals,” I set a mandate that they give away at least one slice to someone in need, someone who might be going through a hard time, having a bad day, and needed cheering up.

They really liked this idea of giving pie away to make others happy and they took it seriously. I was so impressed with this as well as everything else they did during the course of the three-hour class. They went from not wanting to get their hands dirty in the dough, to not wanting to put the dough down. They were very flexible when told we were short on rolling pins and some were going to have to roll their pie crust with water bottles borrowed from the athletic department. They listened, they participated, they asked good questions, they jumped right in to do the work, they asked for help when they needed it, and they helped each other. If the dough was stuck to the table, extra apples needed peeling, or a pastry brush was in demand, I watched as they came to each other’s rescue.

When I got home instead of being drained after the chaos and constant motion I was energized. I was as beaming and proud of the students’ efforts and outstanding results as they were. Maybe even more so. What was that Swedish proverb I just quoted in my last post? Ah, yes. “Joy shared is joy doubled.” If joy shared is joy doubled, then what is joy shared times 26? I’ve been baking pies for three months straight for the Pitchfork Pie Stand, and while baking makes me happy, I’ve never been as fulfilled as I was giving birth to 26 new pie bakers. Days later, I’m still ecstatic.

I’m not sure how I would do as a full-time teacher, but I’m just sorry it’s taken me 26 years to discover the results of that career test were wrong. Very wrong. I hope this is only the beginning of a lot more time spent in…yes, in school.

**To get another perspective on my pie class at Cardinal School, see the article that appeared in the Ottumwa Courier the following day. On the front page.