The Wanka Challenge – A la Allen

19 Sep

On the second day of school I decided it would make perfect sense to begin reading aloud Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl to my new 5th grade class in Thailand.  I raised the book high in the air for all 14 children to see, and then asked,  “Raise your hand if you ever read this book.”  The class was silent.  “And I’m’ sure you’ve all seen the movie, right?”  I asked.  To my pleasant surprise, only 3 or 4 children raised their hands.  And anyway, I found out that those 3 or 4 kids who claimed to have watched the movie saw the new version with Johnny Dep, which royally sucks ass compared to the original 1974 flick starring Gene Wilder. 

Anyway to prolong my elated surprise a the fact that almost none of my students read the book nor watched the movie, I re-asked just to make sure.  “Wait.  Hang on.  So, you kids are telling me that absolutely positively one-hundred percently none of you read the book nor seen the original Willy Wanka movie?”  The children stared at me with matter-of-fact facial expressions, basically saying, “Duh! That’s what we told you the first time you asked.”

I quickly stood up on an empty chair, raised my hand high in the air, gripping the book and displaying the colorful front cover to the kids.  Of course I didn’t have to make it all so dramatic, but part of the fun of being a teacher is to be dramatic, boisterous, silly, and overly excited about seemingly mundane stuff (It’s also part of my daily Buddhist practice). You know your dramatic play is working when you see children’s bug-eyed facial expressions implying the what’s-he-going-to-do-next attitude.  “Ladies and Gentle-people,” I announced.  “We are about to embark on a very cool journey. The story of Willy Wanka is not just a kid-tale of a boy who gets to visit a dude who makes chocolate. This story is the wisest, most twisted, hair-raising, at-times dark, at-times silly, at-times funny, and at-many-times scary adventure.  It just so happens that this book, which I hold in my hand, is my favorite book ever!”  I successfully completed phase one of my spontaneous show of inspiration.  That is, I threw the hook of excitement; every child took it.  On a psychological level, it pays to put in the effort to find creative ways to get kids excited about stuff from the very beginning.  The expression, “first impression is most important,” is very true when it comes to teaching kids. 

I read through two chapters that day and got to the sad part of the story where Charlie would only receive one chocolate bar once a year for his birthday because his family was too poor to afford anything else.  I read with a somber voice how Charlie would take just a small nibble every day, that that one chocolate bar would last Charlie for months.  Then I paused and asked the children, “Do you guys think you could save one piece of chocolate for as long as Charlie can?”  Most kids said, “No way! I could never!  I love chocolate too much!” 

Then an idea popped into my head.  “Ok boys and girls.  I am now going to make you an offer that you can refuse” Then I paused again and stood still for dramatic effect, scrutinizing the 14 pairs of eyes, which waited eagerly for me continue.  I am offering any of you the most delicious piece of chocolate you’ll ever have.  But first you must agree to take and successfully complete The Chocolate Nibble Challenge.  You must first bring one chocolate bar to school; then you have to show me that you can savor that one bar for a whole month, eating just a little bit of it every day. If you complete this challenge, I will reward you with a morsel of pure chocolate joy.   

Though many kids announced that they were up for the challenge, only Ada took the initiative to go through with it.  Ada is younger than the other children – technically in 4th grade.  She’s a gem – bright smile, very intelligent, compassionate, always optimistic, and eager to learn.  I became friends with her right away.  I would say that she is the leading seamstress for the positive social development of our classroom community. 

The next day, Ada came to me with a chocolate bar and a 30-day calendar that she created at home. She took the first nibble in front of me.  Then we put the rest of the bar in a Ziplock bag and I placed it in my desk drawer.  I gave Ada special permission to open my desk drawer once a day to take a nibble. 

Like clockwork, Ada would wait until the end of the school day, until all children were gone.  Then she would whimsically skip to my desk, usually humming a tune to some song, and take a nibble.  Now I could really get into the deeper meanings of this silly Nibble Challenge, such as friendship building, the practice of self-control and non-attachment to Self and one’s thoughts, and cultivating a shared experience of joy between a student and her teacher.  But I’m not going to get into it because, well, I just did.  I mean, I won’t write a million more pages about it.  All I will say is that I was so pleased at the whole shindigity process, beginning with my announcing the challenge up through 30 days later when Ada announced she had successfully completed the trial.  On day 30, she showed me her calendar, which displayed 30 boxes (one for each day) with an X drawn in each one. 

“You did it! Ada! You passed the test! You won!”  I exclaimed.  I purposefully used Willy Wanka’s (played by Gene Wilder) exact words and excitement at the end of the movie when he tells Charlie that he was the only child to prove his virtue as a sincere and compassionate human being.  I saw Ada in the same way as Wanka saw Charlie.  And in some weird way, I felt like I’d been playing the role of Willy Wonka since the beginning of the school year.

On the next day I went to the 7-11 store and bought a milk chocolate Hershey bar.  I gave it to Ada after school and said, “Ada, this bar is made by an American company, one of the first and oldest chocolate companies ever.  If this were a Wanka bar, then it would be Wanka’s very first invented chocolate bar.”  That last sentence didn’t make any sense to me as the words streamed out of my mouth.  But at that point, neither Ada nor me were operating at the level of words.  Ada was jumping up and down, smiling ear to ear, clapping her hands and squealing with her subtle Thai accent, “Allen!  Thank You Thank You Thank You! I never had Hershey bar before.  Thank you Thank you Thank You!” She hopped out of the room, yelping with frenzied elation,  “Thank You Allen!  Thank You!”  As her voice trailed off down the hallway, I took a few moments to sit quietly and allow myself the opportunity to just be in the present moment.  Why did I just want to be?  Because the last few minutes with Ada were very precious for me.  And I didn’t want to aimlessly shift my mind toward some other arbitrary thing.  I wanted to feel an understanding of what had just happened.  Whatever it was, it was beautiful. 

It was beautiful because Ada inspired me to be like her. To find bliss in the smallest nooks and crannies of everyday life; to find truth and joy in everything that happens in the here and now.  Ada reminded me the importance of seeking bliss in the smallest things in life.  She had found holiness – truth – purity – in every moment that led up to the enjoyment of a plain old Hershey bar.  

Later that same afternoon, I found a letter on my desk.  It was from Ada and it read:

Dear Allen,

Thank you so much for the Hershey Bar.  It was the most FANTASTIC chocolate bar I ever had.  I am so happy!  If it’s ok with you, I would like to take another Nibble Challenge for _________________ months (Allen: please write how many months).  You can put this letter in my desk and I will see it tomorrow.  Thank you!







One Response to “The Wanka Challenge – A la Allen”

  1. Yana September 20, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

    Your enthusiasm and playful charm is indeed inspirational to your kids 🙂 keep up what you do already do best.

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