Restaurante Los Ticos: A Friday in the Life

6:30 am
“You have five minutes to get out the door, Keely!” I’m still in bed, struggling to lift my limbs, exhausted from a marathon week:

Wednesday, we went to Memphis and picked up food from the restaurant supply store for the fundraiser dinner we’d planned for Friday. The restaurant supply store was awesome: it had a room the size of a normal grocery store, but refrigerated! They provided jackets by the door and kept 40 lb boxes of chicken on the shelves. By the time we’d unloaded everything into the refrigerators at school, it was 10:30 and we still had a long drive home.

On Thursday we prepared Mexican food in the home ec room. Two of my awesome juniors came to help. That part was a lot of fun, but kids have curfews and sometimes pork cooks slower than you want it to and you leave the school at 11:30 and still have a long drive home. When you get there, you have two messages from unhappy parents who’ve just gotten report cards.

Then suddenly, it’s Friday morning and I’m pretty sure I can’t make my body move, but I do it anyway and throw on a dress and brush my teeth and make it out the door just in time.

7:00 am
“Crap” I say aloud in the car: I’ve forgotten to put on a bra, and that ship has long-since sailed.

7:35 am
“You guys know you have a mariachi band in my room, right?” Vanessa says to Paige and me. We stare at her blankly (see aforementioned exhaustion). “Yeah, W has been coming in and working on it during his free time since Wednesday. It has a cutout to stick your face through.” We look at each other in wonderment. He’d suggested it at the Spanish Club meeting, but we hadn’t thought much of it. I guess I said “Make it happen, W” and he did. Some kids are too cool for school.


DSC00898 8:45 am
I am suddenly so glad that I got the better of the sandman and made it to school today: a group of my students has completed a rigorous linear functions project entirely in Spanish. They’re all over smiles.

9:30 am
I spend my prep period talking to the woman who runs the cafeteria about how not to burn down the school during the Spanish club dinner.

All morning long
teachteachteachteach. My 12th graders complete their video projects, and they’re awesome. We had a heck of a time figuring out how to send video from cellphones to the computer, but the results are pretty good. Some are outstanding. My 9th and 11th graders suddenly seem to be understanding linear functions, and they’re having fun doing creative math while I monitor and facilitate: a good formative assessment day, and not too demanding for an exhausted Ms. O.

1:19 pm
I receive the following communication from my superintendent:

High School Teachers:
I am sorry that I have to send this email; but it seems that many of you are taking a very laid back approach to the job description of teacher. I am seeing way too many kids not engaged in the learning process. I am seeing way too many kids on cell phones, way too many TVs on in classrooms,  way too many kids in the hallways and way too many kids sitting in groups talking while the teacher is sitting at his/her desk looking at the computer.
I expect you to teach bell to bell from 8:00 a.m. to 2:58 p.m. for 178 days beginning in August and ending in May. If you can not do this or choose not to do this, please come see me.
I told you at the beginning of school, we do not have “free days” or “just find you something to work on” days. We have student engaged learning days-178 of them.
We only have one chance to teach our students-please make sure that they are receiving the education that they deserve…..the quality of education you want for your own kids.
Please ignore this email if it does not apply to you.
Thank you for your time.
Keep in mind that this man pulled teachers out of the classroom to work a baseball tournament last spring. If that isn’t the definition of hypocrisy, I haven’t ever seen it in action.
All afternoon long
teachteachteachteachteach. More awesome work from 9th graders and more fabulous videos from 12th graders. I’m proud and impressed, even if I am steamed over the email from he who must not be named. I eat a lot of chocolate during classes.
2:30 pm
Band and Cheerleaders are dismissed from my 7th period. That’s about half the class, so we have fifteen minutes of chaos while the remaining students struggle to understand that they’re still expected to work on their projects.
2:50 pm
Pep rally! The cheerleaders look grumpy: nobody’s getting excited for these things anymore. Frankly, everyone knows we’ve had a terrible season and there’s just not much school spirit left in these parts.
3:00 – 7:30 pm
Kitchen time with high schoolers: We used every dish in the cafeteria, I think, and made a tremendous mess, but the food was, by all accounts, muy delicioso. J made a delightful and energetic host, and all of the servers had a blast. W was a committed kitchen helper, always there when needed and unafraid to take on a challenge. A and C were devoted sous chefs, hollering over the fans and the hustle and bustle to Sean “Chef! what can we do now?” Morgan and Mallory turned up and joined the enchilada express line, and I finally took off my jacket when someone gave me an apron to wear.


Chef Chef!

pork tostadas

pork tostadas

chicken enchiladas

chicken enchiladas

7:31 pm
We officially closed for the night. A had to go to be the drum major for the marching band, so we sent him with a message for the halftime announcements: $5 takeout trays available in the cafeteria! Somehow, by this point, all of the kids had vanished. They are involved kids, so they aren’t just in Spanish club, they’re in band or in cheer or color guard. Only W stuck it out with us. My love for this kid is totally boundless. He packed up all of the food in takeout trays and loaded them onto a cart, then got down to the business of dishes with me.
9:30 pm
W left and Paige rolled the cart out to pick up some business from the fans leaving the game. I joined her after a while, and we did a steady trade in chicken enchiladas, even after the lights on the field flicked out with a quiet hum and we suddenly felt shady, hawking unmarked boxes of Mexican food just outside the gate of a sporting event.
10:00 pm
He who must not be named is one of the last to leave the game. He stops by our cart.
“You girls still trying to sell this stuff?” He didn’t come to our dinner.
“Yes sir,” Paige says, ever cool in the face of naked evil. I force a smile.
“well how much are they now?”
“Five dollars”
“Still?!” He chuckles and walks off.
10:30 pm to 12:30 am

Dishes. Mopping. Putting stuff away. It’s not fun. By 11:30 I have salsa all over my face.

We are about to become a pumpkin patch and this kitchen still ain't clean, y'all.

We are about to become a pumpkin patch and this kitchen still ain’t clean, y’all.

Somewhere in there, we count the money and discover that we have made five hundred dollars, which is pretty crap if you think about the time and effort that we put into it, but pretty good if you think about the kids having a blast and the fact that we really needed the money to make our next payment on the Costa Rica trip.

12:31 am
We still have a long drive home.
When we left the school at 12:30 am, we found this dirt-graffiti on our ride.

When we left the school after midnight, we found this dirt-graffiti on our ride. Makes everything a little better.

Everything that can go wrong when you try to butcher your pigs (GRAPHIC)

Sean and I came home from school on Friday and snapped into action, cleaning the house and putting away anything we didn’t want covered in the inevitable mud and blood attendant with home butchery. We folded up the futon, tucked away the books, moved everything within three feet of the sink to a safe zone. We felt we knew how to prepare for this process. Sizzle would be the fifth pig that we had tackled, and we felt confident and experienced.

The plan:
4:00 get home, clean up, prepare the tools, and light a fire to heat water for scalding
5:00 shoot Sizzle and begin skinning her
7:00 shoot Levi and have one team work on scalding while the other finishes butchering Sizzle.
11:00 bed time.

We had some friends coming over to help, and we experienced a delay when no-one turned up until much later than we’d hoped. No big deal, there was plenty of prep to do. When Katie arrived, we were ready to go and it was getting dark, so we decided not to wait for the rest of the team, but instead to get on with the first pig of the evening.


#1 The pig won’t die (7:00 pm)
Sizzle was Katie’s pig: she had planned with us for this moment since spring break. Sean gave her a quick primer on where and how to shoot the pig, and she did well, but instead of lying down silently at the first shot, Sizzle ran screaming. It was awful. She wouldn’t stay still enough for us to get a second shot in, and at one point she ran under the front porch for safety. “Straddle her Keely, hold her so I can get a shot!” For the record, I didn’t, but we were in the sort of agonizing panic that makes you do stupid things. Sean put three more shots in her head before she fell. When we examined the skull, we found the four shots clustered just a hair lower than they should have been. I saw Sean sobbing as he ran after her, gun in hand. When she finally dropped, I flipped her and Sean stuck her beautifully. We all took deep breaths while she bled out.

DSC00713  DSC00840

As a team, we dragged the carcass to the hanging tree. We sprayed the carcass down and laid it out on a board to skin the hams and the belly. Things began smoothly, and I felt good about the skinning process. Belly and hams done, it was time to hang the carcass.


#2 Equipment failure (8:30 pm)
We had a spreader bar hung by a rope over a limb on the big oak tree in the yard. We had another rope made off to a stump and the two ropes linked by a comealong. We stuck  300lb super zipties through the hocks (we used these same zipties for a much larger pig last fall) and looped the zipties over the hooks in the spreader bar. Using the comealong, we began ratcheting the carcass up to finish the skinning. At about eye-height, one of the zipties snapped and sent the skinned carcass wobbling dangerously over the dirt. We sprang into action and steadied the pig, casting suspicious eyes on the other ziptied leg. Crisis averted, we lowered the spreader bar slowly and tried again, figuring we’d just had a little bad luck with a flawed ziptie. Nope. After another ziptie failure, we strung rope loops through the hocks and got back to ratcheting the carcass into the air, satisfied that those couldn’t possibly fail. Boy we were in for it.
When the hams were at about eye-height, there was an ominous cracking noise. Sean jumped away from the comealong and cursed at the top of his lungs. The bolt that holds the whole thing together had split and jammed the mechanism. It wasn’t slipping, but we’d gotten all the lift we’d ever get out of the tool, and our pig was still resting half on its back.

We considered trying to hoist the carcass using the Nissan, but our truck was officially diagnosed with terminal rust on Friday, and we couldn’t risk ruining the transmission on our only working vehicle.

Somewhere in there our other friends showed up with no clue what they’d bargained for. We put them right to work by having them help to lift the carcass while I tightened the rope around the stump. All of their help got the carcass resting on its shoulders, and we had to settle for that.
This constituted a serious setback. We’d planned to skin the entire pig, gut it, then saw it clean down the middle, judging whether to saw through the skull or cut off the head, depending on what was easier. With the weight of the carcass resting on the head and shoulder, we couldn’t finish skinning it. Each time we made a major shift in the position of the carcass, we risked soiling the exposed flesh.

Here’s where we made an unforgiveable mistake that will haunt us for a long time.

 #3 Human Stupidity (11:00 pm)

We shot the second pig. We knew full well that we didn’t have a comealong (we’d tried calling neighbors, but no one had answered) and that we wouldn’t be able to hang the carcass. We were already exhausted, frustrated and we knew processing Levi would take some doing. It was a profoundly stupid, careless thing to do.
Sean lured Levi out of the pen with corn and she was clearly nervous. She wandered around the yard a bit, anxious, and Sean took the first good shot he could get. Levi dropped quiet after three quick shots, right behind the tree where we’d strung the first carcass. As she died, she kicked and wriggled and spattered dirt over all of the bystanders.

#4 Spiteful Porcine Sabotage (11:05 pm)

Levi’s death throes spewed clod after clod of dirt directly onto the skinned carcass hanging from the tree. I dived between the kicking hooves and the hanging flesh, trying to block the dirt with my body, and I have the bruises to prove it.

We split the group into two teams, one to focus on scalding the newly-dead pig, one to finish up the already hanging, nearly-skinned carcass. We on the skinning team soon encountered item #5.

#5 Ants (11:30 pm and ongoing)

Perhaps hosing down the carcass stirred up the hive. Whatever it was, our crew was soon hopping and swatting at clothes and shoes. The ant bites sting for long minutes, and the drop in morale that went with the pain made us realize how foolish we’d been in killing the second hog. Our friends weren’t enjoying themselves at all, and the end of the chore was a long way away. We looked at the unfinished hog hanging from the tree and the dead one lying beside the fire and suddenly felt the weight of all the work to come.

The scalding team began dipping the hog in the barrel we’d positioned on an angle over the pit-fire we’d prepared hours before. The water was good and hot and they experienced some success. It put a smile back on Sean’s face: he’d been looking forward to having some skin-on cuts for charcuterie and things finally seemed to be going his way.

I did as much skinning as I could, and I called him up to the tree for assistance with gutting and halving. DSC00777The gutting went smoothly, and the halving went well until we reached the shoulders. Here the spine curved because the weight of the carcass was still resting on the unskinned head. We tried ziptying the forelegs to our swingset, but the zipties failed (we are slow learners). We wound up bleaching the hood of the car and driving it up under the tree, then lifting the carcass onto it to finish splitting the halves and cutting away the head. DSC00793The shoulders were a little botched, but we finally had the first pig in the freezer at 1:00 am.


#6 Scalding ain’t happenin’ y’all (1:30 am)

At first the scalding had worked: the scalding team had one shoulder and half the head scraped clean, but the water in the barrel had mostly splashed out onto the fire. They had begun heating pots on the stove, and the stove-heated water just wasn’t working. Sean was starting to have a mental breakdown, and everyone was staring off into space sort of blankly.


We had to skin it, which was a brutal letdown, but we did it fast and we did it as a team.


We hung the second carcass by its hocks from the swingset, and, when it came time, we drove the car up and slung it over the hood.


We processed the whole hog in under three hours, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment. We spilled some shit from the intestines all over ourselves and made a tremendous mess, but the carcass stayed surprisingly clean. Some meat had to be discarded the next day when the carcass was cut into primals, but the loss wasn’t nearly what it could have been.

I was in bed at 4:30 am and my entire body already hurt. There was mud and blood (as predicted) all over my house, and I had days of processing work ahead of me before I could sit down and blog about it all.

Thank you 7.8 times ten to the millionth to our amazing friends who came to our aid the strength of oxen and the stamina of nuclear submarines. There’s just no freaking way we would have survived Friday without you all.

Why do we do it? Why put ourselves through the pain and stress and mess and risk?
I do it to for that moment when I feel like Alanna on the roof of the world, stepping up and making decisions and pushing through the pain when everyone else is flagging around me. I do it for the challenge of solving an urgent problem that seemed impossible and devastating moments ago.  I do it because I like to eat local, antibiotic-free, happy-meat and my region doesn’t have farmers markets or co-ops or natural food stores. I do it because my partner dreams of salami and dry-cured ham. I do it because I like having pigs around for their characters and spunk and garden utility, but I don’t want to feed a three or four-hundred-pound pet. I do it because I believe I can raise and slaughter an animal more humanely than a factory can. I do it because there’s nothing more incredible than the taste of Sean’s fresh-ground bratwurst, unless it’s the breakfast sausage or spicy Italian or chorizo or just plain pork medallions, never-been-frozen, fried up in the skillet.

I’ll do it again, and I’ll do it better.



Flight 2

I didn’t think that I would ever know the end of your story, but I do, and I want to share it.

In the evening dusk, hours after your flight, I looked for you on the steps and in the trees around the driveway. I went to bed, and when I got up in the morning, you were nowhere in sight. I gave you up, and smiled at the thought of you. I imagined you in a green light, glittering like your bright eyes.

The truth is that, huddled flat-footed on the linoleum, you looked up at me with those bright eyes when I found you, even though your wing sagged and your feathers were bent. Perhaps the cat thought he was bringing you back to me, and that’s why he didn’t make your soft, featherweight body into a toy as he’s done with so many birds. I imagine he tried to be gentle, but your beak was broken and you had a deep gash in your breast.

I picked you up from the floor and you relaxed in my palms like you had done so many times before, and your eyes were bright circles. I cleaned and bandaged the wound, and looked for superglue to splint the beak. When you tried to eat with the cockeyed bill, it was comical. You chased seeds across the floor, slapping your feet with each clumsy, sturdy step. I thought surely you’d get better, like you’d done before. I thought of how your will to live astonished me: all that heart in such a little breast. All that desire from a creature that couldn’t have any idea what there was out there to desire.

When I came home tonight, you were collapsed and panting under the light, liquid oozing from your bill. You opened your eyes to look at me when I picked you up, and, as I watched, you blinked matte black eyes and dribbled a clear bubble and my palm was wet. You heaved and gurgled in the tiny world of my hands, a lost cause, and my cheeks were wet.

I asked Sean to put you down, and he did. I trust his hands to kill with compassion. I asked him to leave your body in a tree and he did. Little one, you’re a bigger meal for the woods than you would have been if I’d never picked you up. In the little world of my hands, I said goodbye to your eyes, glad that they had seen what was out there to desire, and goodbye to your wings, glad that they had known what it is to fly. It’s not enough, but it’s something.


Ultimately, I am responsible for the life and death of the dove. I fed him when he would have died, and when he might have lived, my cat dragged him in. Keeping cats is a small hypocrisy that this event crystallizes: I know that domestic cats are responsible for diminishing songbird populations, yet I keep two indoor-outdoor cats and refuse to declaw or bell them. Coyotes prey on housecats in this area, and I want my pets to have all of their stealth and weaponry intact when they are outside. I let them go outside because I’m too lazy to clean a litterbox and I don’t want to confine a creature that doesn’t like to be confined. They are happy cats.

Stray and feral cats are a problem in our area, and we often find ourselves caring for unwanted kittens that have been dumped out here in the country. My cats are both neutered, but that’s unusual in this region. From now on, I commit to see to it that every kitten that passes through my care, however briefly, is neutered before it leaves me. It’s not enough, but it’s something.


Three weeks ago, I started raising a baby dove that had fallen from a tree near our house. He had no feathers and no chance of survival. With a straw, dropper-style, I fed him soaked starter-grower for chicks every few hours. When he survived the first night, I was surprised. I’ve never had a baby bird live more than a few hours. For the first few days, he had to sit, flat-footed, in my palm. After a while, he could grip my finger. His feathers grew in, and soon he was making short, awkward flights across tabletops and then clumsily across rooms into walls or furniture.  I carried him to school with me every day for two weeks, and he sat in his box, chirping, under my desk.

DSC00372 DSC00369

Today, I carried him outside with me when I went to start a campfire. I set him on the ground next to the fire circle and he perked up, black eyes shining, and pecked at the ground a few times. I picked him up when he peeped, stroked his long, tapered wings, and set him on the ground again.

Without ceremony, he made his longest flight ever, wings beating in the air like a paper engine, low over the ground at first, then higher, then confident as he banked into the trees.


That was twenty minutes ago, and I wish I could see him now, those dark little eyes glittering, the soft, dove’s neck curving up from his breast in the hush and sparkle of the tree-lit woods. I know his chances for survival aren’t good, and perhaps it was unwise of me to bring him outside, but I swear I will never forget the morning sun on his wings and the sound they made, and then didn’t, as he got too far away for me to hear and became just another dove, flying low over a country road.

Sex Ed

“They should be paying you by the mile,” she said, as I flew by the office for the fifteenth time that hour. I had students in the library using the laminator, students in the copy room, students in the computer lab and students in my classroom. Supervision was impossible without superdupervision (which I don’t have). I had to settle for intermittent supervision and superduperspeed (which I can at least try to have).

The boys’ sex-ed class was meeting the library this week, and on one trip to the laminator, I overheard the following from the teacher:

If you know someone who’s having an abortion, you should talk to her. Ask her some of the questions we talked about. If she’s planning to have an abortion, that’s bad. She’ll regret it.

I almost hurled. I hate that I work for a school that allows these contractors to come in and pass off utter crap as information. I now wish that I had stopped and said something to them, even just “I absolutely disagree with the blanket statements that you just made. Reality is far more nuanced.” My kids deserve better, and I should have spoken up just to let them know that I’m comfortable with the topic and that they can come to me.

I’ve found kids reading flyers with the stunning title “Is Virginity What’s Missing in Your Life?” about how you can restore your virginity if you’ve lost it. There are five or six very unsettling things going on there.

At a bake sale this summer, two of my former students opened up to me a little about their sex-ed class. It’s abstinence only, and they don’t feel adequately informed. I asked them if they knew what “consensual sex” is, and  they said “is that when you have your parents’ permission?” We’re really missing the point here, folks, if kids are led to believe that abortion is always bad and that consensual sex is when you have your parents’ permission. I don’t know how much information those two (both were boys) had about birth control.

Some of Sean’s female students seem to have a lot of information about birth control (he overheard them comparing the pill, the patch, the ring etc.), but one of them explained that she doesn’t want to use birth control because she’s afraid she’ll get fat. Sean fields a number of fairly interesting inquiries about sex because he’s a science teacher. His badass feminist self handles them beautifully. A 7th grader once asked him if a baby could have more than one daddy. They were learning about reproduction in class, so the kid drew a picture to illustrate:

two daddies

My students don’t ask me those questions outright. Occasionally, in a quiet moment in the afternoon, they’ll ask me personal questions that relate to sex. It’s not hard to tell the difference between idle curiosity and a desperate need to know something.

The pregnancies that I’ve been closest to as an adult have been teen pregnancies: Girls growing bellies that no longer fit in the chair-desks in my classroom, standing by a bank of lockers holding their wondering friends’ hands flat against their tight-stretched shirts to feel the baby kick, and missing day after day of school for doctor’s appointments. A young mother that I teach bribed me with a cupcake to let the class share her birthday snacks a few weeks ago. She was turning sixteen. Another, a promising math student, dropped out of the tenth grade last year. It’s the same way for Sean. I remember him standing in front of a shelf at the pharmacy, reading labels and selecting prenatal vitamins for a middle schooler.

If I haven’t said something controversial yet, here it is:

Despite the misinformation and lack of information provided at school, I think some girls get pregnant not out of absolute ignorance (this is the age of the internet, and I know they know the basics of where babies come from), but out of emptiness. Accidents happen, but I think that girls are taking greater risks than they do elsewhere (Arkansas has the country’s highest teen birth rate) because they want to feel needed. They want to be of value to someone. It’s a pretty dismal outlook for girls here. They’re second-rate citizens, and they know it. A baby fills the void that should be filled with aspirations and plans and confidence and self-efficacy, all of which have been forced down or stunted by the time girls reach high school. Additionally, when a girl gets pregnant, there’s no great stigma. The hard conversations are for her family: at school, we try to be supportive and loving and excited about the baby. Besides, many of our students’ parents had children in high school. One girl told me that her mother was married at fourteen. Sean teaches a sophomore whose mother is only a few years older than Sean himself.

At homecoming last night, I watched for the boyfriends of the girls in the homecoming court. They followed the girls like devoted puppies, almost sad-eyed. They wouldn’t let the girls swish out of sight in those bright, flowing dresses.



I intercepted a note at summer school, where I taught rising ninth graders, that contained the charmingly sexist phrase “I’m gonna put a baby in her.”
After school one day recently, a boy (now a junior) that I taught in ninth grade came to visit me.
“Ms. O’Connell, you know I’m gonna be a daddy?”
I glared at him, waiting. We’d had a conversation or two about the responsibilities of fatherhood last year.
“Okay. I was just kidding.”
“Good. You dink.”
“I’m gonna be a baby-daddy before I graduate, though.”
“You know I think you’re better than that. I think you’re father material. Don’t be a baby-daddy. Be a Daddy.”
On the flip side, one tenth grader expounded in my classroom during lunch (he had been debating the morality of abortion with a female student)
“If you’re not prepared to be a father, don’t have sex. I accept that risk, but I’d rather wait to have kids. That’s why I use a condom every time I have sex with my girlfriend.” The debate went on, but I stopped listening. I’d heard those two argue over that subject before.

What is there to say here? What conclusion can I draw? This is just one more spoke in the wheel that turns the world here. It’s connected to poverty and health care access and education and racism and environmental injustice and sexism, and you can’t repair one without stopping the wheel and fixing them all.

In the hallway of the schoolhouse at sunset

In the hallway of the schoolhouse at sunset