How third grade made me a vegetarian.

Once upon a time, there was a 3rd grader named Haley. She was an enthusiastic student and a bit of an over-achiever. She was also beginning to showcase signs of the woman she would one day grow up to become. There was one occasion, for instance, where she gathered several of her friends together to perform a choreographed dance to Paul Abdul’s “Opposites Attract”. Haley insisted her teacher take ten minutes out of their afternoon lesson to allow her classmates to see this once-in-a-lifetime production. Even in elementary school, Haley was a self-motivated performer and a bossy, pestering producer.

Haley was also developing her trademark sensitive spirit. Third grade was the year, after all, she chopped off her long hair for the first time and had a boy tell her the new cut made her look like the Incredible Hulk. Haley can pinpoint this as the first looks-based insult she ever received. Other ones that stick in her brain are mostly from high school, and include creative gems such as  “the St. Bernard” and “rhombus-head”.

Third grade was also when Haley missed half the school year, due to an unfortunate rash that would repeatedly break out over her entire body. After a month or two of restricting Haley’s favorite school meal (peanut butter and honey sandwiches), an intelligent school nurse, or parent, or grandparent, or something rather, discovered Haley’s outbreaks were actually caused by her fear of the classroom Teacher’s Aide. You see, the TA was the first person in Haley’s educational experience to not fawn over her zeal in the classroom. The TA gave Haley “satisfactory” marks in handwriting, when she was used to “excellent” marks in everything else. Haley did not know how to accept this rejection, so her fragile little ego developed hives as a defense mechanism.

Third grade was the year- as we’ve learned from earlier posts- that Haley discovered she was a good 10-20 pounds heavier than most of her other female classmates. This was also around the time Haley started paying attention to her mother’s morning dressing ritual; it is the same one that Haley now uses herself as an adult: 1) try on everything in the closet, 2) verbally scorn the reflection in the mirror over and over again, 3) settle on the outfit that is the ‘lesser evil’ and 4) leave for the day, agitated and upset.

Yes, third grade was the most transformative year in the young Haley’s early life. It was also when she found out her stomach was just as sensitive as her emotions:

Haley’s classroom was going to visit a local dairy for a field trip. Part of this trip involved milking a cow. The only thing Haley knew about cows until this point was that her grandma Ollie was forced to milk them as a child. Every day grandma Ollie would go out to the cow pen with a milk bucket in her hand, and every day grandma Ollie would faint before   being able to complete the task.

This is not the sort of family folklore that makes a grandchild eager to try things for herself.

But, because Haley’s  ‘classroom participation’ grade depended on it, she put her little hand to a giant cow’s swollen udder and tugged until a creamy strain of milk squirted out. The kids behind her in line laughed as Haley tried to control the gagging sensation rising up in her throat. Haley was certain; this dairy business was not her cup of tea.

The forced cow milking and the tour of the small crates where baby calfs were kept (before their eventual veal-producing slaughter) were off-putting for the young Haley, to put it mildly.  However, these events were nothing compared to the grand finale of that day’s field trip. A mamma cow was about to give birth to a baby cow. In this sort of situation, most of the adults on the dairy would have had the foresight to remove all the third grade children from eye-witnessing such an affair. However, this particular day, the mamma cow chose to give birth to a TWO-HEADED calf. The grown-ups on the dairy were as frozen in shock as the children. Everyone watched the miracle/horror (depending on who you ask) with wide-eyes and agape mouths.

Q: How do you possibly top giving your students the experience of seeing a cow give birth to a two-headed calf?
A: You make that calf your classroom’s pet. That way, at the young ages of eight and nine, your students can learn about the circle of life- the gruesome, bloody process of birth and the unforgiving reality of death- within a month.

An educational field trip, indeed.

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My family was never an animal family. My mom didn’t really care for pets and my father had residue from the traumatization of losing his beloved dog in an accident when he was a boy. Despite this, my sister somehow wound up with a rescue dog in junior high. The poor thing ultimately ended up being largely ignored by the lot of us. To this day, my dad says “If I’m going to hell when I die, it will be for the way I treated that dog.”

So, I never really had any close contact with animals- and the occasional run-in with them at a friend or cousin’s house usually left me frightened or unimpressed. Until my experience with Curti Dairy on the outskirts of Waukena, I never had any reason to consider how the meat on my plate got there. But from that point on, I could not help but consider it.

Vegetarianism wasn’t something that occurred to me as an option when I was that young, but I did become very fussy with meat. It needed to be well done, off the bone, preferably battered or fried or in some shape that rendered it unrecognizable as a once-living being, or I wouldn’t/couldn’t eat it.

Then I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in one of my early years of high school. The assignment happened to land on the same week as an investigative 20/20 special on how grocery chain’s were saving money by mixing expired, rotten meat into new packages.

That was it.

I became a vegetarian. I stayed one until I was 22, a year out of college. I was having health problems and a doctor convinced me it was because of the lack of protein in my diet, so I decided to go back on the (kill) wagon.

I continued eating meat again from then until I was 29- though I returned to my former habits of needing my meat to be as unmeatllike as possible. There were many, many occasions where I would order something as simple as a ham sandwich, take a bite, and need to throw the thing away. I have an especially fond memory of a dinner where my friend Sean (who was raised vegetarian, but now occasionally eats meat as an adult) and I tried to make turkey tacos. We were really excited at the grocery store, but once the two of us smelled the meat cooking, neither of us could go through with our dinner plans. An entire package of ground turkey meat was tossed in the garbage. It felt nice to be with someone who was as conflicted about ingesting animal products as I was.

Right around the time I went sober, I decided to go back to being a vegetarian. I had already cut out red meat by this point; it seemed like a logical path for me. This time, I am putting more emphasis on getting protein in alternate forms and I would not be surprised if this go of it ends up being a life-long commitment for me. There are many reasons why I foresee this:

-I have become more connected to the animal world and am at a point in my life where I cannot separate the fact that eating meat requires eating animals. I should mention, I still don’t have any pets of my own, but that’s no longer out of disinterest. I simply do not have the amount of money, time, and stability I would find acceptable to be the primary care giver to another living being.

– I don’t really enjoy the taste of meat, nor do I particularly crave it or miss it. Ten times out of ten, if you put a steak in front of me or a loaf of bread, I’m going to dive for the bread.

-I have read one too many books about the factory farming industry, and I am all too aware that the meat we get as Americans a) is pumped full of a lot more than just ‘meat’ and b) comes at the expense of the animals, the environment and even us humans. This is Old Macdonald’s farm no longer.  Animals in factory farms are often artificially created, over-crowded, tortured in life and brutalized in their journey to death.The most powerful and cohesive book I ever read on the subject is Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is probably one of the most enlightening books I’ve ever read about anything, ever.

“Isn’t it strange how upset people get about a few dozen baseball players taking growth hormones, when we’re doing what were doing to our food animals and feeding them to our children?” 

“Of course, consumers might notice that their chickens don’t taste quite right — how good could a drug-stuffed, disease-ridden, shit-contaminated animal possibly taste? — but the birds will be injected (or otherwise pumped up) with “broths” and salty solutions to give them what we have come to think of as the chicken look, smell, and taste.” 

― Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

-Lastly (and what I’ve only really admitted to a few people outside of my therapist), is limiting myself to a vegetarian diet restricts me from a lot of potentially “bad” food. It is a way for me to exercise some control over a part of my life that I admittedly have very little control over. Knowing that there are really no meals available for me at McDonald’s or Burger King or Panda Express (and so on and so forth) keeps me somewhat accountable. It forces me to take a second and think about where or what I might eat, because vegetarian meals are (let’s face it) not as easily accessible in our country. This is, of course, not as noble a reason as “I’m doing it for the animals!” or “I’m doing it for the environment!”, but I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that it is a very big part of what makes vegetarianism appealing to me.

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I’ve already talked much longer than I planned to, but last time I asked people to write in if there were any fools related books that they wanted to recommend to people. Here are some new ones:

The Body Ecology Diet: which uses probiotic nutrition as a way to get your body healthy and rebuild your immune system.

The Truth About Beauty by Kat James: a book that gives tips on how to transform your body and looks “from the inside out”.

The Writing Diet by Julia Cameron: The author of “The Artist’s Way” fame teaches you how to undergo a physical transformation simply by uncovering their creative selves.

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Anyone want to suggest great reads about factory farming, going vegetarian, or even the case in FAVOR of eating meat? I’ll share them next time.

One response to “How third grade made me a vegetarian.

  1. It’s refreshing to have a person write so openly and freely (and well) about such personal subjects. I know your blog is about self-expression, and sharing your journey with the world, but frankly, it also makes damn good reading.

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