47: Third World Banquet

47: Third World Banquet

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

Third World Banquet

Poverty can teach lessons that privilege cannot.
~Jack Klugman

One of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned, I learned in the sixth grade. My teacher was Mrs. Schmidt, and for years before I reached her class, I couldn’t wait to have her. She was the cool, young teacher who really did make learning fun. She taught the same lessons every other teacher did, but her way of doing it was different. Like they say today, she thought “outside of the box.”

One afternoon as we were settling into our desk chairs after recess, Mrs. Schmidt presented the outline for our upcoming project: The Third World Banquet. It was a luncheon we were going to put on for the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes where each student would eat a meal that symbolized food of a first-, second- or third-world country.

For the next month we planned the event, raising money, gathering parents to help, and brainstorming over the details. Before long we had a plan. To make it fair, every student participating would blindly draw a strip of paper from a bowl. If the paper was marked with a one, that lucky student would be eating a first-world style lunch. If it was marked with a two, they’d be eating a second-world style lunch. And if the paper was marked with three, you guessed it, they’d eat a third-world style lunch.

The day of the banquet finally arrived and just before the lunch bell rang, the bowl was making its way around each classroom for the students to choose their fate for the afternoon. Of course everyone hoped to pick a ticket marked with a one.

Moments later, we stood at the doors to the school gym (which served as the dining hall) waiting patiently to be directed to our seats inside. Soon the parents were escorting the first-world kids to rows of tables that were set with tablecloths, napkins, silverware and plates. The second-world kids were led to another group of tables. There were chairs, but no extra comforts like tablecloths or salt and pepper shakers. Lastly, the third-world kids were led to a roped-off area of the floor that was covered in brown paper on which they were to sit.

Very soon after the realities of our banquet were made known, the faces changed. The first-world students of course were beaming, walking around like little kings and queens, slapping high-fives at their good fortune. The third-world kids appeared suddenly forlorn, trying to find comfort on the hard floor beneath them, envious of the classmates who sat in chairs all around them, dreading the moment they would find out their lunch for the day. In the middle were the second-world kids who sat almost expressionless, a little disappointed they weren’t quite as lucky as their first-world friends, but certainly glad they weren’t on the floor either.

Before long, lunch was served. The first-world students got spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread, salad and a choice of drink. They were taken care of first, waited on hand and foot, served seconds if they wanted, and given refills when their cups were empty. They even had cake and ice cream for dessert!

The second-world students were served peanut butter and jelly with half pint-size cartons of milk. At those tables, there were no seconds, no endless refills, no dessert at the end. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as the third-world kids had had it. And for that, they were grateful.

Inside the roped-off area of floor in the “third world,” it was crowded and uncomfortable. As the students situated themselves, nearly on top of one another, a few pitchers of water, cups and small bowls of rice were passed out. But of course there were no forks.

As much as the experience of the banquet on a whole stays with me today, it is a small detail that I remember most clearly, a detail that has a place in my story thanks to an old classmate, Tyler. He was one of the bigger boys in class. From his appearance, one would think he would be rough and tough and interested in causing trouble. He played along and fit in with the rest of the kids but underneath was really a gentle soul. So there we all were all dressed in the same red, white and navy uniforms, but divided by wealth (or lack thereof).

The first-world students sat with one another eating and drinking and laughing in their comfortable “first world,” forgetting about the “poverty” that surrounded them—poverty that for some of their best friends had suddenly become a reality. The second-world kids, with whom I sat, had quickly forgotten all about the spaghetti they weren’t eating, just thankful they hadn’t chosen papers marked three. The third-world students sat on the hard floor, rationing the water and scooping sticky, flavorless rice into their mouths with their bare hands.

It was at the end of the lunch that Tyler, who sat in first world and who, in his everyday humble and kind-hearted shoes, seemed the least affected by his status, sat up in his seat. Something suddenly made him see the lesson Mrs. Schmidt was hoping we would all see. When offered seconds on his dessert he said, “Yes, please.” But it wasn’t for himself that he wanted that second piece of cake. It was for one of the less fortunate. Not a minute later, he was out of his chair with a string of fellow first-worlders behind him on their way to the second- and third-world sections of the gym. His gesture of kindness had a domino effect on everyone around him, and within minutes the plates of chocolate cake were sitting on the bare tables in second world and taking the place of the rice bowls in third.

Having been prepared for this, the parents were waiting with plates of cake for everyone and were soon passing them out to each of the students who’d not been so lucky earlier in the meal. Smiles were finding their way back to the once poverty-stricken faces.

By evening we’d all be filling our bellies once again with family dinners, going about our carefree lives as fortunate children, forgetting about the hunger in the world or the hunger some of us had experienced earlier that afternoon. But for that hour in the gym at our Third World Banquet, we understood, even though it was only for a brief time, what it felt like to be hungry, because we had eaten only rice or because we’d witnessed our friends with nothing. I still think about that humbling afternoon, and how Tyler’s one small action made such a great difference.

~Andrea Fecik

More stories from our partners