I often ask myself why I am so enamored of the December ritual of making gingerbread houses (and trees) at Sudbury Valley. It is a big deal! Everyone has to put a lot of work into it. Not everyone in the school, but a much wider cross-section than it would appear. Far more people than the forty or so that walk out with finished products! It certainly makes my winter vacation restful, because I am so exhausted by the end of the gingerbread season.
First the sign goes up. "Want to make a house?" The kids who do it every year start signing up. Inevitably, way too many sign up for certain days. ("But, I just have to do it with 11 of my closest friends!" ) We get over that, with excellent good grace, every time. People get scheduled sort of willy nilly, but it doesn't matter all that much. The whole activity is both entirely group-oriented and entirely solitary, so there's no way to not have fun.
Once everyone's signed up, they bring in their money. It trickles in, slowly, but inevitably!
Next, the ritual of creating an actual schedule begins. This takes a lot of concentration and a lot of negotiation, because the kitchen can only accommodate a certain number of people at one time. And everyone wants to bake with their friends.
Once the schedule is ironed out, the shopping trips for tons of flour, eggs, and powdered sugar begin. Then "volunteers" make all the dough that's needed for the structures and the land that they sit on. Perhaps half a dozen students will create incredibly elaborate structures. Kids who don't want to invest a long hard day making and decorating a house will do cookies and trees. The dough is made by people who have done it a lot and some who are just learning. It's stored carefully, and then the real fun starts.
In the normal course of the year, one works with some kids a little and some kids more and some never (or close to never). They might ask you questions in passing. They might be the JC Clerks. They might need a slight wound cleaned and bandaid-ed. They might need help writing a complaint. There is fun in every one of those things - even the wounds give you an insight into a child.
But when you make a house together you learn:
• who never washed a dish in her life
• who thinks he can keep that streak going
• who is a natural engineer, effortlessly knowing, seemingly instinctively, how to roll, cut, and handle dough, always envisioning the outcome and always knowing the most efficient way to use the tools and the raw materials
• who turns out to be an ace sweeper
• who will get too raucous as the day goes on. (This is often, I'm sorry to admit, a direct result of the amount of sugar consumed while decorating divided by the amount of actual food that went into their tummies during breaks.)
You are allowed to marvel all day, at the ins and outs of being with kids who don't pick you as their playmates in general. You find facets of their personalities that are new, surprising, and wicked cool.
It lifts your spirits. As I moan through a long afternoon of exhaustion caused by trying to multi-task beyond my wildest dreams, they too are working at the top of their abilities, and it is exhilarating.
Each year some kids do houses that one wonders about. The outcome seems a little uncertain. Perhaps they are a little young, or too short to have leverage, or unproven in their abilities to focus on just one thing for so many hours. Each success must feel as big to the child as it does to me. It is amazing to help them to the final product.
Oh, and yes, gingerbread is not a science. It is not, in its essence, even an art. They way we do it, it is a crude and homely (in the old-fashioned sense of the term) craft. It is a time to learn that Mimsy meant it when she said don't handle the pieces too much, to check to see if the helpers in the room think it is rolled too thick or too thin, to not press down when you decorate because pieces are brittle. Etc. And, last but not least -- you are not done until the kitchen is clean.
And still. You might have done it all perfectly. But, things that are humbling to all can still happen. The roof can break beyond real redemption. Hot sugar can drip and make the house less perfect during the putting-together. But, Mimsy, or Mikel, or Danny can usually rescue your house no matter what. Gloriously, there are no two houses that look anything alike, and not one that is less than beautiful at the end. As for me, if I am lucky, I may get through all the days of house-making without yelling once.