Real lessons at North Country School, from barn and ﬁeld to kitchen and table
by J. L. Haugh
We all have our favorite holiday, whether it’s the warm glow of a white Christmas or the wicked fun of Halloween. At North Country School (NCS)—an international 90-student junior boarding school nestled in a bowl between Pitchoff Mountain and Round Pond in Lake Placid—Thanksgiving wins hands down. It is an all-school event and the feast is eaten on the Thursday of Thanksgiving, not a day before or after. Parents of boarding children often travel from across the globe to be there and most day-families forgo home celebrations during the years their kids attend the school.
Thanksgiving is not just a holiday. It is what the school is all about—sustainability, real work, community with a capital “C”—and it begins the spring before, when the seed potatoes are planted and the pumpkin mounds are heaped.
In the dark, early morning and again late in the day at NCS, groups of nine- through 15-year-olds trudge across the low pasture toward the barns for their chores, assigned on a two-week rotation. In winter they trail along, heads down, hunched against the cold, breath freezing on the wind. When the snow melts and the days begin to lengthen they lope and chase, laughing and pushing each other into the long grass. At the barns they pick horse hooves and shovel dung onto the “honey wagon.” They haul water.
They help new lambs be born, collect and wash eggs for the kitchen, and feed the turkeys.
Alongside their academic and physical educations these kids are vital hands in the working of the farm, which feeds students, faculty and staff. They live within the seasonal rhythms of planting and birthing, of harvest and, yes, slaughter. Without their labor there would be no food in the dining room. And there would certainly be no Thanksgiving, NCS style.
The almost faddish movement toward local, sustainably farmed, kindly treated food is nothing new to Mike Tholen, the farm manager who is also an educator and a deep believer. He joins a tradition of foresighted NCS farmers who began cultivating this land in 1938. Today, Mike is the guy overseeing these 200 acres, standing on the tractor explaining why the maple sap flows when the temperatures drop and rise. He’s the guy who plants one gold potato in the fields so that some child will find it on the day the school community—teachers, staff, families of teachers and staff, students and farm interns—spends from sunup to sundown harvesting the potato crop. Three thousand seven hundred and eleven pounds of potatoes is a lot of potatoes. All hands are needed and all hands are filthy and exhausted when the job is done. During “out times,” the final 90 minutes of each day, children sign up to dig carrots—3,138 pounds last year—or onions—1,058 pounds—or move piles of feed or carry sap buckets to the sugarhouse. In the greenhouse they do Lettuce Learn Math and come to understand the carbon cycle.
The hardest job all year—the one the kids dread—comes in autumn when it is time for “chicken harvest.” It begins with a discussion during Community Council about what is a good life for a domestic meat bird: plenty of food, freedom from predators, room to run, play, forage and grow, and at the end, a quick death. This NCS provides for its chickens and turkeys. The quick death is the part that can be hard to stomach and the children’s participation is not mandatory. There is a kind of pride, though, in being there, in taking a bird from the end of Mike’s knife through the cleaning stations—plucking, eviscerating, washing, bagging—all the way to the kitchen freezer. There is a reverence for the lives given. Afterward, there is no way to go back to believing that poultry magically arrives on a plastic tray at the nearest box store. You might think that students are often converted to vegetarianism, but that seems to be rare. Instead, as one student put it, “I took a turkey all the way through, from the block to the freezer, and feel I’ve kind of earned the right to eat a turkey now.”
Then there are the NCS kitchens and the work the kids do in them. Under the direction of Paulette Peduzzi, every child knows how to operate the Hobart, how to peel apples from the orchard and how to compost. “Silvers” is the dreaded job of sorting silverware into the dishwashers. Being assigned K.A.M. (Kitchen a.m.) can mean wet sleeves the rest of the day. For last year’s Thanksgiving meal Paulette and the students served 10 turkeys and made 35 pumpkin and 40 apple pies.
The adage that working together creates stronger communities is true for this small school. And the culmination of that work is the giving of thanks each third Thursday in November. From the turkey that is proudly delivered to the headmaster’s table by the student who has attended the school longest, to the pies at the end of the feast, the kids serve a dinner that they helped to plant, grow, harvest and cook. Fancy clothes are donned. The dining room is packed. There’s no such thing as elbowroom and windows are left open to manage the extra heat.
Perhaps NCS has captured some small part of what the first diners felt on that long ago day in New England. Together they labored. Together they filled the table with the fruits of their labor. And together they sit down to give thanks.