By Angelina Drago

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It’s a typical Friday in my ProStart lab. I look around the work-based learning kitchen at my students. My diverse group of 18 kids, 18 backgrounds, 18 sets of strengths and weaknesses, and 18 visions and destinies beyond this room. Yet here they are, together in this place, in their chef coats and hair restraints, engaged in various tasks. Playful banter is in the air. Among the running jokes, I hear, “you dropped something - sanitize!” I need not say a word. There’s a palpable sense of care in the room – care for themselves, care for each other, and care for their work.   

One of the students, Alicia, is leading a group in preparing 100 lbs of chicken for our hungry football players before the game. She’s attentive in monitoring and mitigating the contamination risk.

At another station, Danielle is working solo, baking fresh bread for the inevitable football carb-loading session. She’s bouncing around the kitchen between batches, socializing at will.

On the other side of the kitchen, students are tasked with stacking and decorating two special order cakes, including a solar system cake.  Wade, a student who has been practicing cake decorating on his own for several years, is particularly excited about the project, and he plans to show his colleagues a mirror glaze. He immediately gets to work carving the first cakes.

I casually make my way around the kitchen stations, providing feedback and assistance as needed, and enjoying the moment. Fourteen months ago, when I first met this group of new students, they didn’t trust me. I didn’t trust them. They didn’t trust each other. Most joined the program with hope of finding access to snacks. Yet here they are, working as a team, fueled not by snacks, but by passion, confidence, and care. I look forward to navigating opportunities with them. I’m proud to recommend any one of them for a job. Then Wade hits the floor.

Wade hits the floor! He nicked his finger on the knife earlier and waited until after we bandaged him to pass out. All six feet of him falls back to introduce his head to the floor. Hard. Soon after he begins to convulse, my brain catches up with my heart. “Call -- Nurse!” I stammer. “Talk to him. Don’t touch him. Cushion his head.”  In two minutes, Aron and Mia return with the nurse. In the meantime, as I call Wade’s mom, I watch Nila remove her chef jacket to cushion Wade’s head, while Alicia sits on the ground near him, gently asking him questions. The rest of the students are back to work at their stations. The atmosphere has changed. The EMTs arrive quickly, and they quickly take him away.

Wade is okay, and I think we will be, too. Upon reflection, I wonder if there’s more meaning hiding in the timing of that day. Only a week earlier, I joined a convening of educators, united in the purpose of retooling career education for all Louisiana students. As we embark, we are challenged with the task of identifying the skills that my kids - future grownups and professionals - need to be successful in the uncharted 21st century workforce.

That day, my students responded appropriately to an unexpected grownup situation. But while a year of lesson planning certainly yielded productive workers, I can’t recall a lesson plan with an objective focused on preparing them for the unexpected. Yet they were prepared for this.  But what did I do to prepare them? What can we do to prepare our kids for the unknown?

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