Breakfast, With a Side of Books

Jo displays one of the felt panels that she stitched for Each Tiny Tooth.

Jo displays one of the felt panels that she stitched for Each Tiny Tooth.

Whoever said lightning never strikes twice clearly never spent much time in the lunchroom of the Lincoln High School building, where I have had the good fortune to meet two very exceptional kitchen managers.

Last summer, I was lamenting the departure of beloved lunch lady (and all around interesting human being) Joanne Querin-Sorenson, who was smartly snatched up by McDonald Elementary School when they moved into their permanent building this fall. My son’s school, APP@Lincoln, remained in the Lincoln High building and began the search for a new kitchen manager. Enter new amazing lunch lady, Jo Simonian.

Jo walked into a 550 student school already in its second month of school when she began her new job this past October. Already familiar with the lunch scene from her tenure as a substitute kitchen manager, Jo balanced the business of getting breakfast and lunch served with learning the ropes at a new school, memorizing children’s names, navigating our lunchroom compost and recycling program, and tackling the extra duties that come with a permanent position, like identifying student tastes, ordering sufficient quantities of food, and preparing sack lunches for field trips. Somehow she managed to do it all with a smile on her face.

Within a month, Jo was putting her own stamp on the lunch program, introducing a before school literacy program “Breakfast and a Book.” She advertised in the weekly parent newsletter and soon attendance at breakfast began to increase. A cluster of students now frequent the before-school breakfast program, eager to see which books Jo has brought to read to them while they fill their bellies and stay out of the drizzle each morning.

When I asked Jo why she started story time, she told me that breakfast numbers had been low and that she wanted to get more students to eat before they tackled learning each morning. She also enjoys getting to know students better than she would if she was just serving them food and sending them off to face the day.

Then she confessed that she had written and illustrated her own children’s book, and she humbly offered one to my 5 year old daughter. Each Tiny Tooth is Jo’s first published book, and a labor of love which she has nurtured every step of the way. In this children’s picture book, Jo invites readers to wonder where the tooth fairy might put the teeth that she collects. In addition to writing the story, Jo created the fabric panels that whimsically illustrate the book.

“My mom came to live with me full-time about two and a half years ago,” Jo told me. “She was living with Alzheimer’s disease. I found that two things made her the happiest: walking and talking. We spent many hours talking and I needed something to do with my hands.”

Introduced to felt crafting by a young neighbor of hers, Jo began creating panels for another book that she’d had in mind for several years. Once those panels were complete, she sought a new project. Her sister, an elementary school librarian, suggested a story about the tooth fairy. Jo set to work creating hand-stitched felt panels depicting the tooth fairy’s nighttime journey. In each panel she hid a tooth for the reader to find.

“I submitted my book to two publishers, and was rejected twice,” recounted Jo. “Then I found a self-publishing website and decided to go that way. Secret Garden Bookstore and the University Bookstore agreed to carry my books on commission. It’s worked out terrifically! I can’t wait to start another book.”

Jo’s new permanent position as our school’s lunch lady is helping fuel the flames. Breakfast story time gives her a chance to see which books hold the children’s attention and exposes her to new authors for inspiration. Being on the school cycle affords her some “down time” for creative endeavors. This former occupational therapist is now reinventing herself as a children’s author and artist, all the while working as a beloved lunch lady who serves up hot lunches and warm breakfasts, with stories on the side.

  1. Hoodette said,

    Nice story! It brought a smile to my face.

    Wed, March 6 at 11:51 am

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