Sunday, October 3, 2010

Back to School: Creativity and the Brown Bag Lunch

A few weeks ago, inspired by the Summer Challenges and Back to School, my mom suggested doing a post on favorite school lunches. I thought this was a great idea, but I wanted to connect it back to the main themes of The Paper Compass: creativity and paper. So while my mom, a gourmet, was thinking about what was in the lunch, I became intrigued about what the lunch was in.

Paper and lunches have long been connected by a happy history of “the brown bag.” The concept of the brown bag lunch is so prevalent that it has now become a popular corporate title for casual seminars that occupy the lunch hour. There was a time though before brown bags, and there is even a time (which we are entering now in our environmental consciousness) after brown bags and this history of the evolution of the brown bag, both personal and social, began to interest me.

During my first class of Creative Thinking we discuss the challenges that block, stunt or thwart our creative growth. One of the natural challenges happens around adolescence. Not only do we emerge from childhood to an awareness of what other people think, but we also become aware of our ideas as they exist in a social sphere. This can lead to a filtering of ideas and sometimes a suppression of creativity or creative expression.

This is interesting to me, as by the time I reached middle school, if not a grade or two earlier, there was a strict no lunchbox policy. Lunchboxes were viewed as “baby-ish” while brown paper bags were “cool.” In fact, the more unobtrusive and bland the vehicle for the lunch, the better.

The irony, and eloquent example of the stunting of creative expression, is that lunchboxes were very much an expression of our individuality. Yes, they (more often than not) were the marketing vehicles for pop culture and Saturday morning cartoons, but in choosing your lunchbox you got to showcase something that you liked, that you felt passionate about. I still have fond memories of my pre-school lunchbox. It was a Muppet lunchbox in goldenrod yellow with an image of the backroom of the Muppet Show on the front. (It was also the cause of The Great Lunchbox Switch that resulted in my first taste of Oreos, but that is a story for another time.)

This is not to say that individuality is lost with the onset of brown bag lunches. In fact, they become interesting for being so similar only to reveal individuality through not only what is in them, but sometimes what is on them. One of my students from my summer session of Creative Thinking was inspired for the final project based on the memory that his mother would draw superheroes on his lunch bags because his family could not afford lunchboxes when he was young. One of my coworkers, a talented photographer, helped a friend turn a brown bag lunch into a memorable interview tool, with each of the objects in the brown bag lunch becoming storytelling elements that represented unique facts about her.

Often, when we have transitioned to something that is “socially the norm”, like lunchboxes to brown bags, or backpacks to briefcases, it provides us with a uniform template with which to examine that which makes us unique.

I would like to thank my mom for the inspiration for this post. While I was blessed with a childhood and adolescence of wonderful school lunches, for the record: nothing stands out more than my elementary school lunch memories of peanut butter and honey or cream cheese and jelly sandwiches.

If you are feeling inspired to think about your own lunchbox or brown bag history here are a few exercises to get you started:

• If you had a lunchbox when you were young, what did it look like? What was on it? Why did you choose it (if you got to choose)? Write down your memories or create a picture of it in your sketchbook.
• If you had a favorite lunchbox, now lost to time, think about purchasing the same version online. Vintage lunchboxes make great keepsake boxes.
• When did you start bringing a brown bag lunch? Do you remember why? Did you or whoever packed your lunch do anything to make the bag unique? Use your sketchbook to capture your memories.
• What was your favorite school lunch? Think about what the contents reveal about you at that time or that time in history. Indulge your inner creative by making your favorite school lunch for you or a loved one. Eat it at work or take it on a picnic.
• If you bring your lunch to work, what do you carry it in? What does it say about you? With all the reusable, eco-friendly containers there are designs to fit every personality and desire for self expression. Think about treating yourself to a stylized adult version of a lunchbox.

Any inspiration from the above, pictures of childhood lunchboxes or memories of school lunch are welcome as comments!

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