Every year for 20 years, I have baked a back-to-school cake. While the type of cake was always up for discussion -- chocolate bottom and vanilla icing, chocolate bottom and chocolate top, yellow cake and chocolate frosting -- the tradition of the cake, once hatched, was never questioned.
I made that first cake in 1993 as we got ready for our first family experience in kindergarten. I think it was yellow, probably from a Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines box mix, with chocolate frosting. My son Thomas was starting school in September at Ridge Elementary School and I did everything I could think of to prepare for this "next big step." We would celebrate by enjoying the cake for dessert that night.
He completed his pre-school work sheets, we bought new shoes and that all important backpack. We played board games like Othello and read books like "The Berenstain Bears Go to School." He learned his address and his telephone number and how to write his first and last name. We talked about what school was like, manners, sharing, snack time and riding the bus.
Somehow I wanted to convey to Tom and his little brother Jim that school is important. And that an education, especially a public education, is a gift. Around the world, I told the two boys, children cannot go to school. Kids are desperate for the education that you will get at Ridge Elementary, I told them. These kids will wake up really early, walk for miles or ride their bikes, study in cramped classrooms with few supplies and scrounge tuition money, in order to learn.
You are fortunate, I told them, to live on Long Island and go to our public schools. At the ages of 2 and 5, this message didn't really impress them. They didn't understand. So, I tried to think of something that would illustrate the absolute importance of school.
And then I made a cake. Combine a cake with anything and it becomes important. I told them that cake was to celebrate learning, being a student, going to school.
That first cake was a big hit and I have made a cake every September since. I made cakes throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. I made a cake for three more kindergarten experiences. (The boy just starting school got to determine the flavor of the cake for that year.)
Every September, every first day of school, there has been a cake for dessert at dinner that night. My four boys would eat that cake (and drink a lot of milk) as we talked about their new friends, their new teachers and their new schools.
Between bites, Tom, Jim, John and Mark would describe their first days by revealing small details: the bus ride, who was in their classes and maybe, as they got older, they would share their goals for the new school year.
How time has flown. Tom is now a New York City police officer. Jim is an ensign in the Coast Guard. John is starting his third year at Buffalo State College, studying special education.
With only Mark home now, and starting his senior year at Longwood High School on Sept. 9, this year I will bake my 20th and last cake. There is no debate in my house about the importance of an education. As for the cake, Mark wants butter yellow with chocolate frosting.
Reader Jeanne Knudsen lives in Ridge.