Last September, it became obvious to Kelly Yandell that the traditional school model wasn't working for her 11-year-old son Ford.
"I have one of those boys who just wasn’t created to sit still, who wasn’t created to be super-organized at the age of 11, who is smart and funny and who is, much to the dismay of a string of teachers, noisy," Yandell, a Dallas writer and photographer, wrote on her blog. After endless discussion, Yandell and her husband opted to pull Ford out of private school and give homeschooling a try. But first, they had to convince Ford that leaving school partway through the year was a good thing.
"I needed to find a way to present it to him as a great option," Yandell says. "I wanted to make sure he didn’t feel like he was being punished in this situation. While the change was certainly overdue, I was asking him to get on board with leaving a school in which he had been since pre-K."
So she came up with an incentive, one that both she and Ford have endlessly fond memories of: barbecue.
"When I mentioned that one of the great upsides of homeschool was the ability to be flexible with our schedules and set up our days as we wished, including eating barbecue every week if we wanted to, he was in," she says. "It completely changed a potentially negative dynamic into a very positive one."
With that, Yandell undertook the intensive task of homeschooling her son — and part of that homeschooling involved field trips to Dallas-area barbecue spots. For an entire year, Yandell and her son hit up at least one spot per week for a ritual they dubbed Barbecue Thursday.
Peggy Sue BBQ, Lockhart, Hard Eight, Mac's BBQ — every Thursday, they took a break from the books and spent an afternoon eating chopped beef sandwiches and meeting the people behind Dallas barbecue pits. The entire year, Yandell says, Ford never deviated from his standard order, which may make him one of Dallas' preeminent chopped beef scholars.
"Ford has a deep appreciation for every chopped beef sandwich that has ever been served to him," Yandell says. "He declared at least 95 percent of them to be 'awesome,' even when I didn’t particularly agree. Chopped beef is a very forgiving medium, though."
Throughout the year, missing only one week at Christmas, Yandell and Ford hit up the big-name spots and the mom-and-pops, sometimes eating at two in a week and making repeat trips to their favorites. In her blog post about Barbecue Thursday, Yandell shared notes from their meaty exploits.
"Beautiful is not a word that gets used with chopped beef sandwiches very often," she wrote about Cattleack. "This sandwich was beautiful."
So what can an 11-year-old boy really learn from a year of eating barbecue? A lot, apparently.
"It was a formative experience for both of us," Yandell says. "He learned, in addition to an impressive amount of bookwork — we kept up with a standard fifth-grade curriculum — that we have his back, completely. He learned that he was, in fact, smart. He learned that there is a benefit to working efficiently because then you are finished with school hours before your peers."
He learned a thing or two about barbecue, too.
"He learned that he likes his chopped beef sandwiches chopped by hand and not pre-sauced," Yandell says. "And he learned that very lovely people work in the barbecue business."
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Meeting the people who tirelessly work the pits was a lesson in work ethic. Trying so many versions of the same thing and discussing the differences became a lesson in the effort it takes to truly understand something, even something as simple as a sandwich. And for Yandell, it became a lesson in parenting.
"I learned that I am, in fact, willing to drop everything — which turned out to be a whole bunch of nothing — to do what was best for my kid," she says. "And I learned to trust my instincts as a mother and do this one thing that I’m sure many of my peers thought was insane. It is also a pretty great thing to do something that you know people are going to find odd, at a minimum, and do it unapologetically."
Now that the year is up, Yandell says she and Ford plan to continue their barbecue adventures, perhaps deviating from the chopped beef sandwich. They'll continue with a greater understanding of barbecue, of each other and of the value in learning outside the box.
"It was fraught anxiousness and doubt about whether we were making a huge mistake or whether I was up to the task, or even whether I would ruin my relationship with my son by introducing the student/teacher dynamic into our lives," Yandell says. "Barbecue Thursday gave us an immediate sense of levity.
"It gave us a way to feel that no matter what else a week brought to us, Thursday was going to be awesome, every single week, for the whole school year."