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An apple for the teacher

Remember when you used to bring an apple to the teacher?  Probably not, but in the American mind, this was always a big thing, right?  The classic image of a teacher’s desk with papers and pens and inboxes and outboxes, and a shiny red apple up front for all to see.  There was the apple-polisher stereotype, that one kid who was so intent on impressing the teacher that he or she was the one who always brought that apple.  The ones who didn’t were the kids who threw spitballs and dunked the pigtails of the little girls who sat in front of them into their inkwells.

During my brief career as a teacher, I can tell you that spitballs are still a thing, though inkwells are not.  And giving apples to the teacher isn’t a thing, either.  Not that I’d have minded a student bringing me an apple; it just never happened to me.  I never saw it happen when I was a student, either, back in 19(ahem).  Yet we still link apples and teachers in our minds—good teachers, anyway.  Teachers’ organizations in America often use an apple as part of their logos, even though there’s likely no one alive who remembers seeing a teacher’s desk cluttered up with fruit.  Where does this idea come from?

The answer goes back a long way, well before public education got to be widespread in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In America, it started as early as the Jamestown colony in Virginia, in the early 1600s.  There were no public schools in the English colonies, so the colonists had to invent their own.  They would recruit teachers and work out some kind of payment system.  Payment was often made in food, and it was common for students to be expected to bring their teachers something, usually an apple (or, later on, a potato).  A little bit from every student added up to a lot in a very short time.

Did teachers thus have to sustain themselves on apples?  Yes and no.  The apple trees in colonial America were not the well-bred apples that had been cultivated for millennia in Asia and Europe.  These were planted from apple seeds.  You could do the same thing, if you wanted, and get the same uncertain result: apples that taste nothing like the fruit they came from, and that are most likely bitter.  The only way to grow existing varieties of apples is to take buds or branches from existing trees and graft them onto other apple trees.  A tree that springs from an apple seed could potentially produce a good-tasting apple, but you couldn’t count on it.  You can bet teachers didn’t eat these; no one would.

Bad-tasting apples are good for one thing: pressing into hard cider.  The early colonies had the same problem that plagued Americans for their first three centuries: no reliable access to clean water.  So if you’re going to get the fluids you need to stay alive, hard cider was your best bet, since germs didn’t survive the fermentation process.  It was normal for colonists to rely on hard cider or beer for hydration, and as someone who’s had to deal with classrooms full of children all day, good, strong drink is sometimes an absolute necessity.

As time went on, plumbing and water treatment improved, so you didn’t have to drink alcohol if you didn’t want to.  There were also good-tasting apples available for consumption by the 19th century.  However, the apple’s reputation as a source of alcohol hounded it still.  Since you could make hard cider from apples, it was often assumed that people with access to apples would do that.  The famous anti-alcohol crusader Carrie Nation had it in for apples, too.  Carrie Nation is best remembered for charging into bars with an axe and smashing the establishments up, due to her firm belief, in step with the Temperance Society, that alcohol will mean the corruption and the downfall of society.  It’s less remembered that Nation would take her axe to apple trees, as well, knocking them down in the name of making America sober again (though it never really was sober in the first place).

It was around this time that America’s apple growers realized they had an image problem, and started a public relations campaign for the fruit.  Advertisements featuring healthy, happy, active children started to flood magazines and public spaces.  Patriotic themes, too.  It’s around this time that the expression “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” gained currency.  It’s true that it started out as a folksy aphorism dating back to Roman times, but it made its way into regular use in the 1920s, when apples’ image was on the upswing.

Image result for northwest apple advertisementsImage result for northwest apple advertisements

Today, Americans typically think of the non-alcoholic version of cider first.  Hard cider has had a rocky road in America, going from its original place as essential to survival to the tipple of the backwoods drunkard to a menace to society, it managed to reform itself by losing its alcohol.  In recent years, hard cider has made something of a comeback, available in many bars and supermarkets, riding on the same wave of success that the craft beer revolution seems to be enjoying.  It’s almost like a corruption of a once-wholesome fruit.  But the apple, like many of us, has a checkered past, with some good and some questionable history.  Is it an angel or a devil?  That’s an awful lot to ask of a fruit.

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