A discipline previously known as Home Ec can sometimes feel like a backwater, particularly in an era that glorifies all things STEM. Lori Peck, who teaches Family and Consumer Science at Ridgefield High School, never saw it that way.
A teacher for 29 years, Peck learned through adversity that happiness rests on being able to adapt to the unexpected. Throughout her career, she has engaged students of all genders and academic levels in cooking, sewing, gardening and interior design as skills for adapting, surviving and having fun in a changing world. Little did she know that a global pandemic would turn her into a prophet.
“My discipline was very important for the pandemic,” she said. Affluent, two-income Ridgefield parents accustomed to ordering out learned from their teenagers how to make dinner from whatever was in the pantry – a skill Peck had taught them as “college survival.” Her students drew on their gardening skills as families grew their own vegetables.
“People had to turn dining rooms into classrooms. That’s interior design,” she said. “People dragged out sewing machines and started sewing masks."
Last year was about knowing how to survive, get along with each other, cook a meal. It became how are we going to get through this time together.
Peck founded one of the most popular courses at Ridgefield High, Human Development, examining how individuals and families shape each other through biology, psychology and sociology. Moving through every stage of life, from conception to death, she created a safe space for kids to talk about sexuality, race, class, genetics, family dynamics and more, helping her almost uniformly white and affluent students to place their lives in a larger context than Ridgefield.
To illustrate how poverty affects development, Peck randomly assigned students an income, from poor to super-rich, and asked what they could afford to feed a family. “I had students complain, `Mrs. Peck, this isn’t fair. How come so and so gets to eat good stuff and I don’t?’ It was a light bulb moment,” she said.
She also paired each student with a senior citizen as a mentor, to lend insight into every stage of life as the class progressed. “We would talk on the phone for hours,” wrote one student, who remained close to her mentor through college. “I do not remember even half of what I learned in textbooks or Power Points during my four years of high school, but that mentorship program is something I will never forget.”
The Ridgefield School District named Peck its Teacher of the Year for 2021, an award she received in June of 2020, in honor of the powerful relationships she has built with students and faculty. “She sparks interests the kids never knew they had,” said Lori Gross, the principal at the time.
That is precisely what Peck aspires to do. Her inspiration was her mother, at whose side she learned to grow and can vegetables, sew her own clothes, knit ponchos, and much more. Despite financial hardship, “she used her talents to make our lives rich,” Peck wrote in an essay for the Teacher of the Year judges. “My teacher, advisor and best friend,” she called her.
A catastrophic tragedy rearranged all this. Peck’s father, hospitalized with severe depression in 1999, went home on a three-hour pass, murdered her mother and killed himself. “When the fog of grief began to clear, I resolved to not live the bitter life of victimhood. I resolved to channel the best of my mother into all I did,” she wrote in the essay. With awareness born of tragedy, she worked to understand what every student needed from her. “I’ve found no technique more effective for motivating learning than building personal relationships with my students.”
Drawing on the perspective she brings to her classes, Peck has an unusually optimistic view of the coming school year. Her confidence, amid national apprehension about learning loss, is born of adaptation to yet another tragedy.
Peck and her husband live in Newtown, scene of the massacre of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. One of their three daughters was in high school at the time. “She lost her sophomore year, and part of her junior year, just with grief, sadness, trauma,” Peck said. “Every kid in the district was traumatized, and every kid differently. Is she okay now? Yes. Did it happen overnight? No. It didn’t happen for anybody overnight."
“What we’ve gotten from the pandemic is a greater appreciation of each other, of Nature, of the beauty of a walk, of being with friends, and how wonderful it is to see grandma again after not seeing her a year. Every teacher is going to have to adjust, absolutely. Every parent. Every kid. But we’ve been doing that. We’ve been learning how to adapt.”