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Curtis Duffy's long road to Grace

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How a sullen kid from a troubled home finds first escape and then artistic expression in cooking -- with the help of his middle-school home ec teacher.

How to make a 12 year old boy interested in something:

His teacher, Ruth Snider, knew what to say to middle school boys who thought only girls cooked or sewed. It was an attitude she had seen in many other adolescent boys with machismo to burn.

In her first lesson, Snider promised the officially sanctioned food of 12-year-olds.

All it took for Curtis to get excited about cooking was one word: pizza

By the end of that 45-minute class, Curtis had punched out circles of Pillsbury biscuit dough, slathered on spaghetti sauce, slapped on discs of pepperoni and covered it all with cheese. Cooking provided something lacking in Curtis, he’d later realize: a sense of ownership and control, an illustration of cause and effect. Get your hands in the dough, give a damn about something, and watch results bubbling from the oven 12 minutes later.

Snider witnessed the transformation. In Curtis she saw a boy who put on a hard exterior but behind it was sullen and painfully shy, a student still adjusting from being uprooted. He was all nervous tics, fingers constantly inside his mouth, nails emerging chewed down, arms crossed in a defensive posture. But with every fruit kabob skewered and every cinnamon roll baked, Snider watched his veneer crack, slowly, then in large pieces, until the boy felt safe in the classroom kitchen. Now Curtis actually looked forward to coming to school.

“He saw adults as the enemy, not sure who to trust on the outside,” Snider said. “I know he trusted me.”

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