(This post is written in response to my second Small Assignment.)
I honestly don’t have many memories of my elementary and middle school lunches, but the few that I have are important.
I remember a classmate named Stuart breaking a lunch tray over another student’s head while the whole cafeteria full of kids shouted “Fight! Fight!” I did not actually see the lunch tray being broken, because I remained seated at the table, hunched over my sandwich, until it was over, willing the violence to come to an end, scared that somehow the violence would bleed onto me.
I also remember that Stuart did not graduate from high school with me, and it wasn’t because he moved.
I remember approaching the cafeteria with a certain dread. The school building in which I attended elementary and middle school was a three-floor building with carpeted hallways. The carpet color coded the floors. The top floor was red, or rather burgundy. Burgundy was kindergarten, first and second grades. Blue was the middle floor, and third, fourth, and fifth grades. The school cafeteria was also located on the floor with the blue carpet. The green floor was sixth, seventh and eighth grade. The green floor was in the basement. Keep the inmates as far from the door as possible.
So I remember approaching the cafeteria, staring down at the dingy blue carpet, turning the corner and smelling the stale, greasy smell of cafeteria food. Most days, I brought my own lunch, with a turkey sandwich, carrots, and some kind of fruit, so I didn’t need to stand in line. I would go straight to the tables. Some of the tables were round, eight-top tables, where, if you had eight friends to sit with, you could occupy an entire table. Those tables, though, filled up very quickly. In all my years at that school, I almost never sat at the eight-top round tables. The other tables were long tables with built-in stools. The stools were uncomfortable, and the tables always smelled like industrial cleaner. Often the stools broke. The worst possible scenario walking into the cafeteria was that you would end up being required to sit on a broken stool at the long table. The jagged plastic would dig into your thighs, and if you were wearing a skirt, it would snag your tights. I hated those seats, and I always seemed to be the person who ended up sitting on them, because at the time, I hadn’t yet learned how to advocate for myself.
My final memory in this montage is of one teacher, who always seemed to have lunch duty. Her name, paradoxically, was Miss Sunny. So far as I can tell, Miss Sunny was about a thousand years old, and was there forever. I don’t actually know what she taught, as the only time I ever saw her was in the lunch room. She took a zero-tolerance approach to noise, with a husky voice that had to have been shadowed by years of cigaret smoking. When the volume got just a little too loud, she would flap her arms as if she was about to take off and yell, “WHOA.” If the noise did not immediately stop, she would impose silent lunches, during which every child in the cafeteria was required to sit and eat lunch in total silence, under threat of detention and a call to the parents.
I was a good kid in school. I was even a bit of a teacher’s pet, and so the very idea that I might get detention for sneezing a little too loud during a silent lunch scared the pants off of me. When the volume in the cafeteria started to go up, I would focus all of my efforts on being quiet, thinking that maybe, if I were quiet enough, I could compensate for the loud kids who were sitting at the round tables with their seven friends.
It never worked.
Eventually, I finished middle school, as most of us do, and went to high school. There, I learned the joy of eating lunch in the band room with a group of other kindred spirits – other kids who had been forced to eat lunch in silence while sitting on the edge of a broken plastic stool. Together, we would have filled up an eight-top round table or two. But I still really hate the thought of that blue carpet.