I’m standing in a school cafeteria – a place I swore I would never go when I was old enough to refuse going there. It’s still the same. I can smell the steam heating large chafing dishes on the line. Kids excitedly swap snack packs for brownies or transformer gummies for puffed Cheetos – no one dives for the browning bananas. Bright green poster boards motion for SNACKS, drawn in large, capital, permanent marker letters. The garbage cans roll on casters as cafeteria workers push them down the aisles while they gently suggest students refrain from putting open containers back into their lunch boxes. Forks scrape plastic trays, and sneakers shuffle in through the doors. This is my first time joining both girls for lunch here; a treat for surviving the first four weeks of school.
As a student I was overly suspicious of any adult who was patrolling a lunch room. I wondered what they might be thinking and imagined them as they were at my age, properly declaring then that they pledged allegiance to the cafeteria code of conduct. I am thinking of all the decisions that were made before the lunch bell rings that landed all the students on green benches and tables today. Someone went to the grocery store and bought bread and salami or turkey or peanut butter. Someone made the sandwiches, taking care to cut the crusts off or making the time to toast it first in hopes it wouldn’t yield so quickly to mustard or tuna fish.
The students have their own pattern of decisions to make before they pass through any one of the three sets of double doors. What they wore to school or forgot to bring with them may have shaped their morning up to this point. Who they sit with and what they have packed to eat might change the course of the back half of their days.
What surprised me most, as I stood along the wall for a few minutes, was the full fledged authenticity of the characters around me. Squeals of delight following a punchline of a knock knock joke filled the momentary stony silence of two pals unable to agree on a favorite super hero. I watched a tightly clustered handful of kids with eyes wide in rapt attention as another told a story that I can only hope had a dramatic ending befitting its delivery. Because the students around me were very young, I was able to skip the worst parts of the lunchroom. There was no place here for heartbreaking rejection letters served in the sterile confines of neatly folded loose leaf paper. Everyone still believed in inclusion in this crowd. The biggest hurdle to overcome here for the lunch room monitors was getting kids to spend less time talking to each other and more time eating (a scene played out at almost every dinner table with young siblings anywhere).
When you are picking out a school for your child you think that there is a simple formula for success. You check the school’s policies and test scores. You time the commute when the school zone’s lights are flashing and research the mission statement of the organization. You might even do a guided tour before choosing the best fit. Bit by bit you collect what you imagine is a clear picture of the school. What you can’t see from the car line or the letters home or even the homework given is how it feels to be a part of the school. You can’t see the times where Mrs. E bends down to talk calmly to a wayward third grader, or see the kids light up as a favorite teacher gives them a high five. You can’t tell from the scholastic order form that kids are reading their juice box jokes and challenging each other to cheese stick trivia. Slowly these kids are making their tribes and they are doing it in exactly the right place.