For the first few days at school, I got to know the teachers at my elementary school by eating lunch with them in the teacher’s lounge. They’re a fun bunch of people who exchange stories about their students and their lives, and they welcomed me right away. As I’ve mentioned, a handful of them were teaching at the school when I was a student, but none actually taught me. (My teachers still live locally, however, so I’m in the process of getting in touch.)
When I moved on from kindergarten to first grade, I missed the kindergarteners and thought it would be fun to start eating lunch with them in the cafeteria. I also thought it would be only fitting for me to buy “hot lunch.” When I was a student, the only day I’d buy hot lunch every week was Friday: Pizza Day. It just so happens that Friday is still Pizza Day, so I paid my $3.50 for an adult lunch and stepped up to the lunch line.
The crates of milk were just inside the door as they always have been, but as I mentioned, chocolate milk is now available every day instead of just on Wednesdays. As you can see in the photo, the chocolate:regular milk ratio is 2:1, and I’m surprised that any kid would choose regular. I certainly went for the chocolate myself, though an ill-advised sneak at the label revealed that it contained corn syrup. Dedicated to “method lunching,” I decided to drink it anyway.
When I got in the food line, expecting to see those familiar squares of cheese pizza, I saw hot dogs. I eat red meat occasionally but shy away from hot dogs — which, according to a Trivial Pursuit card burned into my memory, are naturally olive green in color. It was unfortunately a little too late to get my $3.50 back, and I hadn’t brought any food with me. I felt that familiar sense of indignation, when I didn’t like what was being served for lunch, but I couldn’t do anything about it.
“We barbecue the first and last weeks of school,” she said. “It’s a special occasion.” She must have seen the disappointment on my face, because she added, “Luckily, they’re chicken dogs.”
I perked up. The principal, who was graciously helping serve lunch that day, gave me an extra helping of peppered macaroni salad, a slice of watermelon, and a chocolate chip cookie. At the end of the counter there were bowls of fresh fruit, mini bags of carrots, and boxes of raisins, all for the taking; I was happy to see a broader, healthier selection than we’d had in the 80s.
My kinders — or “kinder posse,” as I think of them — called my name. Erin, the one I helped to deliver the gingerbread man for baking, scooted over to make room on the bench for me. This little girl is going to be Homecoming Queen and go on to run a company one day; she’s more articulate and confident than many adults I know. I secretly feel honored that the Queen Bee of kindergarten has chosen me as a friend and confidante. That day, Erin informed me that she now had four boyfriends, all classmates.
“Do they know that they’re your boyfriends?” I asked her.
“No, they don’t know. I just sneak up on them like this,” she said, tiptoeing behind the back of one oblivious 5-year-old boy.
The kids kept prodding me with their fingers to get my attention, asking me to open their string cheese packets, and saying things like, “Guess what? I have a dog.” I barely had started eating when the 15-minute kinder lunch window ended, and the kids were ushered out to recess. The second and third graders filed in immediately afterward, right on cue, to take the next shift.
I stayed at the table to finish my lunch, surprised that the food tasted so good, the buttery cookie in particular. The hot dog wasn’t half bad, especially with relish and ketchup, and the pepper in the macaroni salad gave it an original flavor. The flailing arms of the kinders had slid my watermelon wedge onto the table, and I left it untouched, following one of the cardinal rules in education: No matter how hungry you are, never eat anything that has touched kids’ fingers or their tabletops.
The best part of the meal was the chocolate milk, that thick, rich chocolatey goodness packed into a tiny carton. Turns out that the secret to the thickness is….corn starch. Yum. I drank half, enjoying it thoroughly, and pitched the rest.
I’d hoped to continue eating with my kinder posse every day, but as I moved into second grade this week, I realized that the second graders have a later lunch. Yesterday, by the time I got to the cafeteria, my crew of little friends had gone to recess, and I had a mini-flash of lunchroom anxiety about where to sit when I didn’t know anyone. Luckily, I spotted some of the kids from the class with whom I’d spent the morning, and they made room for me. One girl’s mom had written her a note: “For a beautiful girl on this beautiful morning, enjoy the sunshine today! Love, Mom.” I remembered how much it meant to me to get notes like that from my mom in my lunch bag.
The noise in the cafeteria swelled, and the “yard duties” blew their whistles to no avail. One began to yell at everyone to keep quiet, and the kids and I looked at each other with wide eyes and tight lips, as if to say, “Don’t make her mad, or else.” After a pause, soft chatter began again and grew to a clamor, kids chewed the fried part off of their eggrolls and pushed away the rest, and a river of spilled chocolate milk began to flow under the table.
It’s comforting to know that, even after 23 years, some things never change.