Once upon a time, I was six years old. We were living in a small tourist-trap town in central Indiana, my parents, older sister, and I.
I was painfully shy, the kind of shy that also involved irrational fears and inexplicable crying jags in public. At the time of this story, I was in first grade at the local elementary school where my sister also attended and our mother was a teacher’s aide. My mom would frequently come across me sitting outside our classroom door, crying with head buried in my hands. She would instantly know that the class was engaging in one of my least favorite and most feared activities — anything to do with balloons or fluoride treatments. Seriously, I was afraid of doing the fluoride treatments in first grade. Don’t ask, I have no idea.
In our school district, only half-day Kindergarten was offered, and I had only been in first grade for a few weeks. I had taken a brown bag lunch every day so far, though I’m actually sure it wasn’t just a brown bag. I’m certain I badgered my mother for some ridiculous lunchbox, complete with metal Thermos, something we probably couldn’t afford. My sister and I had a knack for wearing down our parents for silly purchases.
On one fateful day, I did not bring my lunch to first grade, but instead had to purchase lunch in the school cafeteria, which I can still see in my mind, 24 years later. It was a nice, modern-looking school (modern in 1989 anyway), with a nice cafenasium (cafeteria-gymnasium hybrid). I don’t recall what the lunch menu was that day, because the events that preceeded my meal kinda wiped the rest of the day out of my memory.
Along with my class, I proceeded through the food line, got my little tray, my milk, my well-balanced meal slopped onto my tray, and then exited the kitchen. At that point, I was stopped by the lunchline monitor, a second-grade teacher I didn’t know.
“Well?…What do you need to say?” she barked.
Silence from me.
“Don’t you know what you need to do?”
Again, silence, as tears began to form in my eyes. (Typical.)
“You bought your lunch today and you don’t know what to do now?”
“…I…I *hiccup* I don’t…I don’t knooooooow!!!” I was crying.
“Well you can sit right here next to me until you figure out what to do!”
So I did. I sat down near her at the table, quietly crying while a stream of students who DID know what to do came through the line and dutifully stopped at the teacher and stated their name, waiting for her to check them off of her list.
I don’t remember what happened next. I’m not sure if I ponied up and just told her my name. I don’t know if perhaps my mother or another, kinder teacher came to my rescue. Eventually I ate my lunch, but the whole thing stuck with me. It’s one of those family legends that my mom and I have recounted time and time again through my life. Sometimes the point is how much of a crybaby I was (admittedly), sometimes we focus more on how rotten that teacher was to me (a teacher whose class I ended up in the following year, by the way), and sometimes the details are exaggerated for effect.
This story comes full circle when you realize what my new part-time job is: I’m the Lunch Lady, y’all.
I’m not the hairnet-wearing woman slapping meatloaf onto trays, I’m the clipboard lady, the one who crosses off the names from the master list. And you can bet I am going to do my darndest to make sure no kid feels scared or ashamed because they don’t know what to do when they come through the lunch line. I’m going to be the super sweet, extra happy Lunch Lady who makes sure those scared little first graders don’t have a bad experience in the lunchroom. If I’m going to have a superpower this year, it’s going to be making lunch awesome for our students. Overkill? Perhaps. But I think in some strange way, I’ve been brought to this little job for a reason.
No tears in the lunch line. Not on my watch.