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Slice of life served up in school cafeteria
VITAL TRIFLE, BY LAURI GROSS
Slice of life served up in school cafeteria
Never have there been two words that evoke memories so vivid or emotions so raw as these: school cafeteria. Think about it. When adults recall their school years, they may shake the cobwebs loose from vague memories of teachers, classmates, recess or perhaps even a lesson learned. But ask them about their school cafeteria, and sharp details flood into focus, stories well up from the deepest regions of our brain, and all our senses tell us we are back there, in our school cafeteria.
I remember the apricots in the school cafeteria of my youth. The dastardly apricots sitting innocently in their little paper cups, sliced in half and looking just like peaches. I hate apricots. I hated thinking I was getting a sweet peach and instead getting a horrible apricot. I also remember strawberry milk. Strawberry was the only kind of milk I drank, so every day I brought a packet of strawberry-flavored mix to stir into my milk and make it pink and delicious.
I remember the smell of my childhood school cafeteria and the long, winding staircase that led down, down, down to the room I can still picture clearly.
I remember when I got in trouble for jumping out of my seat when my friend Lynn poked my side. I remember that Lynn did not get in trouble.
I remember the lunch tokens. These were plastic pseudo coins, color coded to indicate which version of the day's school lunch each child intended to purchase. I remember red ones and green ones, and I remember the feel of them and how most were bent and faded from years (generations?) of use.
I remember the ladies who worked in the cafeteria, not as individuals but as a conglomerate of hair nets, unfriendly leers, flabby upper arms and large serving spoons.
I remember the social tension in my high school cafeteria, created by the drama of who was friends with whom on any given day and whether to sit with a boyfriend or avoid an "ex."
I remember eating in the cafeteria and "terrace room" at college, but they bore little resemblance to the establishments officially known as school cafeterias.
Then there were nearly two decades during which I didn't set foot anywhere near a school cafeteria. Eventually, however, my first born entered her first school cafeteria in the first grade, and I was part of the school cafeteria scene once more.
The thing that most defines my kids' school-cafeteria experience is one thing I don't recall at all from mine: proctors. These are adults charged with the task of keeping order in a room of hundreds of children eager for some freedom from the classroom. I could never be a proctor. If it were the last job available and I were the only applicant, I would still not be a proctor. I am not the yelling type, and proctors need to be heard over noisy throngs. I tend to see the humor in the goofy antics of children. Proctors are not known for their sense of humor.
On special occasions, my husband or I would dine with our kids in their school cafeteria. Having teenagers now, it seems remarkable that my kids once eagerly invited us to sit next to them among their friends in their school cafeterias, but they did. During these visits, I'd eat the tomato soup or grilled cheese or tacos, just like the kids, and enjoyed visiting my child and his or her friends.
But it was the proctors who made the events memorable. The proctors -- whom my daughter described as police-officer wannabes -- walked the aisles, admonishing uncivilized behavior, shushing the loud kids, teaching manners to the messy kids and reminding the forgetful kids of the rules. Since every kid is uncivilized, loud, messy and forgetful, the proctors were kept busy indeed. I found myself sitting up straight and making sure I wasn't being loud or that I didn't let my napkin -- or anything else -- fall to the floor.
Long after my kids stopped inviting us to share school lunch with them, I was still able to experience their school-cafeteria atmosphere by becoming a volunteer in the little retail store at my kids' middle school cafeteria, where the PTO sells school supplies and clothing bearing the school logo.
From the table in that little shop, I observed the ebb and flow of life in a middle-school cafeteria. A person can draw many conclusions about teens from watching them in the school cafeteria. The experience serves as a lesson in modern fashion, etiquette and social norms.
Also, it is good if you ever wanted an answer to the following question: Just how much school-cafeteria noise does it take to push the proctors over the edge and cause them to insist on -- TOTAL SILENCE!? Every kid dreads the sentence of total silence in the school cafeteria, yet every kid has to do their part to make the room really, obnoxiously loud in order to achieve the proctor-enforced total silence. It's a cruel irony.
To make things worse, there is something about a sentence of total silence that induces giggles, which infuriates the proctors even more, which makes certain kids giggle more and so on, while the rest of us hold our breath waiting for that bell to ring and release us from the complicated slice of life that is the school cafeteria.
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