Friday, April 22, 2005

The scars from early social trauma: school lunch

Something in the kitchen at work smells like school food. Remember? That cafeteria smell? An odd mixture of bleach and salty meat? Mmmmm. This made me think back to lunchtime at school. I just now realized that lunchtime was always traumatic for me. All the way through school.

Elementary school: they used to file all the kids, class by class, into the cafeteria in a long line. You had to make damn sure you were in line next to your friends or you were screwed. So we would file through the lunch line, get our food, and then file onto those long sticky tables, in the same order in which we stood in line. And if you were unlucky enough to be the last kid on one side? Then tough, your lunch buddy would have to file over to the other side and go all the way to the other end. Every day I would sweat it out, worrying that I was going to be stranded on the end of a table with a smelly boy on one side and a snooty girl across from me. We were totally at the mercy of the teachers who shoved us into line. My whole social life in elementary school depended on luck, pure and simple. I remember this routine distinctly from my elementary school in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. To add insult to injury, after eating, we had recess for 30 minutes or so, and that was a whole other social nightmare to overcome. Anyway, it was probably like that in 3rd and 4th grade, but I don't really remember 5th or 6th; I'm thinking maybe we could "float" and find a space at any table by then. Luckily, it's foggy. Hmmm, just realized I could write a whole other blog entry about Recess and all that I learned in my years hanging on the monkey bars, doing penny drops and cheating death by centimeters, playing Red Rover and coming home with bruises on my arms I had to explain to my parents.

Then there was middle school, which was just plain traumatic in and of itself because we moved to San Antonio in just in time for 7th grade -- and here in Texas, middle school included grades 6-8. In Kansas, we had junior high, grades 7-9. So automatically, in addition to being the new kid in school, I was also thrown into a large school where you had to CHANGE CLASSES and stuff. This was my first locker, and to this very day I have stress dreams about being at school and not being able to find my locker, or worse, forgetting the combination. The other kids at my middle school seemed so much cooler and more sophisticated than I. They had already mastered the whole "middle school" thing and were savvy 7th graders now, allowed to made fun of the dorky 6th graders. I felt like a backwards bumpkin straight off the hay bale in Kansas. These were slick city kids (incidentally, the same kids I'd gone to school with in K-2, before KS, but that's for another day) who wore MAKEUP and designer jeans. It had never even occurred to me to wear makeup. And designer jeans? Well money was tight back then, and while we never ever went without, I had only one pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans I got at Marshall's (ahh, Marshall's, I miss you -- you were the only thing that saved me in the days of Jordache and Izods). Other kids wore Polos and parachute pants and rolled up jeans and penny loafers and "jellies", those weird, cheap plastic shoes. (Actually, I was totally down with the Jellies, because you could get them for like $3 at Walmart.) The girls carried purses. PURSES! I didn't know anyone in KS that carried a purse but my mom. It was humiliating, all the things I didn't know.

And lunch in middle school was, of course, still just as dreadful. Determined not to be stuck eating alone my first day in middle school, I hurriedly and carelessly befriended a girl in whatever class I had right before lunchtime. This girl was a smart kid who had been moved ahead a grade, so she was actually a year younger than me. I got stuck being her "best friend" until 9th grade, our freshman year in high school, when I stole the boy she had a crush on. And folks, I'm not proud, but that was one of the most triumphant moments of my adolescence, as this girl had terrorized and degraded me for 3 years. Looking back on it, she was the first overtly passive aggressive person I ever knew. To hide her own insecurities about being younger, she continually put me down and made me feel even more uncool than I already was. She isolated me and made herself my only real friend, and made me feel like I was lucky to have her. (Gosh. Cult, anyone?). This behaviour spurned a lot of pent up resentment, and it all came out that fateful day in 9th grade when Chris kissed me in the alley by the cemetary. But that is another story.

High school. Here's where lunches got REALLY horrifying. Because now, there were two lunch periods -- Early Lunch and Late Lunch. And you were totally at the mercy of the computer that generated your schedule, you had no choice in the matter. So every year, it was a crapshoot whether you'd have the same lunch as all your friends. Luckily, I only got screwed on this one year -- but it was my senior year. My boyfriend and our little group had early lunch and I had late. My best friend (this was Ann, the middle-school girl was long gone) was in the work program, so she left every day before lunch to go be a receptionist somewhere. So here it was, my senior year in high school, and I had no one to eat lunch with. I dreaded lunch more than ever. I begged Chris to skip his class and spend at least a few minutes at lunch with me. He did this too often and didn't graduate on time -- but that, too, is for another day. Occasionally we would sneak off campus and go to his house where he'd make me fried ham sandwiches. Our relationship was tumultuous, as always, with dramatic breakups and makeups. So at some point I started eating lunch with The Mexicans. They were a group of yes, Mexican girls, who were Ann's friends really, but tolerated me because I was her friend. Tolerate is really the perfect word for what they did. They let me stand behind them in the lunch line and try to make small talk. They allowed me to sit by them, at the end of the table. There was one girl, Marie, who I talked to in Biology a lot, but when she was with this group, she treated me like an outsider. There was the tall, mean girl, Lucy, who never spoke to me, not once. She wasn't really mean, just...cold. Sylvia was my best bet, as she and Ann and I hung out sometimes, but it just wasn't really comfortable ever and I always felt like a tagalong. As the year got harder and extraneous events occurred that I won't go into right now, I eventually had my mom write a note to the school saying I could drive home for lunch every day. We had a closed campus, so this was a big deal. Thank you, mom. I hated lunch.

Well this is long. Who knew I had that much pent up stuff to say about school lunches! On a lighter note, my favorite lunch was always the chicken-fried steak with those fluffy fake mashed potatoes and canned green beans. And a roll -- always a roll. A yummy, soft roll that I would split in half and stuff w/ my CFS, making a crude sandwich. It was delightful. I also really liked School Pizza. Remember? The rectangles of frozen pizza wrapped in cellophane, sold by the slice? Loved it. Pizza Hut has nothing on School Pizza.

Well, that's all I have to say about school lunches.
What was your favorite school food?

1 comment:

sarah said...

Mmmmm...drool. I WISH I knew how to make pizza so yummy. Maybe I need to get a second career as a cafeteria lunch lady. Then I could serve everything with an icecream scoop.

As for lunch memories, I got over my favorite lunchtime food in 7th grade (seasoned curly fries) by having to go immediately to gym class and run a mile in Texas heat. I never puked, but I always thought I was on the verge.