We swarmed into the cafeteria, the lunch ladies at attention behind a stainless steel counter. They wore the uniform of the seventies: Tight polyester pants that zipped up the back and oversized button up shirts. The first woman reached for a molded plastic tray and spooned a watery portion of wrinkled peas into one compartment before sliding the tray to her left where another woman with a hair net scooped questionable-looking meat onto white hamburger buns. A third dished up Tater Tots, while a fourth ladled chicken noodle soup into green melamine bowls. The final woman in the line set out squares of Jell-o on white paper plates, little chunks of fruit trapped within, on top a flower of hardened whipped cream that invariably fell off. The Jell-o wriggled dangerously on the paper plate as I lifted it to my tray before reaching into the plastic cylinders housing the knives, forks, and spoons that never seemed to be clean. I pulled a napkin from the holder and carried my tray to the table, hoping that I would make it to my seat without sloshing the soup onto my Tater Tots. At the table, my friends and I laughed chocolate milk through our noses and smashed the peas into a thick paste.
A lunch lady approached our table, frowning as she mopped up the milk with the standard issue gray dishrag she wore slung over her shoulder. She jabbed an angry finger at the peas. “That’s a sin. People are starving.”
We surreptitiously rolled our eyes and bit our lips to contain our laughter. As she walked away, we giggled at her outfit, the pouch of her belly, her graying hair and the tired lines beneath her eyes.
The bell rang. I stood and carried my tray to the garbage, pouring the soup into a plastic tub reserved for that purpose before banging the tray against the inside of the trash bin to remove the smashed peas. “I’ll never be a lunch lady,” I vowed as we filed out of the cafeteria, leaving behind our spilled soup, our paper straws, our dirty spoons and trays. “Ever.”
* * *
It’s a Thursday. That can mean only one thing: I drive to school and don my Yankees cap. In four separate assaults, a tidal wave of hungry Neanderthals swoops in, arms wide open, scooping up everything in sight, leaving the lunch line bare until I get a chance to restock it. I rush around the kitchen in my sweat pants and baggy shirt, clipping bags of chips to the rack; setting Styrofoam bowls of crinkle cut fries under the heat lamp; neatly stacking cartons of milk, juice and iced tea. Gone are the soybean burgers and the half-frozen filet of fish sandwiches: This lunch is designed with the kids’ preferences in mind. Everything is à la carte. And they never seem to stop eating.
Unseen, I weave between the kitchen and the cafeteria, washing trays and wiping tables. I frown at the boy smearing a sausage patty on the floor. I open milk cartons, make change, unzip lunch kits. I wonder what the kids think of me as I walk through the cafeteria, picking up a half-eaten strawberry from the floor and wiping up spilled syrup. The lunches may have changed. But the lunch lady is the same: Invisible. Unimportant. Irrelevant.
I’m ashamed, thinking back to the years when I mocked the woman I would become, stripping away the textures of her life to judge her from the cloudy perspective of a twelve year old. How quickly have I judged people in the past? And how quickly do I judge them still? How many people have I missed knowing based upon one snap judgment?
A group of girls sits at a table near the back, giggling and sharing a soft pretzel, tearing off bits and popping them carelessly into their mouths. At the end of the table, there’s a girl sitting all alone, a circle of seats surrounding her like ocean waters containing an island of loneliness. She picks halfheartedly at her food, her chin in her hand, her eyes downcast. She glances at the girls and twists a length of hair around her finger. The girls roll their eyes and giggle behind their hands. I want to yell at them; to tell them to stop being so mean. But I know it’s a lesson they must learn on their own: One day, they’ll be invisible too. Then they’ll understand.
I slide into the seat across from the girl. “That’s a pretty dress,” I say, smiling.
She looks up and brightens. The sounds in the cafeteria recede. I ignore the trays that need washing, the tables to be wiped. “It’s a good color on you.”
“Thanks.” She flashes me a smile and straightens in her seat. She picks up her sandwich and takes a bite.
I feel the other girls watching us and smile. Kindness is not quantifiable. It cannot be graded. It won’t ever appear on a standardized test. But perhaps, if served up enough, children will learn to recognize it…and to pass it down the line.
“See you next week,” I tell the girl, getting up to wipe the tables.
The trays are washed. The tables are cleaned. The cafeteria is silent.
I take off my hat, fluff up my hair and step out into the sunshine.
Labels: Growing up