Ask any shy Middle School student his or her definition of hell and I’ll bet it won’t be the P.E. days where the sadistic teacher chooses dodge ball or the math class in which everyone seems to speak a foreign language of angles and theorems. I’ll be that if shy Jenny or overweight Jason were to really think about the one period of the day that’s most dreaded they’d agree it was the lunch period.
The lunch period! Heck, many of us were only able to endure the morning at school by thinking of the lunchroom! Okay, I’ll admit that I’m thinking of the days when school cooks were allowed to use real food like butter, salt, and un-transubstantiated fat, where the ice cream was made with actual milk and ketchup had not yet become a vegetable. But for most of us the noonday meal at school was a welcome respite from a day of chalk dust and number two pencils.
If indeed those are your memories of public school lunch periods then you were one of the fortunate chosen. No substratum of our society is as coldly and firmly designed as the Middle School pecking order. And of course the same can be said of elementary and high school, but there’s something about the hormonal afterburners kicking in at about age 12 that makes everything more intense, more dramatic, more hellish.
I no longer teach Jr. High but my work in various area schools causes me to spend a good deal of time walking through school cafeterias, and it’s as if some cruel artist has painted the same scene in every lunchroom. There will no doubt be one or two or several students who sit alone each day, staring at their tray, hoping not be noticed while hoping to be noticed. The sizes and shapes may vary and but the feeling, the terrible gut-wrenching loneliness will be the same from school to school. Many of these students opt to skip the lunchroom altogether, choosing instead to sit quietly in the hallway where their isolation isn’t quite so public.
It breaks my heart. It really does. Why doesn’t the supervising teacher or some caring adult jump in and friendly things up a bit? I suppose that most would say that their hands are full. Cafeteria supervision isn’t a coveted job in any school. I hope that’s not just an excuse.
Much has been made of the bullying problem in recent years and most workshops and articles focus on cyber-bullying, name-calling, and harassment, but buddy there’s no more common form of bullying than silence and inattention. You don’t have to be a mean kid to let a little boy sit alone during his lunch. You simply have to be unaware. Like so many things it simply comes down to caring.
Am I being to dramatic when I notice that most school violence is tracked back to someone that the authorities later characterize as a “loner”? Okay, let’s be less dramatic and simply ask ourselves if there’s a single thing we have to do today that’s more valuable than making the life of someone else easier.
And if you only listen to numbers, then consider the cost of ignoring the problem. According to the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the cost of truancy, suspensions, vandalism, drop outs, alternative placement, and expulsions can cost a large school district $2 million a year.
I won’t end on this. Instead, let me tell you about these three girls. I know them well as they are members of my Lincoln Land theatre class while they also attend high school. I don’t know what started this or exactly when it began, but some time ago they took it upon themselves to seek these lonely eaters out, to purposely invite them to pick up their tray and move on over, and in some cases to simply move to sit around the lonely child. These girls couldn’t be called “losers” in anyone’s book. Rather, they are top kids in their high school, the leaders, a part of the “in” crowd. They didn’t organize or plan it, they didn’t have matching “No Child Left Alone Eating Lunch” t-shirts, and frankly they didn’t see anything remarkable about their actions. They simply saw a need and did something about it. I don’t know how many millions public education spent to fight bullying last year, but these three girls came in way under that figure.
I wouldn’t even have known about this little miracle of compassion if I hadn’t ask the class a question about times they’d seen kindness in action and one of their friends said, “Yeah. Every day when Cydney and her friends go eat with kids.” So where does that sort of grassroots caring start? Sorry, but I hate mincing words: they learned it from their parents, their first and most powerful teachers.