I have no memories of the lunch ladies from my childhood. I remember a large ice cream scooper slopping mealy mashed potatoes onto my plastic, segmented tray. Then watching the spuds mushed down with the back of the scoop so the next gal with a ladle-dripping helping of gravy could fill up the well.
But sadly I have no recollection of the hands (or faces) that fed me.
The lunch ladies were mere props to my friends and me — the scenery of the grand cafeteria stage. Maybe it was because they never left their positions behind the counter. Or perhaps they grew weary of trying to get students to say “thank-you” or “please.” Or maybe I was a regular kid and didn’t pay attention to them because they were adults.
Recently, I volunteered again to assist in my kids’ cafeteria for one shift. That’s six grades of hungry, loud children filing in and out for three hours. Sound like sensory overload? Yes, but I remembered from previous years that I was up for the challenge.
The first year I volunteered, my young girls and I had just completed reading “Junie B. First Grader … Boss of Lunch” for our bedtime story. Barbara Parks’ “Junie B. Jones” books always made us laugh. In this one, Junie befriends the lunch lady of her elementary school. “Gladys Guffman” was an affable character, who was mentioned in several other books. Any child who loved this popular series knew of her.
Dressed for the part, I donned an apron, reading glasses and a hair net. I was what they call in the food service world, “One hot dish.”
“Ma’am, parents don’t need to wear a hair net,” whispered the head cook from the kitchen.
“I’m Gladys Guffman, the lunch lady.” Crickets began their faint song. “You know the gal from the Junie B. Jones books?” Still nothing.
Apparently, the staff had never read the books, so I skulked over to clean tables and spills for the remainder of my shift.
This year, I decided to be more present with the children. I didn’t really know where that was going to take me; but I knew if I closely observed their patterns, a story for my Goofy Bucket List was bound to arise.
I was assigned the condiment cart. This is an area where all the children come after purchasing their food — if they need ketchup, butter, salad dressing and/or utensils.
After watching what every child grabbed, I thought I would speed up the process by making “packets” for the kids, consisting of a plastic spoon and fork, a straw and an extra napkin. This way I could interact with each child.
As I handed them their packet, they looked up at me surprised and thanked me for their disposable gift. What a fun experience this would be!
That is, until the kindergartners arrived.
Such sweet, darlings they are at that age. However, little did I know the youngest of the students would dis me. Not one of the kindergartners would take a packet from me.
“Would you like a packet?”
Without acknowledgment, they would forage to find a fork before hustling away from me.
“Do you need a straw or napkin?” I asked in my sweetest tone to the back of their heads.
Not even an answer. They clammed up, maneuvered around my extended hand to take the same things I was trying to hand them. Perhaps these kids were well taught to avoid talking to strangers. Maybe they had to stay on task like their teacher asked of them. Possibly they were demonstrating their independence by giving me the cold shoulder.
Damaged and betrayed, I turned my frown upside down and quickly added more “fun” to my job. I started charging the other grades for napkins and ketchup. I was just playing with them, not conning them.
However, I quickly learned not to use sarcasm unless the kid is in third grade. Many younger kids shot me the evil eye. A few yelled at me that it wasn’t fair or constitutional (or something like that). And then there were the sweet things who rolled their eyes at me, to preview their superior adolescent skills. Much luck to their parents in middle school!
By the end of my cafeteria experience, I had learned some important life lessons. No two kids are alike, sporks need to make a comeback for being the greatest eating utensil, and never order the mashed potatoes.
Other than that, I was glad to get out of there after my three hours. Also, I’m thankful there are people willing to take on these tedious roles. Because for them, it’s all gravy!