For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we asked you for personal stories about cafeteria culture: the sights, smells, rituals and survival tactics of shared mealtime. Our first essay comes from Katherine Krein of Sterling, Virginia, who works in a middle school in the special education department, helping students in math and science classes. She charts the skills one learns to master over time as the cafeteria poses new and more elaborate challenges.
Learning Cafeteria Culture, Grade by Grade
By Katherine Krein
School cafeterias from my youth are first remembered by their artifacts. I can visualize several things: the hard and heavy rectangular trays, the substantial metal silverware, the breakable plates filled with food, the little milk cartons, and the thin plastic straws. Lunch was paid for with change in our pockets or purses. Learning how to carry the heavy tray in order to balance the plate of food, silverware, and milk was a proud accomplishment for me as a young girl.
Social navigation was the next thing that had to be learned. You had to make friends and form a pact that you would sit together day after day. This could be hard at first if you were the new kid in town. My family moved about every two years throughout my elementary schooling, so I had to be brave and friendly. Trying to fit in would sometimes put me in a morally uncomfortable position. I have a recollection of making friends with a group of girls whose leader was a little mean. I remember one day she put potato chips in the seat of an overweight girl. When the girl sat down and flattened the chips everyone, including me, giggled. This memory still haunts me and fills me with shame.
By junior high school everything became smoother. I had grown, and carrying the full heavy tray became easy. My father’s job no longer required us to move, and we settled into our social surroundings. Knowing where to sit in the cafeteria became routine, and it no longer filled me with uncertainty. But social faux pas were still rather common. I remember sitting across the table from my friend Lisa when somehow milk came shooting out from my straw and ended up in Lisa’s face and hair. I’m not sure how this all transpired, but I am sure that I must have been doing something unladylike. Lisa did not speak to me for the rest of the day, and later in the week she got revenge by flinging peas in my hair and face. We remained friends through it all.
In high school, manners and appearances became more important as I began to view boys in a new way, and I began to notice them noticing me in a different way. Keith was a boy my age who I thought was very cute, and we were sitting across the table from one another. He was playing with his ketchup packet as we talked and flirted, and in an instant the packet burst. Ketchup squirted in my hair and on my face. Shock and surprise turned into laughter. What else could I do? We did end up dating for a while until my interest moved on.
I can barely remember specific foods from my K-12 cafeteria days. In California I loved the cafeteria burritos. Fish was frequently served on Fridays. Pizza is remembered from high school because my sister, two years older than me, could count on me to give her half of mine. Last but not least are memories of the mouth-watering, gooey, sugary and aromatic cinnamon buns. Eating them was such a sensory and sensuous experience.
I have a theory about why I don’t remember more about the food. As a student my brain was bombarded with numerous new and nervous social situations, and I was busy trying to analyze and remember new and complex ideas. Eating was a response to being in the cafeteria, and my primary consciousness was busy with socialization and academic learning. Eating did not require much of my thought.