It was my first time ever eating lunch at school, away from home.
I unfolded wax paper to reveal an overfilled egg sandwich: this was my mother’s sandwich for every family outing. Always.
I started to cry. I was seven years old, sitting in a big room called the “gym” – the basement of the rambling, brick three-storey building called Hawkesbury Public School. Big pillars in this “gym” were wrapped in foam strips held in place by yards of duct tape. All the kids sat in rows in metal chairs, eating their lunches in silence. The smell of my sandwich drifted down the rows of kids.
I wanted my mommy.
And then: fear. The principal had seen me and was coming over.
“Don’t you like what’s in your lunch,” he asked?
(In case you have not guessed, the time stamp for this story is the 1960s.)
The little me who knew everything, thought, “Another adult who doesn’t see what’s going on.”
I breathed in my snuffling sobs and for good measure, stuffed the sandwich in my mouth and took a bite, shaking my head. He took his hand away from my shoulder, where he had placed it for reassurance, and moved on.
He had work to do. You see, you could throw out plastic wrap and wax paper, but NOT if there was so much as a crust left inside.
He stood and watched as each child left. He watched every single crumpled-up ball of wax paper as it was dropped tentatively into the garbage can.
What? A crust in there? He would seize the child’s wrist and say, “I think there is still some food in there.” The child had to return to a seat, uncrumple the paper and eat the now smushed-up bread or partially-consumed apple.
I used to wonder why anyone tried to get away with that. It was pointless.
I read recently that your school lunch said something about your family; it was an indicator that everything was okay.
But I think my lunch said something about me.
That egg sandwich thing was a one-off: a send-off for this first day of lunch-eating at school. Peanut-butter and jam was what I ate the next day and every day for all the years I attended Hawkesbury Public School. I was what you call a “picky” eater.
And I didn’t like anything related to food – at school.
My next challenge came at milk-time.
I can only guess that giving each child a small carton of milk every day was a school board effort to keep us healthy before the advent of breakfast programs. After the cartons of milk were distributed, the teacher could decide when everyone should be finished. If you still had milk left to drink, you had to stand at the front of the class to drink it.
In addition to not liking milk (see picky eater, above) I was also shy. This was not a happy confluence of events.
That first day, standing at the front of the class with my unfinished milk, I died a thousand deaths. I imagined the teacher resuming teaching while I stood there, probably all day. I simply could not swallow.
One by one, the other slow drinkers finished their milk and returned to their seats. But there I stood, until some part of me took charge and I was finally able to swallow the rest of my milk.
I went home that night and practised drinking …. fast, with a straw. I taught myself to drink a big glass of anything – in one big gulp.
This is a cute snapshot of a small person trying to figure things out.
In all my picky habits, my shyness and my fear, I did not like the idea of being forced to sit and do like everyone else. Yet I was determined to avoid standing out from the crowd.
Somewhere back there was the beginning of independence, of knowing it was all up to me to assess and meet scary forces head-on and figure out what I had to do to take my place – even while I was figuring out just what my place was.
I’m still a picky eater and more of a thinker than one to stand at the front of the class.
But I don’t worry like I used to. It is seldom now that I get that small feeling that I used to get as a child. I mostly trust that there is a way to figure things out and unlikethat seven-year-old, I now know that most things are not about me.
Perhaps the best part of growing up is knowing that we are only in this day for a fleeting moment; we cannot predict what comes and things are always changing, we are always learning, even if it seems that we are stuck.
Yes, I am still me, but maybe: a little different, too, every day.
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