Before the entryway of the cafeteria opened and an earthquake of children erupted into our little home away from home, all of us lunch ladies stood in a long line. Snarky remarks about certain children we disliked were laid out on the table, spilling from our inner built up discontent with them after catching them stealing once, maybe twice, or spilling milk on the floor and carelessly leaving one of us to clean up after them.
We stood in this line, and anyone who looked at us would’ve thought we were readying ourselves for war. In a way, we were. A high school cafeteria is not much different from combat. But are we the warriors, or are they?
When the kids came piling in, some ran toward us in order to get the first serving of food and a convenient seat near their friends in the cafeteria. Others walked straight over to a seat, lunchboxes swinging to and fro by their legs, their noses curling up at the aroma and sight of the food we prepared. Their favorite conversational topic was how disgusting cafeteria food is and how they’re so glad their parents pack a lunch for them.
Most lunch ladies ignored the kids overall. I, on the other hand, enjoyed watching them and taking in bits and pieces of gossip each day. It was like my own personal soap opera, really. All of the lunches sat in groups and it was rare for us to find a person sitting alone. When we did, I silently rejoiced in the fact that an outcast was present, a possible protagonist. It was as if an author were writing a story directly before my eyes.
The story unfolded much like this: Jim broke up with Kate, Alex spilled milk on Gabe, Casey had cigarettes hidden in her purse. Many don’t know this, but lunch ladies have a sort of secret code during the day; knowing eyes and simple smiles. We don’t often snitch about the things we hear, which is wonderful, because we seep into the background of the students’ everyday lives. All they receive from us is food; they ignore us, we ignore them. Or, at least, I pretend to ignore them.
Gloomy days much like this one are a paradox, clouds hanging from the sky close enough for us to touch. Fog seeped into our thoughts and actions. Yet somehow, it brightened my mood to stand underneath the fluorescent lights in the cafeteria and watch the well-known girls flutter around the cafeteria from table to table, healthy snacks tucked under their arms along with whichever boy they chose this coming week. No matter how gloomy the weather, smiles stayed plastered on their faces; they were invincible, and had no idea. Brand new rain boots sloshed and squeaked around the floor, creating a secret dialogue of who is “in” or who is “out”.
As the line shifted forward and kids handed over crumpled dollar bills and dirty coins to me, the other lunch ladies catapulted into their usual daily routine of making a joke out of how I was “too nice” to the kids. I got to know most of the ladies well throughout the year, others didn’t say a word to me the entire time. The ones I conversed to seemed to be very pessimistic, addressing the students as if they were pests rather than people. As a result of this, my line was always stretched out much longer than the others. I didn’t mind.
Yearly, there were usually a couple children that managed to hold my attention extremely well. Being the sole highlight of my days, they fluttered around the cafeteria as though it were their home. However, upon the year of my current tale, there had been a sort of drought. I found myself hanging on the edge of every word that framed a story of newly dyed hair and orange spray tans. There was an immense lack of specialty, and I was desperate to find entertainment in the form of cafeteria life.
Upon this particularly slow and dismal afternoon, talk of a new student swirled around the room, between tables, through the lunch line, eventually reaching my ears. She had come from a big city, much unlike our own, and her father was somehow well known among the students. Sounding like quite the character, a sense of excitement aroused in my brain and I stifled the urge to ask one of the students when she’d be arriving. Answers soon arrived at my doorstep, seeing as within three days she was punching in her ID number and sliding her tray along my line, numerous people ogling over the simple sight of her.