High school. Cafeteria. Lunch line.
Oh, such terror in my heart.
On Friday Chili Day, I could afford bought lunch, but that meant standing in the lunch line, which was strung with tension, with one of them being where to stand.
The kids in line are too close to me, so I'm uncomfortable. How can I position myself so I'm as far apart from them? When the line moves, if I hold back a bit from the kid in front of me so I have more room, the kid behind me would move closer, which made me move away from such unnerving proximity.
Then, where would I sit? I wasn't cool enough to sit with the nerds. With no empty tables, I had a dilemma. How do I sit somewhere at an end of a table without seeming like I am a part of that group? I wasn't going to sit at the Stoners table. The Cheerleaders or Jocks tables were out of the question.
The Twins table was mostly empty. The girls were long-distance runners who mostly kept to themselves, so I figured I would be safe.
Change of Tactic
For the next semester, I had planned my classes so I had a free period before lunch.
Oh what joy!
In the cafeteria, there were only a few kids studying while eating their white bread sandwiches, with their hands reaching their mouths without ever taking their eyes off of their textbooks.
There was no line, so I confidently took a tray and went up to the counter and asked, "I would like chili and toast, please." The lunch ladies like to talk and laugh with each other, and they were the same with me. I felt safe that they would never hurt me inside.
They made the best chili--better than my mother's. (School lunches were actually cooked from scratch, on-site, in those days.)
It wasn't only the taste I craved, but the eternity of Chili Fridays. It was Friday, so I had to have chili. If they had change it to another day, my world would have been scattered, and I would feel lost.
I asked if my toast could be buttered all the way to the edges. The lunch ladies weren't annoyed, they just smiled and humored me. I paid and went to the side counter to add voluminous amounts of chili power, and my toast beside it was a perfect golden brown with real butter all the way to the edges.
Before I picked up the tray, I turned around and blurted, "You make the best chili ever." I hurried away before conversation ensued.
I took a table of my own and sat in the middle of the long bench. I looked out the glass and saw only a few kids walking along--the girls with their books against their chests and the boys carrying them at their sides.
I let out a breath that carried with it the tension from last semester. My stomach drooped, and my shoulders eased down. I ate slowly now, and it had never tasted better.
Thirty years have passed, and I wonder about the lunch ladies. Maybe some have died, some live at home, and some in nursing homes.
My thankful thoughts go out to them, and hopefully the universe will deliver them so they can feel my gratitude. I am so glad that on that one day, I had told them how wonderful their chili was, because their acceptance was the best seasoning.