Thursday, September 14, 2006


They bounce off each other like gas molecules. Imagine holding helium in your hand, or putting a swarm of gnats in your lap.

Some need so much. Scared, quiet, overwhelmed. Some are bossy and some are rebellious. One boy already spits like an old man with a 40 year Skoal habit.

How can this petulant five year old girl with a teen mom be so secure in herself, so in charge of her universe, when my five year old will not let go of my hand until the last minute? What did that teen mom get right that I, with age, education, and money, could not give my boys?

How do the grown ups who run their school universe keep the wild ones in order without terrorizing the shy ones? Convey both kindness and total authority?

How many new disabilities are there now? Every kind of sensory integration dysfunction, and they need to work it out and be part of the system. You look at some of these kids and you think, surely, he must have a diagnosis. But, by the end of the day, in your mind you’ve labeled three fourths of the class. Maybe that number is too high? Maybe not? Does any child get to be five years old and not know that spitting in another child’s face is bad behavior? Unless he has a label?

Some kids can’t tolerate the noise, or the proximity, or the jostling. Some can’t stop making noise, moving near, or jostling.

They tease and bully from the second day. They form alliances. The daughter of the teen mom and the daughter of an older mom are the queen bees, already. They are in their own secret club, smug in their knowledge that they are elementary school royalty. They are deciding already who is weak or a geek, who will sink to the lowest caste.

Some of them bring out the worst in me, sometimes in spite of their obvious need. For all the things I never managed to teach my children, they are courteous to adults. There are kids who show up with matching, stain-free clothes, who come from clean orderly houses, yet, who size up every situation in the terms of what they can get away with. Were they born like that? Does it come from spending the early years in a substandard, understaffed daycare? Kids who act like the only time following basic rules matters is when directly under a teacher’s gaze. The only time you don’t break a rule is when you’ll get caught. These kids irk me in a fundamental way. When they try to smile cutely, ingratiatingly, I see it as manipulation, maybe even when it isn’t. For all my kids’ failings, they learned early not to expect certain manipulative moves to work.

I agreed to help in the lunchroom for the first two weeks. Closing in on the end of the second week, I am eager to be done, but I worry about how the kids will get their milks opened, pack up their garbage, cope. I know they will. They’ll have to. And I know that my kindergartener is learning the drill and shouldn’t run afoul of The Lunch Lady out of ignorance.

And the ignorance is so sad. The Lunch Lady is a Queen of Protocol. Woe to the child who defies her. Is there a better way?

As parents we color our opinions with our memories of our own experiences. If my lunchroom was anarchy, but I liked that, I think all this regimentation is oppressive. If my school lunch times were hell because of the chaos and unruly kids, then I’m apt to think this strict imposition of orderliness is good. It helps the kids focus on eating when they have only a short time to do that. For every kid who thrives with strictness, there’s another who would thrive with more latitude.

For every kid who can comply completely with The Lunch Lady’s demands by the end of the first week, there are 10 who cannot. She uses shame and ridicule to drive home her expectations. I think there’s a better way. Still, I’ve done my two weeks. I could not do her job day in, day out, year in, year out, for even 5 times what I bet they pay her. So can I still criticize her methods? Is that fair.

Sometimes I think we want our own children to be free souls. But we want all those other kids to follow the rules.

The tattletales
If one third of the kids are trouble-makers, another third seem to be tattle tales. I want a child to tell an adult when something is a safety issue. But I think most of them need to butt out on all the little stuff. Most of the tattling doesn’t directly concern the tattler, anyhow.

The timid
The last third are timid. Too afraid to speak, missing their moms and the cozy lunchtime rituals they’ve enjoyed for 5 years. They eat quietly, sadly, some cry. They look like Dickensian orphans, wondering how fate dealt them this cruel hand and placed them here, under The Lunch Lady’s watchful eye. They try to do everything right, but sniffle too loudly when the call for silence goes up. Then the eagle eyes whirl around, looking for the culprit who made the noise. These children break my heart. They wait patiently, quietly, for their tables to be dismissed, while the rowdies at the other end of the table push and cajole. The Lunch Lady passes them by, punishing the whole class for the actions of a few. Finally, she comes to their table, and reminds them all that they have practiced, they should know this by now. The timid ones tremble, hoping to gain freedom on the playground for a short while. In the 10 minutes that they have been waiting, quietly, hopefully, some fidget and look away. The Lunch Lady barks, “Pay attention! Look at me!”

Finally, freedom is granted. Until tomorrow at lunch.


helen said...


Bezzie said...

Yup. I totally get that post. And this is why I have the greatest admiration for teachers.

Honestly though, do kids ever really grow up out of those roles? Sometimes I think it becomes a little more subdued, but not much.

rincaro said...

Oh my. I could have written that post, although not nearly so eloquently. It's so hard when all you want is for your child is to be happy and do well. But there's always so much else going on.

Mea said...

I could have, save for the title, imagined almost the entire article relating to my "kids."

Sophomores and Juniors

They don't really change. . .at least not that I've observed. The only difference is that sometimes, if we're lucky, the older child can come to terms with who they are, who they want to be, and decide if that path will be healthy for them.

If we (and they) are lucky.

About the teen mom. . . I'm sure she doesn't "know" any secret you did not. This may be a cynical observation but I have also worked with teen moms. . . often their children are more independent because they "nurture" differently.

Great post!!

stephanie said...

I work the lunchroom at my children's school once a month. I like it. Most of the kids are polite and remember to clear the table before leaving - including wiping it down! It was a HUGE surprise. There are some kids (3rd to 5th grade) that get a little rowdy, but their teachers take care of it w/o being oppressive - another surprise. The school goes from age 3 through H.S. so I'm seeing a pretty good representation of students.

Up through 1st grade the kids eat in their classrooms but come to get lunch if not bringing it. This way the youngest are in a more familiar environment at lunch rather than in a too big room with unfamiliar people watching over them. At 6th grade the teachers no longer stay with the kids at lunch.

I haven't seen the cliques, though they are likely present. Nor have I seen any outright exclusion. The school's policy is "You cannot say you cannot play" so the kids learn to accept (or at least tolerate) kids that might have a harder time.

And yes, you are absolutely right that perceptions of school kids are colored by one's own experiences. I despised elementary school - was teased and bullied and made to feel I was the problem. Not putting my kids in public school has helped me (so far). I'm sure that will change as they grow and settle into more fixed friendships, but for now it's working.

I'm sure you know this, but in the end you'll be glad you did lunchroom duty b/c you'll be able to look at these kids at the end of the year (and beyond) and see then become confident and more sure of themselves. This will be especially rewarding with the timid ones.

Sarah said...

Wow....great post.

Nate is a 7th grade teacher and coach and he absolutely loves it. Sometimes though, the kids, the same ones he loves and teaches, get to him.

Lunch Lady really does have a hard job, but she must love it too.

Jenny said...

Wow, you really said a lot there, Elizabeth!

Mitten said...

I leave my first grader in the hands of an aide every day because he got the right diagnosis which gets him the right help. He is sheltered from direct teasing, but I know what is going on behind his back. When he finds out, is he going to be upset? Indifferent? He may not find out because all the rest of the kids speak Spanish to each other. Still, they are already people. They are the people they will be, just not quite fully formed.
This is their future in a microcosm.

Jerry & Maxy said...

Seems to me that's school at any age...