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Half-Hour Lunch

Posted: 2008-07-03

In my middle school, lunch was 27 minutes, and the union lost the argument that this 27 minutes should NOT include "passing time," so, in reality, lunch was more like 22 minutes--if we were lucky and did not encounter--or acknowledge--any hallway difficulties during the race to lunch. Gulp.

But as this remarkable piece points out, the actual time for lunch is symptomatic of something much more crucial.

from Babel Fruit, Summer 08.

Snacks wait at ends of hallways inside black-grilled dispensers: stimulations of craving what becomes most wanted. You pray machines wonât devour coins or bills. Curse when money disappears, when a wrapper gets stuck on its way down, hangs shiny mockery in full view. Thereâs sadness in eating at school. Sadness in not eating, in cues to eat, hungry-or-not, now-or-never. The industrial bell signals lunch break, nutrition break, passing period. This is the suburbs. Itâs the inner city. Itâs the inner city inside the suburbs.

Food gets hidden away before and after those bells, hoarded, slipped into backpacks, sweatshirts, purses. Sneaked in, like drugs or weapons. Student points a chicken strip or quesadilla instead of an index finger, a blade or gun, instead of voicing interesting complaints or reaching for a napkin. Learns to compensate. To stuff it. Teachers who themselves canât stop moving begin class with bagel in hand, a giant mug of coffee or Big Gulp of Sprite. âPut that food away,â they tell the kids. âWhen youâve got this job, then you can eat in class, too.â

School food breeds strange violence, conditions and repeats binge-purge rhythms. I have no time to eat. I want to eat all the time.

Still, the newspapers wonder: Where do bullies come from?

Salivating and fidgeting hide the sadness. The bell rules, its gentle brutality internalized like a biological fact--interrupting and pre-interrupting all day. Anything in its path: girl bending to sip from water fountain, boy copying geometry theorems, men screwing parts in a broken copy machine, girl frantic for toilet paper to wrap her first maxi-pad, teacher explaining a paragraph. So with food, with lunchtime. The bell conflates hunger and movement, makes them indistinguishable. Ring as the child takes first bite of sandwich. As he comes finally to the front of the lunch counter, ready for his turn. No student escapes this lesson. No teacher escapes, absorbing exactly how the half-hour lunch is truly ten, maybe fifteen, minutes. Less if thereâs a make-up quiz to proctor, a parent meeting, advice for a student or two (or three, or ten), any small personal emergency. Cravings turn subliminal for everyone on campus. Salivate. Fidget. Frustration tightens eyelids, tired ankles, a sore bladder, or else spills blatantly open--haste, haste--on a binder of notes. Wiped up.

One solution is constant eating. Another, not eating at all.

There are public lamentations--the news carries bulletins and artists make movies: the processed and over-processed ingredients, refined sugars, trans-fat content, microwaves and plastics, overcooking under heat lamps. Brand-loyalty exploitation by snack and beverage labels: Doritos, Coke, Gatorade, Snickers. (Why should school food be different from food everywhere else in America?) You donât hear what else stokes the lingering hunger and edgy boredom: this smash-smash of abundance and speed, binge and purge. Anesthesia of âmealâ and âmeaning.â

Sidenote: You are a teacher in a meeting to discuss textbooks. At first all anyone talks about is what the textbook marketers will feed you--filet mignon? salmon pâté? One woman gushes that, last time, the salespeople stood in the doorway with a tray of plastic wine glasses asking: Red or white? Red or white? This corporation knows how to treat you, knows what moves teachers, she says.

Perhaps the details canât be what they seem. You live and work here, you get a little crazy paying attention, a little prone to exaggerate. There must be tablecloths somewhere? Linen napkins? Someone taking his time to dry fresh greens with a paper towel? Women whisking a light marinade or special dressing in a tin bowl?

A scene: cafeteria adjacent to a huge fiberglass awning, shading parallel stretches of grey picnic table bolted to the asphalt. Metal rails separate five lines in front of cafeteria windows (for cold food), and two lines through the actual kitchen (for hot food). Kiosks here and there: hot dog carts with bent umbrellas, ânational chainâ pizza and taco lean-toâs, ice-boxes on wheels and brimming with popsicles, frozen yogurts. Few humans sit--on picnic tabletops, on low steps near close-by buildings. Mostly you mill about under midday sun, move from somewhere to the cafeteria to somewhere else, edge yourselves under narrow eaves in a bold rain, huddle and nibble, scarf and drip your food. The roar of talk-eating. Waiting for time to be up. Maybe a girl squeals. Boys dash, squirting carbonated drinks from plastic bottles at each other, across a dead patch of lawn near a broken drain. Someone slips and falls. Spotty laughter.

As for actual food, you dig into paper bags or cold packs brought from home. Banana. Wilted ham sandwich and slice of cheese. Maybe homemade cookies that canât be finished. Or you pick at foods purchased from cafeteria or kiosks on small foam trays--soggy paper cups weighed down with coleslaw or industrial green salad, cold refried beans, hotdogs, hamburger-shaped sandwiches in silver foil, flaccid pepperoni pizza squares, sweaty donuts. Nacho chips with cheese blurped from a giant plastic tub. Even healthier items--grayish green beans, jaundiced corn niblets, a grainy apple--serve up the degree of demanded ugliness. Your most appealing foods are least healthy, bright and smartly wrapped things from some factory a world away. Hook your fingers around two or three items at once in the race to polish off shiny bags of chips or crackers, glossy candies, to bolt down yellow cakes filled with cream. Sweetness.

As with study, cramming is the thing. Perhaps you eat nothing--on strike, maybe. I am hungry for multitudes. I cannot be satisfied. I cannot stop moving. Will no one stop moving? Teachers, the smart ones, hide inside--waiting to absorb the frustration student bodies will bring back with them. The sadness that will soon register as squirminess, defiance, sleepiness.

End of lunch bell cues the final sadness, not quite visible until the lope en masse begins back to the industrial buildings, the classroom bunkers. At first, you see a napkin here or there, a torn plastic baggie, a foam tray. Suddenly itâs everywhere: wrappers, napkins, smeared sandwich meat and torn bread, smirks of ketchup, half-eaten pears, pizza crusts. Red candies stuck into formation on cement steps. Straws and straw wrappers. Defecations of French fries or chocolate pieces. Paper cups, cans and crushed bottles. All left behind as if it hadnât been real in the first place, as if this were never even the pretense of a meal. Seagulls dive-bomb remains with their beaks open. Circling back, they shit from the air.

When you are young and ignorant, newly teaching, you notice this scene right away. From a distance, you can barely see grass or cement after lunch. You watch students walk away from bag lunches they have barely finished. A principal stands by, holding a walkie-talkie, saying nothing. Maybe someone tosses a perfect banana onto the grass near the trashcan. Thereâs a lot of trash near the trash cans. At least no one is fighting today.

So you ask: Why do you do this? How can you leave things this way?

Itâs the janitors, a girl says. Itâs their job to clean up.

You picture the gulls, realize the girlâs heard this line somewhere else.

Perhaps all of them have heard it somewhere else. You imagine the brown men outside now in their green jumpsuits or stained t-shirts and grey pants, lolling garbage cans and scraping detritus with a rake.

You think of the bribery that goes on. Give students gum, it promotes concentration. Give them donuts and juice before a test. If they behave and turn in homework, set a day aside to pile up chip bags, salsa, barely-reheated bean dip and lasagna from home. Pile them all on a long table in the middle of the room. If they behave and turn in homework, toss them pieces of candy.

Itâs their job to clean it up, the girl says again.

Theyâre paid to do it. She repeats because she thinks you donât get her meaning--that âtheyâ means anyone else, anyone but her. It probably means you.

You let it go.

She parrots words that make this place into this place. You couldnât blame students for lighting fires and saying itâs someone elseâs job to put them out (although this does happen sometimes, in trash cans. Or else someone hits the alarm bell as a false alarm, a prank. You hate these, but have to admit alarms should probably be going off constantly.)

But itâs someone elseâs job to notice--youâre just an adult, simply a teacher after all, your pretty little head is tired. You consider the math anyway, calculate the ratio of humans to lunch minutes: 350 bodies for every 3 minutes of lunch time. The ratio of humans to bathrooms: 600 bodies for every 1 bathroom. You think of children in faraway cities after a bombing, a tsunami, a famine, a flood, how the children poke sticks through mounds of trash to find anything edible, a hole to bury their waste inside. How they might hit each other with sticks to pass time.

You think of the gulls, the janitor men with their rakes.

How this place has been made for trashing. How even the best students have learned to practice orphanhood and homelessness. Even you.

Jo Scott-Coe, a former teacher, is an assistant professor of English at Riverside Community College in southern California. Her essays on education, gender, and violence have been published or are forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Swink Online, Ninth Letter, So to Speak, CRATE, The Los Angeles Times, River Teeth and the anthology (Re)Interpretations: The Shapes of Justice in Women's Experience (Cambridge Scholars Press). Her interview with essayist Richard Rodriguez appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of Narrative magazine. She is currently working on a non-fiction book, Hot for Teacher: Sexual Bullying in the Feminized Classroom. A former graduate Fellow in the Creative Writing Department at UC Riverside, Scott-Coe has just been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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