“You should come eat lunch with me and Lorelai sometime.” It was Lily, one of my Sunday school students.
Huh? “Like at school?” I was surprised. Lily likes me well enough, and I’ve known her since she was born, but I still never expect any of my kids to pursue time with me outside of class. When I started teaching, my ten-through-twelve-year-olds automatically developed that special tinge of wariness reserved for Grownups.
Lily: “Yeah. They let people bring food and eat with us. You just can’t bring pizza or anything in a box.”
Me: “Uh, ok! Sweet! Tell me what you guys want and I’ll bring it on Monday.”
Me: “With a…”
Lily: “Chicken sandwich. Both of us. Our lunch is at 11:30.”
Monday morning comes and I feel like I’m getting ready for an interview. Most days I wear shorts and T-shirts splattered with either paint or flour, but if I embarrass my middle schoolers in front of their peers I may never win them back. I have to be CUTE. I’ve been hauling flour and sugar for the bakery all morning, so I rush home and shower. Dry my hair. Straighten it. Put on pants and a real shirt. Sandals that are not hiking sandals. A cardigan even though it’s 85 degrees outside (can you wear sleeveless tops at Middle School?? Better safe than sorry).
I get through the Wendy’s drive thru more quickly than I expected and pull into the SHMS parking lot at 11:08. As I park much farther away than necessary, I spot a safety officer’s car next to the school. I wonder if he wonders what I’m doing. I wonder if I look suspicious just sitting here in this beat-up red truck with 5-gallon paint buckets and old siding in the back. I sit tight. Suddenly I am ravenous. I eat a few fries. Don’t eat now, then you’ll have no food to fall back on when you run out of things to say. There are two big to-go bags, though, and a drink carrier. Ok, maybe you should eat it all now in case you need to use one of your hands. I compromise and eat all my fries, consolidating the rest of the food into one bag. It’s 11:13 now. Time to make my move. I walk toward what looks like the Main main entrance. There are four sets of doors. I tuck the bag under my arm like a football and hold the drink carrier with the same hand while I try the right-most set of doors with the other hand. It won’t budge. I try all of them and finally, of course, it is the left-most set of doors that opens. It is very, very quiet. I could have ANYTHING inside this Wendy’s bag and nobody is here to stop me. Where in the world is the office? I spot the tiny plaque and head in the door.
“Hi!” I say to the five people who swivel to look at me. “I’m, uh, here to eat lunch with some students.” Can I really do this? Do I need my passport? Is it ok to bring more than 2 ounces of liquid in here?
“Sure, just sign in right here,” says the lady at the front. I heave my Wendy’s paraphernalia up next to the clipboard and write my name and the exact time. 11:17. She hands me a visitor name tag.
Lady: “What grade are they in? Are they in sixth grade?”
Oh, shoot. I know their names and their birthdays and their parents’ names. Their favorite candy. Who they are crushing on. What they were thankful for last week. Also I have great personal and professional references if my character needs vouching for.
Me: “Um, I’m not sure..” Time to call security over. “yeah, maybe.” Then, triumpantly, “Their lunch is at 11:30!”
Eyebrows go up.
Office Lady: “Are you sure they are sixth-graders? Sixth grade lunch was at 11:00.” GOT HER!!
Me: “Oh, then they’re in seventh grade. Yep. Definitely seventh grade. See, I have a range of ages in my class so-”
Office Aide: “Seventh grade lunch isn’t until eleven thirty-FIVE.”
Me: Stuff it, you brat. “Oh, ok. That’s it, then. Seventh gra-”
Office Lady: “You’ll have to wait. We can’t let you go there right now.”
Me: “Yeah, no, ok! Perfect. I would never show up early to seventh grade lunch which is at eleven thirty-FIVE. I’ll just sit over here and try and figure out where on my anatomy this sticker is easily visible but not awkward and I’ll hug my bag of chicken sandwiches and turn off my phone (can I have a phone in here?) and I won’t even think about touching the fire alarm.”
Office Lady probably pursed her lips but I admit I do not have a specific memory of that.
Not much happens as I sit there absorbing the soft office sounds and the smell of Lily and Lorelai’s fries. A kid comes in and presents a solid case for getting his phone back. Another kid walks through and almost makes it out before getting called back to pull his pants up. It’s a surprisingly respectful interaction on both sides. I think I watch too many movies. At 11:30 Office Lady glances over and looks surprised that I’m still there where she left me.
“Oh, you can go ahead and go,” she says. “Down the hall and then left all the way to the end.”
Oh, pshh, I wasn’t waiting for you to dismiss me.. or anything.. “Ok, thank you!”
Two security guards are walking toward me in the hall. I shift my Wendy’s bag down so that my thoughtfully-placed sticker is visible.
Smile! They’re people! I smile. They smile.
Whew. So far, so good.
Jody. You’re not a terrorist. You’re, like, really here to eat lunch with your kids. Who are you, Mr. Bean in the airport?
The cafeteria is huge and completely empty when I reach it. I choose an end table and sit down. A lunch lady spots me and comes over.
“Ma’am, are you you here to eat with your child?
Me: “Yyyes.” Sure.
Lunch lady: “Ok, well, visitors can only be over there on the blue wall.”
Me: “Oh, ok! Sorry! Got it!”
The blue wall is on the far side of the cafeteria with three tables in front of it. I don’t think these tables get cleaned as often as the others. Kids start coming in. There are some tiny ones and some huge ones. I think middle school has the biggest size variance of all. The runts are still runty and the early bloomers are gettin’ after it. After a while I see Lily come in with a posse. She sees me and rushes over. “I went to the office to see if you were in there because I wasn’t sure if you knew where to go!” she gasps.
I feel oddly comforted that this petite, popular seventh grader is looking out for me. We all sit down at the sequestered crumby tables and I’m glad she’s ok enough with me to have her friends around.
I’m also glad that I saved my bacon McDouble. (I know, I know, it’s a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger. My brother-in-law gets a kick out of ordering things by the wrong name at fast food places. He’ll ask for a Blizzard at McDonald’s, a McFlurry at Sonic. Just to see what they do.) I’m pretty decent at talking to human beings of all ages, but this is middle school and sometimes it’s nice to have the excuse of a full mouth. Lorelai walks in and joins us. She has never acted so happy to see me in her life. I must have done okay on the outfit. Lily introduces their friends, who all have first names that sound like last names.
“..and this is Peyton. She’s a twin. I’m close with both of them but I’m closest with her. Ya know. And Timothy is..” She twists around to check through the masses of kids. “He sits on the first row. I’ll show him to you later. He’s like so nerdy but he’s so cool. That tall guy in the red shirt is soooo annoying-”
Peyton: “Yeah, but he’s pretty funny.”
Lily: “Yeah, he’s pretty funny I guess. I don’t know. He’s cool but I don’t like him.”
I accidentally make eye contact with a girl across the table just as she’s saying “she’s such a bi-“. She cuts herself off and looks worried and embarrassed. Because I’m a grownup. I look away and let her recover.
We talk about what they usually eat for lunch at school and how it’s almost summer and how volleyball tryouts are going. Lorelai barely touches her fries so I eat them all. Since I didn’t have any.
“You know, this is my first time ever in a middle school,” I confess to Lily.
We go outside. There are kids standing around in little groups everywhere. There are a few boys racing each other out on the grass and Lily points Timothy out to me. I ask her what all the different groups are and she tells me what she knows. I ask her what group she would be in if I weren’t there. She thinks about it.
“I’m sort of a prep, I guess,” she says. “But I’m friends with a lot of people.”
I tell her I better go so she can make her rounds. She hugs me quick and says thanks for coming and means it. I walk back through the cafeteria, sign out in the office, smile at Office Lady, take off the cardigan and hike the five miles to my parking spot. I can breathe easy again, but my truck still smells like chicken sandwiches.