LUNCH LADY COMMUNIST
She was everywhere, but mostly in places where she could scold me and tease me, saying I’d never grow up, and in part that turned out to be true, as it is for most folks, but that’s another story altogether. She meant I’d never be tall. Despite my deep-down wishes, she turned out to be right, but not for the reason she claimed. It was heredity that dictated my height, not how much of my mushy, out-of-a-can, institutional, bland, school lunch food I ate.
She was a Lunch Lady. Of all the Lunch Ladies, who were all in their 40’s or 50’s, she was the meanest. They wore their hair, which only hours before had been in curlers, under hairnets, their faces powdered, lipstick neatly applied. They weren’t at all like Grandma Ruby, who wouldn’t have been caught dead with a net in her hair, or like Grandma Dottie, who made the best, juiciest chicken–indeed, it was the only thing she could cook–and smelled like cinnamon–no, the Lunch Ladies made me think of the fish in our classroom’s aquarium: they moved in synch; they all came to work at the same time and left at the same time, did the same jobs, wore the same aprons, had their hair done on the same day of the week, but if you looked closely you’d notice differences, and like the one fish in the aquarium with the black streak on its side, this Lunch Lady was mean, the meanest of them all, and her single purpose at our school was to pester, tease, scold, harass, and embarrass–me.
Even the first time it happened I already hated her for it. Our school cafeteria was the size of a classroom that might hold, say, 60 students if a class were to be held there, and that was perhaps how many of us ate in that room at lunch time, about ten tables of us, both students who brought their lunch in from home and those like myself who were unfortunate enough to have to purchase school lunches. On that day, the food, if you could call it that, consisted of mashed potatoes, peas, and fish sticks, the latter for the Catholics who had fish every Friday. Something green was served on the side of the fish in a little cup; I learned that this was called tartar sauce and I wouldn’t eat the fish stick if any of the sauce had touched it because you never know if one of the lunch ladies had traded her snots for it.
Walking back to my table, I noticed that the peas not only were slimy but some were sunken in like raisins. “Gimme one,” said one of the girls. I didn’t know her name, because she had a twin; she was either Susan or Sarah and I didn’t know which.
She grabbed a pea off my tray. “Eww,” she said. “I don’t want it.” She put it back. “Me and my sister ate already. You’d better hurry up or you’ll be last.”
Karen Johnson, who was better at pitching a baseball than any boy, had eaten peanut butter fluffernutter that day. She was casually peeling grapes.
I decided to eat the Jell-o first. It had what looked like whipped cream on it, and I didn’t know if I should eat that first or the Jell-o. If I did it wrong, I would be the laughing stock of Mrs. Seaman’s first grade class. I took one sliver of Jell-o, felt it slide down my throat like a worm, and then went on to the peas, which had some kind of grease in them. Nope. Won’t eat. They smelled like a nursing home, besides, like the one my mother took me to when we went to see some aunt I wish I never had who hugged a dysfunctional teddy bear and howled like an animal in a cartoon. I took a bite of mashed potatoes but they tasted like cardboard.
(I had in fact eaten cardboard, shirt cardboard from the Chinese laundry; I did it on a dare from the redhead down the street named Italo Rapponi, who was also called Guy. He said I couldn’t do it and I did, but a few minutes later, after his mother had called him inside to help her match the family’s socks, I threw it up in the berry bushes that separated his yard from the McKenna’s.)
Piece by piece, I rejected my lunch that day. I couldn’t eat any of it, and with Steve McKenna kicking the back of my chair, and Susan-Sarah tugging at my hair, I decided to bring my lunch to the “Return” window uneaten. Played with, maybe, but uneaten.
It was the first time, so I didn’t know, didn’t know that she was there, didn’t know she would even take note of how little (if anything) I’d eaten, didn’t know she, Communist that she was, would take it upon herself to single me out as the bad one. I casually left my tray at the window and turned to leave when I caught her eye. There she was. Auburn hair. Green eyes. Lips with little cracks around them so you could tell she wasn’t young anymore. And a deep, tenor voice, that said, “If you don’t eat, little girl, you will never grow up; you will always be little.”
Pause. What seemed like a moment of silence in the noisy lunchroom startled and shamed me. “Little girl, little girl, you will never grow up.”
I had to get out of there. Away from the Communist Lunch Lady. Away from the other kids, who were probably pointing and laughing forever at me by now. As I turned, I dropped my fork. I knew I had to pick it up or I’d be in even more trouble, so I bent over to get it, then thought of my little rear end I was exposing for spanking, quickly straightened, placed the fork at the window and, trying to look casual, trying to look big and tall, I paced myself along the wall toward the back of the lunch room, toward the back door, I would walk past Miss O’Connell, walk past the TA’s, walk past the police lady and everyone else and be on the street and free, free from the laughing kids, free from the Communist Lunch Lady, free from the embarrassment and shame that I lived with every single day, every yesterday, every today and tomorrow even, at that school. I would shake off the image of “Little Girl” and be someone else for a change.
“Hey,” said Karen Johnson. “Want part of my banana?”
I did. “Thanks.”
The Communist Lunch Lady worked at our school for another year, and then I didn’t see her again. It was a daily struggle to avoid her while returning my tray to the window, and I was generally successful, but when she was impossible to avoid, I’d mix up my vegetables to make them look eaten, which generally didn’t work. My stance hardened over the months and “little girl, little girl…” didn’t have the power over me that it once had.
I think the fear of never growing up is just as bad as the fear of growing up, and I’ve felt both, though at different times. It’s kind of the push-me-pull-you that we call maturing. Or, to quote a cliché, “Two steps forward and one step back,” or, sometimes, “One step forward and two steps back.” Growing up is the ache and the angst of childhood and adolescence; we want to grow, and at the same time we want to stay right where we are, right where we are at the moment, and stay kids, just for a little while longer. If there was anything the Communist Lunch Lady taught me it was a sense of bashfulness, which grew into shame and embarrassment as I grew; she was not the only teacher I had of this dreaded concept; there were others. But while growing up certainly meant learning, it meant unlearning as well, like back-and-forth brush strokes. Growing up meant unlearning being little. It meant unlearning shame and embarrassment. It meant busting out of that whole scene, and becoming myself. And somehow I did, and am doing just that.