I Am A Lunchlady

I am a  lunchlady.

For those of you who may not know what that means, it means that I work in a cafeteria with middle school and high school students. I don’t actually do any of the cooking, but I monitor and clean up and occasionally serve the food. I break up fights and mop up spills and try to make sure everybody eats something. 

It also means I have sensible shoes, an unflattering uniform, and a constant concern that I smell vaguely of day-old broccoli. 

It means digging through garbage cans for lost retainers. Wiping a sticky substance off a table and praying it’s not snot — or worse. Trying (and failing) not to laugh when a middle schooler sculpts a banana into a disturbingly realistic penis. Being pelted with flying fruit; one kid hit me with an orange and proceeded to apologize with such charm that I ended up praising him for his aim.

That kid is going places in life. 

You know what else it means? It means I love my job. 

These kids ….

When the resident “tough guy” calls me Mom, I melt. When the shy girl finally makes eye contact and whispers “Hi, Miss” on  her way past, I can’t help but grin like a fool. Every time that group of eighth grade boys inexplicably greet me by shouting “HI, DAD!” I respond by throwing my arms out and shouting back, “Hello, my beautiful daughters!”

I’ll admit I get a little nervous when I see the girl who likes to greet me with a robust, “Hey, Miss, did you know … “ before hitting me with some bit of mind-blowing trivia, like how many bananas will fit inside the anus of a monkey. 

The answer is two, by the way. 

Gotta admit, I worry about that kid.

These kids … 

I know every face that comes into the cafeteria. I wish I could say I know every name, but there are a lot of kids and let’s face it, I’m not as young as I used to be. There are days when I’m lucky to remember the names of my own children. But I learn as many names as possible, and when I can’t remember a name, I say “kiddo” or make up a nickname. I’m not sure how Jellybean and Allegan feel about their nicknames, but Killer seems happy with his. 

I laugh with them and I scold them and I write them up when I have to. And I enjoy every one of them, even the naughty ones and the disrespectful ones and the ones who smell like stale body odor smothered in too many layers of Axe body spray. They make it worth the sticky tables and retainer hunts and fly-by fruitings. 

These kids …

We lost one of our kids this past weekend. He took his own life. 

I just can’t …

… I don’t …

I want to travel back to last week and look at him one more time. Really look at him. I want to try to see whatever it is I missed. Did he give any of us any kind of sign? 

Did we fail our kid?

Did I fail our kid?

The faces in my cafeteria this week have changed. They are scared. Lost. Angry. Not just the kids’ faces; I’m seeing the same looks on the faces of my fellow lunchladies, teachers, administrators. Everyone seems shell-shocked. 

They’re handling it as well as can be expected, I suppose. There are grief counselors on hand, of course, and everyone is watching our kids with eagle eyes. The teachers and administrators are doing a fantastic job of swallowing their own grief long enough to make sure our kids are doing okay. 

And the lunchladies?

We’re handing out smiles with the cheeseburgers.  We’re making eye contact and calling the kids by name, and we are doing everything in our power to communicate without words to each child: “We are here and we care.”

“Please, talk to someone if you are struggling.”

“Please let us help you.”

These kids …

…sometimes they break our hearts.

A Family Matter

It’s easy to be selfish. I’ve been so overwhelmed lately by all of the things going on in my life that I’ve had a hard time focusing on anything or anyone but myself.  Going back to work, trying to finish His Heart Aflame, planning for my upcoming book signing at Octoberfest. I’ve been scrambling to pay bills with money I haven’t earned yet, stressing about my books, my job, my bills, my kids.

Me, me, me. It’s all about me.

Until this morning, when my daughter said, “Nick’s been in a car accident, Mom.”

Let me backtrack. “Nick” is not one of my kids.  Not one of my nephews or cousins or any kind of a blood relation.  He’s one of my daughter’s friends, the son of one of my friends.  A good kid, but not one of mine.

Still, the world stopped for a moment. Just until she read a little farther down the Facebook post and found out that he’s going to be okay.  Shaken up, a bit bruised and royally pissed off about getting some points on his license, but okay.

I don’t like this part of parenting. I’m a worrier; yes, I am that mom.  I’m the mom who always expects the worst when it comes to my kids’ safety.  I am both fiercely overprotective and ridiculously pessimistic.  I am constantly afraid of all of the horrible things that could happen to my babies.  If I had it my way, they would never learn to drive or leave the house unescorted.   I wish I could wrap all three in big safety bubbles and watch them every second of every minute of every day, just to keep them safe.

I go overboard with the worrying about my own kids, but I am not supposed to worry about other people’s kids like this. They aren’t mine.  It’s not my place.

But this is a small town. Most of these kids have known each other since preschool or at least early elementary.  Some have known each other since birth.  They don’t all like each other; there are definite cliques in our tiny school, just as there are in larger schools.

But these guys know each other, and we parents know them.  We watch out for each other, either to protect or to keep track of the gossip about whose kid did what.  Our kids compete to see who will get the best grades, who will be the best football player, who will be Valedictorian.  And the parents?  We compare notes and we brag about our kids, and I think we’ve all had our moments of feeling a bit smug when one of ours came out on top.

But when one of our kids is hurt, we aren’t just a small town. We are more than a community.  We are a family.

When one of our kids is hurt, we don’t care who got better grades or who made into the Homecoming Court. It doesn’t matter if someone’s parent offended someone else’s parent, or even if our kids were fighting with each other.

All that matters is, Is he going to be okay?

As our kids get older and gain more freedom from us, they face more dangers and we face more fears. Most of them are driving now, which means we have so much more to worry about.  One boy broke his neck in an accident on icy roads last winter; another broke a femur in a head-on collision with a drunk driver in May, and now Nick rolled his Dad’s truck trying to avoid a Sandhill Crane in the middle of the road.

When one of our kids is hurt, I don’t just think, wow, that could have been mine.  I think, I remember when he went to Little League All-Stars with my son.    I think, I remember when he used to call my daughter ten times a day and then hang up in a panic when a grown-up answered the phone.  I think, Hey, I promised my kid I’d invite that boy over for dinner someday.

I think, No, we can’t lose these kids. The world needs them.  God, please keep protecting them!

And then life goes on. We put on a little more make-up to cover the new worry lines, and we joke about our kids giving us more gray hairs, and we go back to work.  Back to parenting, back to worrying, back to praying that God will keep them safe one more time through one more close call.

And we hug them a little tighter, hold them a little closer, try so hard not to let them go.

Even when they aren’t our own.

After School Special

I have always said that working part-time was the best of both worlds.  I got to have my career and contribute financially to my family, and I got to spend time with my kids as a stay-home mom three days per week.  But since the car accidentn in 2011 made it impossible for me to work, I have become a full-time stay-home mom.  Of course, I don’t have any stay-home kids this year.  Even the youngest is in full-day preschool four days per week.

I’ve heard other stay-home moms say that the best part of the day is when their kids arrive home at the end of the day.  Either those women are lying through their teeth or else their kids are nothing like mine.

Let me give an example of a typical after-school assault at my house.

Child #Two hurtles through the door at precisely 3:36 and informs me that Child #Three is crying in the driveway.

“Why is he crying?”  I ask.  Foolish question, I know.

“He’s mad because I ran ahead of him.”

I feel one eyebrow go up.  “You ran?”

“Yeah.”

“You ran?”  He’s lying.   He hasn’t run since early 2008.

“I . . . had to pee.”

The boy hasn’t urinated indoors since he discovered the joys of peeing in the yard.  I feel my other eyebrow climbing as high as the first one.

At this point, Child #One dances through the door and also reports that her youngest brother is still crying in the driveway.  “He’s going to get kidnapped or run over or something, Mom.   You have to get him.”  I can see him through the window, throwing pine cones for the dog.  No sign of rampaging kidnappers or out of control vehicles in the driveway.

By this point, Two has shoved my dinner preparation materials out of the way and is microwaving an enormous plate of last night’s  leftovers.

“I’m making supper!”  I protest.

“But I’m starving.  I’m a growing boy.”

“Do we have any salad?”  One asks.  “Don’t we ever have anything healthy to eat in this house?”

“I’m hungry,” the youngest announces, having given up on the pine cones and joined us inside.

“Crybaby.”

“Am not!”

“No vegetables at all, Mother?  We are so unhealthy.  When I grow up and get an apartment with my bestie, we are going to have fresh, healthy stuff around all the time.”

“I want string cheese.”

“Too bad—I just ate the last one!  Ha!”

“Mo-o-m!”

And then the starving horde is gone, moving on to the living room to fight over TV shows.    I can hear indignant squeals and howls as the youngest tries to steal the remote from his siblings who are determined to watch a zombie movie.  Which will give him nightmares so severe that he ends up sleeping between The Big Guy and me for the next week.

My blood runs cold with the realization that they will descend upon my kitchen again in about an hour for supper, and again sometime between supper and bedtime.