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.