On the first day in the lunchroom, we explain the very basic rules to the students. There are parenthetical nuances, but because lunch is meant to be a time for relaxing and recharging, and because they are children, we try to keep it simple.
Sit. (On your bottom.) Eat. (As politely as if you were at your own dinner table. And if that’s not a polite place — at a nice restaurant.) Clean up. (“I didn’t ask whose it was.”) Line up for outdoor recess. (And wait for the usual instructions about not doing things that would cause me to have to write up an incident report… On my own time.)
On the second day, and on many subsequent days, we repeat the information. Because while children’s brains are indeed like little sponges, sponges have holes — and they get saturated, and information such as “Juice boxes make great water guns!” remains while “Use your walking feet” dribbles out.
But after a few weeks, what we are doing is reminding them of what they already know, and it sounds like this:
“Do you think the person next to you wants to be kicked?”
“Do you prefer the word “bum” or “bottom” — “bum? Aren’t you supposed to be sitting on it?”
“Is that the most polite way to eat your cucumber slices?”
“Do you think your goldfish crackers are really swimming on the floor — or are they waiting for you to ask for the dustpan?”
“Finish the sentence I said in line today: Sticks and stones stay on the… ground? Yes. So about that stick in your hand?”
We are careful with our language. I’ll never ask, “What would your mother say?” as some have no mother. Some have never been to a fancy restaurant, but they’ve probably seen a movie like Beverly Hills Chihuahua, or a TV show, or have walked past one in our gentrifying neighbourhood, where they might have an idea of how to behave in one (so, that means baby carrot fangs are out.)
Lining up is boring — but it’s how we account for the students we have, and know that everyone’s out safely. If we use that time to outline the rules before they go out, then we can again remind them to release that stranglehold, because “Tag is played with one open hand.”
The rules are the framework that ensure most students have a chance at not having their water bottle knocked over in their lap so it looks like they peed; an opportunity to eat their food without a floor show; raisin-free sneaker treads; and some assurance that a sharp stick in the eye is only a faint possibility. They’re there to reassure the parents that when their child doesn’t eat their lunch, it’s because they’re exercising their own free will and exploring boundaries and they might hate cold noodles.
But because there are always a few wanderers and acrobats, scientists and food stylists and collage artists, and those who will keep our custodians employed and those who will cause this lunch lady to sprint across the playground while framing questions in her head, every day is a fresh start. Every day there’s a chance for them to have a little fun while they refuel, and a chance for me to turn “Sit. Just sit please. For pity’s sake, please just SIT” into “Do we crawl under the table where we can get kicked in the face, or do we sit on our bottoms in the lunchroom?” I almost enjoy the challenge.
And I sincerely hope that some day, at an office luncheon or banquet dinner, it’s my voice in their little heads saying “Does my boss’ wife want to be kicked?” or “Does the Prime Minister enjoy my See Food?”
Read more confessions of a lunch lady here.