Immersion Contest Winner: LIVING LUNCH
June 20, 2012 § 13 Comments
You have entered a time warp. You know that doughy smell, the women in hairnets wielding giant spoons, the students scanning the room anxiously, before bee-lining to a table. You remember carrying your plastic tray to the table, green beans sloshing into the applesauce, certain that every eye in the middle school was on you. In the lunchroom of your adolescence, a dropped tray was the signal for everyone to start clapping. First a pattering and then raucous applause while the student stood stricken, face darkly glowing, juices spotting his shoes.
Now an adult, you spend weeks observing a middle school cafeteria. While you watch, you try on metaphors:
It is an epic sociology experiment. You note tables meant for ten have twenty students shoved around them. The beautiful people form the nexus; the wannabees orbit. Less populated tables feature communities of nerds or Goths, never both. The trying-too-hard girls on the periphery sport a riot of glitter. And a few students sit alone.
It is a prison yard. The students can’t leave, are punished for rule infractions, can even be sent to solitary—the in-school suspension room. These adolescent inmates far outnumber the adults, three hundred to five. Should those masses ever realize their power, the overthrow would take mere minutes. But the wardens don’t worry. They know their charges cannot risk such behavior, or any behavior that will set them apart. They must belong –an imperative so strong that one will laugh at the joke at his expense, another one will allow her food to be taken despite her hunger, a third will forgo lunch purposefully in hope of becoming one of the thin beautiful people. No Tasers needed. Watch towers would be redundant.
It is an episode of “Wild Kingdom.” The camera focuses on the watering hole where different species are compelled to gather. The beautiful people drink first and longest. Louder than a lion’s roar, their laughing visages say, “We are the ones with the shiniest hair, the clearest skin, the whitest teeth. Our DNA will propel the species forward.” Darwin lives. As a rule, the other animals get their turns, drinking second or third. No one likes to think about what can happen during a drought year.
Days after you leave that cafeteria for good, you attend a party. People stand in clusters: hipsters in large glasses, women sipping pink cocktails, men earnestly discussing homebrew. For a nanosecond as you stand at the entrance, an internal voice pleads find someone, anyone to talk to--a vestigial response that makes you understand. That adolescent packed cafeteria isn’t like anything–lab, prison yard, or watering hole. Au contraire. Everything else is like it–every high school dance, frat party, wedding, work social, open house, Spring Fling Gala at the retirement community just another incarnation.
The middle school cafeteria is a time warp. But you don’t travel back. It travels forward with you. You plan to keep a firm grip on your tray.
Susan Gilbert Guerrant has published nonfiction in albemarle, Salon, Hospital Drive, Drexel Online Journal and on National Public Radio. A librarian, she works and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia.