Childhood Memories Friday: School Lunch

Childhood Memories Friday

It has happened again: something I saw on Pinterest has sparked a childhood memory. This time, it was a lunch tray. A school lunch tray.

Ah, the memories of elementary school lunch time! We ate in the school gym, on tables that (very cool-ly) pulled down out of the wall, with seats attached! Two lunch ladies patrolled the room; Miss Cup, a petite lady with glasses who always wore a June Cleaver-type dress, and the more tomboyish Mrs. Kloecker, with short gray hair (but still a dress — this was the late ’60s/early ’70s). Mrs. Kloecker was the louder of the two, and she walked the room constantly shouting, “Eat your dinner! Eat your dinner!”

But it’s not dinner, I would think, it’s lunch.

Mrs. Kloecker reminded me of nothing so much as a chicken, strutting around. I was usually a quiet child, but occasionally a leadership moment or two popped out. One day, I was playing a favorite game with my lunch table classmates: “Raise your pinkie if you like the Turkey Manhattan. Okay, raise your thumb if you like the green beans. Okay, raise your pointer if you like the jell-”

“What’s that, honey?” barked Mrs. Kloecker.

“Nothing, I was just say …” but it didn’t matter anymore at that point. Mrs. Kloecker had picked up Richard’s tray and scraped all of his red jello/Cool Whip mix onto my tray. I was horrified, on several points:

  1. Despite its frequent appearance on our trays, I had never tasted the red jello/Cool Whip mix, and I didn’t think I would like it.
  2. Now I had not one serving of this to eat, but two. Because the rule was: if you asked for someone else’s food, you had to EAT IT ALL.
  3. I was pretty embarrassed that I now had Richard’s dessert, and for all I knew he had actually wanted to eat it.

Knowing that I had no choice, I tasted the concoction. To my surprise, it was good. Actually, it was great. For years afterwards I would always remember the incident with amazement. Who knew that such a mess could taste so good?

Also roaming the cafeteria at the noon hour was our principal, Mr. Coryell. Mr. Coryell had only one arm, yet this didn’t stop him from helping kids open their milk cartons (opening milk cartons constituted probably 50% of a lunch lady’s duties. Those cardboard tops could be stubborn). I remember always feeling sort of awkward when a kid raised his hand for help, and up walked not Miss Cup or Mrs. Kloecker, but Mr. Coryell. A man of few words, he would indicate with his hand that the kid was to hold onto the carton, and then Mr. Coryell plunged a fork tine into the lid, inevitably pulling out the opening. Triumph!

The boys in my classes had a particularly gross tradition to fill the after-eating minutes of lunch (lunchtimes must have been longer then; when I go to school to eat with my own kids, it’s all I can do to choke down a meal before we’re dismissed. The school lunches of my childhood seemed lengthy and carefree). Anyway, back to the boys: they liked to stuff all their uneaten food down their milk cartons, and then squirt in a bunch of ketchup and mustard (these were always in bottles on each table) for good measure. It didn’t take long before Mrs. Kloecker was onto this, and whenever she saw it happen, she would force the offenders to eat/drink the entire contents of his milk carton. I can still remember the feeling of dread I’d get for the poor boy who was sitting there gleefully unaware of Mrs. Kloecker walking up to him, stern look on her face.

If we ate everything on our trays and brought along a nickel or a dime (can’t remember which), we could go up to the cafeteria window and buy a delicious, thin brownie sprinkled with powdered sugar — or one of the school’s magical peanut butter sandwiches. I’m not sure what they did to the peanut butter to make it taste so good, but some of the in-the-know girls insisted they added honey to it.

One of the perks of being a responsible sixth grader was that you could have kitchen scraping duty some days at lunch time. I remember happily accepting younger kids’ trays and dumping all their uneaten food into the big plastic barrels.

School lunch memories are good ones. What are some of yours?

4 thoughts on “Childhood Memories Friday: School Lunch

  1. I could go various directions with this memory post. When I started first grade, we had NO cafeteria. We brought our dinner buckets and sat at our old fashioned wooden desks and ate in the classroom. Sometimes mother prepared some warm food and it went in my thermos bottle. If you were not super careful, they would break! They were a different animal from thermos bottles used today. When I was about in fifth grade they built a new gym at Holland School. In the basement they built a cafeteria. In looking at a picture of students eating in our gym cafeteria, I note our trays were Holland Dairy trays. A food they served that I would not touch was breaded tomatoes. Those cooks back in the day of Holland School got NOTHING like cooks now get – food prepared – ready to dole out to the trays. They cooked everything from scratch! They worked like dogs! Lunch cost a quarter. It was a different time. It was a better time!

  2. I sill miss the yeast rolls & homemade Buckeyes! In high school we could buy pop from the machine! In elementary school I dreaded tomato soup day–the smell always makes me sick to my stomach! I often went home for lunch though in elementary school which I loved.

  3. My school lunches did not start until 3rd grade, which was a big improvement over carrying your own lunch from home. Luckily, I had a black dinner bucket like factory workers carried in the movies…very ugly!
    but my Mother gave me warm tomato soup and other hot treats. I’m sure that I was the envy of most of my 1st grade class.

    Our school cooks also made everything from scratch, and those cinnamon rolls were to die for. Of course, I also liked them way too much when I was older and a teacher myself. I’m pretty sure that they were the original sin that caused my waistline become what it is today! At Roanoke we had tables and long benches and also pretty much like that at every school during my 34-year teaching career.

  4. It’s interesting that I have few memories of school lunch, except for the times I walked down to Boom’s Cafe (the only hamburger joint in the metropolis of Holland, Indiana), where we could purchase a hamburger and something else (I forget what) for a quarter. Those were happy days!

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