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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?