Our cafeteria is kind of loud at lunchtime. A little too loud for my taste, although the alternative for school cafeterias isn’t that attractive either.
When I first came to SC back in the mid-eighties, the cafeteria at my old school had a giant stoplight – far larger than any you would see at an intersection. It was connected to a sound-measuring device that changed the color from green to yellow automatically when the volume got to a certain level. It did so every single day. Then the sound would come down a little. Gradually, as more children entered the cafeteria, the light would shift to yellow more often. Eventually a blaring siren would sound, the light changing to brilliant red and the cafeteria was thrust into absolute silence. And I mean absolute. There were monitors of course and if they caught you talking… It wasn’t pretty. That light had to have been expensive. The lunchroom monitors would have cost a lot too. Silent school lunch does not come cheap.
Then in the early nineties I moved to another more affluent school. The teachers at this school sat up on the stage in the cafeteria/auditorium, looking down the six or eight steps into the seating area. This school ran on a tight schedule. We had to be standing at the door at a very precise time. There were seven second grades and our times were one minute apart. And if we were ever late we were fussed at. While we had no stoplight, the way they kept the noise level down was to keep the first part of lunch completely silent. Not a word, not a whisper. And if kids were caught talking during quiet lunch they were sent to the steps of the stage to finish the lunch period alone, banished from the kingdom, balancing their lunch trays on their knees or eating from their lunch bags or boxes sitting on the steps. Only when there were a few minutes left were the kids allowed to whisper to each other. And it was a whisper, or else.
We are far more laid back at my school where there is not a minute-specific schedule. We just try to get through the middle school halls before the big kids change classes. We have no stoplight or time of total silence. It is far closer to how we eat as a family at home. And we talk. And talk.
Now there are some disadvantages. Often children have not finished their lunch when we have to leave. I assume that if kids leave the cafeteria without finishing and during the afternoon they become hungry a few times, they’ll eat more and talk less. There are also occasions when it gets so loud with conversation and laughter that it’s hard to hear. And with my 32 years in classrooms and cafeterias, my hearing isn’t what it used to be. At times when it is too loud and lip reading doesn’t work I’ll just shrug my shoulders and shake my head when someone speaks to me. TRANSLATION: You’ll have to tell me when we get out of here – I CAN’T HEAR YOU!
I jotted down miscellaneous bits of conversation I overheard for a couple of days:
Are we allowed to trade food?
You’re lucky, your mom always writes you a love letter.
It’s always peanut butter and jelly!
I’m half country and half my mom… Well, half my dad too.
Hey, Alex has the same lunchbox as you.
Can I go give Mrs. Barnes a hug for her birthday?
Hey! Where’s my spoon? My mom always packs me a spoon.
I feel like I’m having a heart attack!
I’ve got this slime at home that looks just like your yogurt. Yeah? Well I bet it doesn’t taste as good as this.
How much longer before we go to recess?
Hey, when you were talking a food piece came out and got on me.
I could take you with my little pinky.
I have a science kit with invisible ink. Why would you ever use invisible ink? No one would see it!
Can I go hug my sister?
I’m trying to eat but he keeps making me laugh.
My grandfather is older than your grandfather.
Ashley’s been alive for eleven years. Well I’ve been alive since I was born.
I swallowed a chip and it stabbed me in my throat!
I didn’t do it. Yes you did too!
Your brother Cody has the cooties!
Something just landed in my hair. It felt like a bug.
Me and Ethan are planning a snow sleepover but it has to snow first.
Hey! My sandwich is all smushed. How much time before we go?
Can you open my milk?
My juice is frozen solid.
Can I go get a spoon?
Hey, Mr. O. Watch what I can do with my eyes. Hmmm. I’m not sure that’s good for you.
Wait, you said you’d sit by me.
No saving seats.
Are you gonna eat all those grapes?
Are we allowed to eat candy at lunch? ‘Cause she’s got candy. It’s not candy, it’s fruit snacks.
Can we have indoor recess? It’s too hot outside.
Can I tell the class that there are two minutes left?
Cover your mouth!
Can I go get a napkin? My milk spilled. You need at least three napkins.
Say it don’t spray it!
Yuck! Chew with your mouth closed.
While it gets a little loud at times, I prefer the natural spirit of having lunchtime that is real. It is a time with children that is fairly free of the restrictions of the classroom and my authority. Conversation is easy and kids learn to get along without adult controls or restrictions. Kids can just be kids.
The teachers used to sit away from the children at a table by ourselves and sort of watch the children from afar. That was important too. But honestly, I prefer to sit with my kids. If there have been some rough interactions in the classroom, I try to sit next to the ones having a hard day. When someone is feeling blue for something happening at home, I’ll be sure to sit nearby. Sometimes we talk. Sometimes just the proximity helps – companionable silence works too. We talk about everything: what we’re doing for the weekend, what’s going on at home, our pets, the weather, our lives. And we make each other laugh. And this sometimes intimate sharing is one of the reasons I work with little ones. They are so open, so clear, uninhibited, honest, unguarded. And if I missed a belt loop or have food in my teeth someone will tell me. With no embarrassment. And if a friend has buttoned his shirt wrong, I’ll tell him. We share problems, fears, joys and accomplishments. We look into each other’s eyes and share who we really are. Even though it is not a planned lesson or instruction, there is a lot of learning going on. There aren’t intentional educational standards being addressed during lunch in the cafeteria, but the fellowship is just about important as any other time of day.
Many times over the year parents have told me that their kids’ favorite times of the day are lunch and recess. I can’t say it’s not true for me too. Who else gets to hang out with twenty-two best friends every day and get paid for it? Sometimes – not every day, but a lot of days – I am amazed at how wonderful it is to make a living teaching little ones.