Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Life Lessons in the Lunchroom

When the siren blared in the cafeteria, we all knew what to do. After all, we were third graders and tornado drills had become old hat at Louisa Wright Elementary. But, even for us elementary elders, this was our first "real" tornado during school, which was bone-chilling enough…but there was an even bigger issue at hand. It was Tuesday. It was Chicken Nugget Day.

I rarely bought lunch at school. Occasionally, I got a carton of chocolate milk to go with the bologna sandwich my mom had packed me. On certain Fridays, I bought a slice of the freakish four-cornered pizza (which I only bought because everyone else did and, foolishly, I always believed that with enough attempts I'd figure out what everyone loved about the cheese slice).

But Chicken Nugget Tuesdays were the holy day of the school-bought lunch calendar—even better than November's Thanksgiving Lunch or the rare May Ice Cream Social. The chicken was spicy, breaded and piping hot. A heaping serving of barbecue sauce accompanied the meaty morsels. And the sides—well, who cared about the sides? They were merely a backup chorus to the poultry lunchtime luminary.

This particular Chicken Nugget Day had arrived after a long drought of chicken nuggetless lunches. I had long awaited the arrival of a lunch calendar that featured my favorite meal, and this Tuesday was a saving grace.

I spent my morning classes distracted, checking the envelope of lunch money my mom had sealed for me, contemplating whether I would savor the chicken's flavor or lose control and down the nuggets quickly. The anxiety in our reading class was palpable—the collective body of the classroom leaning toward the door, begging the teacher to release us before the other third graders got to the line before us.

After a brief reprimand on how we needed to pay better attention to our studies before lunch, the teacher released us. We piled like bulls out of a stockade into a messy single-file line, pushing and stepping on one another's feet to speed the procession to the cafeteria. To our dismay, we were the last class to arrive. Sixty other third-graders stood in line, some already happily trotting to their tables with their trays laden with the feast.

We waited as patiently as one can expect hungry eight- and nine-year-olds to wait, biding our time in line until it was our turn to skim our tray across the stainless steel serving station, thanking the hair-netted cooks and paying the head lunch lady with the bills and change that had turned damp and warm in our little hands

I was ecstatic. Rushing to a table on the east side of the cafeteria, I quickly sat and bit into my first nugget. The smoky, spicy flavors rushed into my mouth, and for a moment, I was happy.

Then, the siren.

I hesitated, picked up my tray to bring it to shelter with me, then put it down and shoved two nuggets into my mouth instead. The teachers acted quickly, sending some of us into the hallway and others, like me, into the bathrooms. There was stifled laughter as girls and boys entered opposite sex bathrooms, subsequently followed by a hissing "Omigosh, grow up. You are so immature," from the more worldly third-graders. As I was directed into girls' bathroom, I looked back longingly at the empty tables, lined with their pastel green, pink and yellow trays. The smell of chicken still lingering in the heavy, humid air as the shriek of the siren continued.

As we waited, some of us assumed the safety position—heads between knees, hands over heads, a few of us held hands as a quiet reassurance, and then there were those of us who could still taste the barbecue sauce that smeared our sticky lips and counted the minutes of precious lunchtime that were stolen from us.

After an agonizing period during which I successfully memorized the beige, brown and black tile pattern on the bathroom floor, we were allowed to return to our tables with only minutes left in lunchtime to finish our now-chilled lunches.

I pressed my index finger against the soggy breaded surface of the nugget, releasing cold grease from the tepid meat. Letting out one little sigh mourning the loss of my favorite lunch, I picked up my tray and threw the remnants of Chicken Nugget Tuesday into the trash.

Maybe it was while looking deep into the soiled black garbage bag at the torn white flesh of our class's nuggets that for the first time, I recognized that vulnerability pervaded even our lunch calendar. If violent winds could extinguish Chicken Nugget Tuesday, then what else might blow away without warning?

Or maybe it wasn't that deep. But I never bought Chicken Nugget Tuesday lunch again; and to this day, when I order chicken nuggets or pop some in the oven, I instinctively scan the sky for warning signs first while flashes of beige, brown and black tile flicker before me. I bite into the flesh. I won't have another meal stolen from me again.

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