Learning As Leadership

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 01 2011

Middle School Lunch

Note: A lot has changed since I last blogged. I find it difficult to blog here regularly, primarily because of privacy and confidentiality concerns. There is so much that we as teachers must be careful of, especially TFA teachers (who are so publicly representing one part of teaching) that sometimes it is just easier not to say anything than to figure out what to say and how to say it. I will post an update shortly.

If they can’t come to me, I’ll come to them.

Last year I built relationships by being the “Lunch Teacher”. Yup. I was THAT teacher. Every day at lunch, gobs of students would bring their square pizza, their mushy tator tots, and their teeny tiny cartons of chocolate milk to my room. It’s not because I was their best friend or anything. I’d be lucky if they even said two words to me. Sure, some of them would ask me advice, tell me about their problems, or chit-chat about life. But most of them just wanted to escape their Hell: The middle school lunchroom.

I know this Hell well. If middle school was Hell, then the lunchroom was the 7th circle for me when I was a kid. Let me think of a few reasons:
1. I had to eat in front of people.
2. I had to endure the daily popularity contest of who to sit with.
3. I had to feel the rejection of being at the “loser table”…
4. While watching the popular kids frolic at the “cool table” and actually enjoy their youth.

I loved being the safe-haven room. Sure, it was an extra five minutes at the end of each day picking up trash left behind by mostly misfit and unique students (the ones that draw really good comics and who get in trouble for reading their own books during class), and sure, I never got any moment of “alone time” during my day, but I loved having my computers filled with kids playing nerdy computer games, sitting in peaceful giddiness, the bullies in another universe on the other side of the school.

This year, as I am at a different school, I hoped the position of “Lunch Teacher” was not already filled. It seemed, at first glance, that no teachers invited students to their rooms for lunch. YES! SHOTGUN!!!

On Day Two I found out why.

Students are not permitted to leave the cafeteria.

Sure, you can bring one student up for the awkward one-on-one goody-goody lunch with the teacher, but students aren’t allowed the freedom to say hey, ya know what, I think I’m going to NOT experience the worst part of middle school today.

So I’ve decided that if they can’t come to me, I will come to them.

I was seriously nervous as I approached the cafeteria today. I went for fashionably late, after most students had stood in line for their gourmet lunches. I didn’t want to be sitting alone at a table and then have kids avoid me.

The noise was deafening as I approached the burgundy double doors. My heart raced. It was like being a middle schooler all over again. What if nobody wants to sit with me? Seriously? As a kid that’s devastating. As a teacher? Suicide!

With an incredibly rough two weeks of school behind me (you have no idea), I haven’t felt a connection with many of my students. I swallowed. This was it. Make or break.

I pushed through the doors into the roar of chatter. I scanned the room. Seriously, felt like a middle schooler. I had no idea where to sit. Do I just walk up and sit down? Do I ask if this seat is taken? Will someone wave me over???

Pretty sure I was having a heart attack.

Also felt extremely self-conscious about the mini tuna fish kit and fiber bar I had brought for lunch.

I slid over to the table closest to the door, which had one seat open and which was full of girls giggling. I saw one particular student at the table and knew they were gossiping about a fight that happened earlier in the week. Oh great. They aren’t going to want the teacher they hate most in the world to come sit down and spoil their eager conversation.

But I did it. I just did it. I tried to make it look nonchalant. Doubt if they noticed my shaking hands. Look at me! Teaching for over a year and nervous to eat lunch with my students. The middle school lunchroom was bringing back all sorts of horrible memories. I feel sorry for the teachers who have lunch duty.

Conversation at the table ceased. The girls looked at me and giggled. I was like, ohmygod, are they laughing at me?

“Hey, guys! What’s up? What are you talking about?” They laughed and said they couldn’t tell me because I was a teacher. I said sure you can! They looked at me weird. They asked me what I was eating and said it looked weird. I told them about my food items and prodded them to continue talking. Much to my surprise, they did! As if I weren’t even there, they began gossiping again. It was amazing. I felt like some sort of anthropologist observing this mysterious creature, the middle schooler, engaged in a bizarre social ritual (middle school lunch).

Suddenly the curiosity about my lunch overwhelmed the group of seven girls, and the attention turned to me. They were dying to know what I was eating. I explained the fiber bar, and decided that I needed to make a peace offering. I opened the package and tore off chunks of what I consider to be disgusting diet food and passed it around. Each girl ate it enthusiastically. I explained to them what fiber is and its effect on the human body. They giggled and I warned them that no matter how much of the fiber bar they ate, I would not let them go to the bathroom in 5th period.

Suddenly, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 students were around me. Swarming me. Hugging me. Picking up the can of tuna fish. Playing with my hair. Begging me to tell them jokes. Asking me where I was from.

It took me 27 years, but today I finally got to be the Cool Kid at a middle school lunch.

Breakthrough. From now on, I shall shun the teacher’s lounge and eat with my babies.

3 Responses

  1. So. cool.

  2. laura

    my hero! Not only an amazing writer, teacher, comedian, and friend – but a true leader in every since of the word.

  3. Courtney

    I recently applied and I have my final interview on Monday. I’ve been reading everyone’s experience and wanted to say thank you for writing this blog. Your post made my eyes leaky and I vividly picture myself being this kind of teacher.

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a Teach For America teacher’s blog

St. Louis
Middle School

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