Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Politics of Hot Dogs

School cafeterias always terrified me.

My family moved frequently, and so I was always the new girl, and while it's a pretty straightforward thing to get your bearings in the classrooms where there are well-meaning teacher saying things like 'look, class, we have new student today; please don't terrorize her,' it's quite another story in the cafeteria.

The cafeteria is anarchy. The high school cafeteria, in particular, is the social epicentre of a naturally lawless society that strains against the rules and strictures that are imposed upon it in every other corner of the institution to which it is confined. In the classroom, the inmates follow the rules. In the hallways, in the gymnasium, in the library - the norms are set by the adults. In the cafeteria, however, the students rule, with no greater restraint than that offered by a few hair-netted food service professionals. It is their space, and their time, to do with what they will, and they organize themselves therein anarchically - no law, just conventions, those informal but nonetheless intractable social mores determining where people sit and with whom people speak that are usually impossible for outsiders to decode. It is, for a newcomer or an outcast - terrifying.

So I almost always, in the first weeks of my attendance at a new school, and sometimes for much longer, brought my own lunch and sat in the hall with a book and affected nonchalance. I would nibble at my peanut butter sandwich or my crackers and cheese and keep my nose well-tucked between the pages of Are You There God, It's Me Margaret, or, later, The Bell Jar and pretend to not hear the hoots and hollers and not smell the hot greasy fries from down the hall. My mother was well-pleased that I insisted upon bringing my own lunch - she, too, had a horror of school cafeterias, although hers was culinary rather than, like mine, existential or social - and gladly spent an extra twenty minutes every morning fashioning sandwiches and fruit boxes and murmurming to herself about how wonderful a thing that I did not like hot dogs and soda pop. As it goes, I didn't like hot dogs or pretty much anything that was ordinarily served in school cafeterias in the late eighties, but this was not why I avoided them. My distaste for cafeteria cuisine only served as a convenient truth, facilitating my efforts to avoid the cafeteria without alerting anxious grown-ups to my social fears.

I always got to the cafeteria eventually. I inevitably made friends and formed bonds and became attuned to the language and the mores of the tribe and was able to move among them and, eventually, enter their social arena without fear. So it was that I, too, would move slowly along the food line, refusing the hot dogs and the limp fries and maybe, maybe, selecting a yogurt to accompany the home-packed lunches that I still brought with me, every day.

Just in case. And because I never developed a taste for hot dogs.

Too cool for hot dogs, but not too cool for ice cream and shaaaades. Basically: NOT TOO COOL.

I went to some pretty nice schools - some public, some private, some Catholic - and none of them ever had a school menu program or an program that got families involved in the business of feeding the kids. The cafeterias at every school that I attended were strictly utilitarian, and tended toward menus that featured fries and hamburgers and hot dogs and all the things that as a casual vegetarian and wannabe epicure I hated as a kid (I know. GEEK.) My experience, then, might have been different had there been programs that looked anything like School Menu or Family Everyday , sites that work together with School Food Services Directors to provide and promote healthy eating and physical fitness for kids and their parents. Which is the sort of thing that kids roll their eyes at, usually, but which would have made a tremendous difference to my experience as a kid. Cafeterias were not for eating - and how could they be, when they didn't really serve food? Why NOT throw greasy fries around, or cold hot dogs?

I'm not saying that a healthy eating program would have changed the politics of the cafeteria - I'm certain that it wouldn't - but it would have given me more of a reason to fight my way in there (or have my mom shove me in. Which, now, as a mom, I think is a really good idea.)

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Laura Lohr said...

Your selection of books brought me way back. Judy Blume was the best!

I love your school picture! Nice touch!

FabGirl said...

OH GOD, high school cafs were the worst! That's why as soon I became a sophmore, I went off campus for lunch each day. Oh, and because I was a big nerd.
Loved the pic. I have very similar, except my sunglasses were a lovely white!

MotherBumper said...

Too cool for high school (cafeterias, that is). I swear I had the exact same outfit and baby, I read the Bell Jar and Catcher in the Rye like they were bibles. How I lived to see my twenties is beyond me ;)

Mimi said...

Oh, the caf. Who sits where? Who gets to nibble who else's fries? Whose mother wraps their oranges in plastic wrap?


One of my friends refused to walk through the door of that hell-hole unaccompanied. And she was one of the popular girls. I was happy to oblige her ... 'cause then I wasn't walking in alone either.

Thank god I lived close enough to home to walk back there for lunch. And thank god for lunchtime drama club rehearsals.

Fidget said...

That picture is very Debbie Gibson of you!

Electric Youth!

Elizabeth said...

I think you look totally cool! I was one of those on-the-fringe types who moved between different groups-I would have tried to hang out with you back then. But not in the cafeteria, ours had a (shudder) BAKED POTATO BAR.

Lady M said...

Love that picture. I think I still have those shades.