Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Victory for School Lunches

No matter how early it is in the morning or how late the hour of the afternoon, deep musky notes of an unmarketable perfume remain stuffed at the tips of my nasal passages. It isn’t a gentle wafting of lightly scented flowers, or a flowing breeze of grandma – ma’s mouthwatering cookies or the acrid nose pinching smell of ammonia.

This is me during my Thermos
swigging days at P.S. 306. Some of the kids
had never seen anyone with red hair before
and they teasingly pulled at the ends, calling
it a wig. I remember that, Denise Waring!
It was the odor of thousands of public school lunches from many yesterdays, of boiled hot dogs and over boiled red baked beans poured from industrialized drums of institutionalized food bleached into pale cinderblock walls and floors of the cafeteria and in my nostrils. With the heat turned up during the clammy winters at Brooklyn’s P.S. 306 in East New York, these dark funky smells were released like heavy clouds of ozone that couldn’t be brushed away.
Hot dogs and beans were not part of my diet because my mother felt that her lunches were better than the culinary treats of the government sponsored lunch program. And it was cool to carry a lunchbox. We lived in the Linden Houses in the East New York section of Brooklyn and my mother, her hands full with three kids under the age of six, packed the same sandwich into my lunch box every day: one slice of bologna and one slice of American cheese stuck between two slices of Wonder white bread or oily tuna fish stirred into mayonnaise and tossed between two slices of, you guessed it, Wonder white bread. One of my best friends was Donna Miller and she and her mother were most sympathetic to my troubles. Once a week or so, Mrs. Miller would pack her daughter’s own lunchbox with an extra tuna sandwich on a roll. To this day, I’ve never had better tuna. My own sandwich was ditched with a one-arm shot into the nearest trashcan.
A glass thermos fitting neatly into a Barbie or Snoopy metal or plastic lunch box was filled with sticky and sweet Hi-C fruit punch or replaced by a can of chocolatey Yoo-Hoo, my favorite. And off I went to P.S. 306 for seven years, trudging through snow, running through rain, and skipping along with my friends, with my lunch box in hand.

Here am I, third row on the left aisle wearing a big smile and big glasses in my sixth grade class photo. Donna Miller, whose mother made the best tuna sandwiches ever, is standing in the top row, center. This would have been the last year I carried a lunch box to school; in junior high we graduated to paper bags or lunch money for pizza.

My classmates and I sat together, segregated by our class numbers with most of us traveling together from kindergarten through sixth grade, elbow to elbow at long Formica tables with attached benches in the lunchroom. My less fortunate companions (or more fortunate, depending on how you look at it—some people love bologna) ate from separate compartments of a plastic tray: Red beans swam together in a greasy ocean in one section, one rust colored hot dog outfitted with a white bread bun in another, a small red apple, and a pint carton of milk standing tall in the back section. For the rest of us, our lunch emerged from fictionalized characters painted on lunch boxes; opening a metal latch above Peanuts or The Partridge Family revealed a circular Thermos lined with glass, a package of Devil Dogs or Twinkies or Yankee Doodles, and a squashed sandwich wedged next to it. Once in a while, an oddball kid emptied his or her lunch from a brown paper bag onto the table. They were pitied, not scorned, because when you heard the glass shards rattling around inside of your broken Thermos or the lid flapped open because the latch broke on the box or you lost it, you were that kid.
The trials and tribulations of lunch served in compartments came back to me years later when I taught writing in a junior high school in the outer borough of Queens. An arts program hired me to bring writing and photography lessons to four to five different schools across the boroughs for six to ten week sessions, four classes a day. Queens seemed like the end of city and blocks were lined with familiar tall brick housing developments, very much like the one I grew up in.
            One of my four classes was a Special Education one,  in a small classroom with an odd rectangular shape and just one small window that looked like a child’s sketch. The window hung at one short end, the classroom door at the other, and the blackboard stood behind me, and we all rested above the cafeteria ovens.
This Special Ed class began at ten in the morning and even before I arrived, that all too familiar smell had risen, as predictable as Mayor Bloomberg’s Spanish mispronunciations and a reminder that school lunches hadn’t changed in the decades since I sat at Formica tables and benches with my friends at P.S. 306 and unpacked my lunch box.
            I knew what the lunch ladies were cooking on most days and because the temperature in the room was so high, I was cooking, too. My students would confirm what was on the limited menu and they were impressed by my powers of scent.
Hamburgers?
            Right!
Hot dogs and beans?
Yeah!
Chicken patties?
We’re still not sure what that was, Miss Arlene.
This class of seventh graders was surprisingly quiet. Of course. The heat and closeness of the air left everyone in a stupor. Perspiration rolled down my back, the waist bands of my pants were damp, my throat was as dry as toast, and I moved around like I was in a thick cotton cloud. I often found myself staring ahead without blinking and losing track of my thoughts. No one seemed to notice, or they were too polite to tell me.
Special Ed in itself is compartmentalized from the rest of the student population. This class seemed to be a bouillabaisse soup filled with kids of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, and physical and mental disabilities. One young African American woman, sentenced to Special Ed because she suffered from epileptic seizures, sat quietly in the back of the room. Her writing was surprisingly sophisticated and far advanced, I thought, for the seventh grade and Special Ed. Her full energy seemed to be poured into the small essays we wrote. She wrote and daydreamed, resigned, in a classroom filled with many who truly belonged in there and who required additional teaching services.
            One tall carrot of a kid didn’t look like the others. His eyes were bright and alert and when you looked at his face you could see someone and something struggling to emerge. I can’t recall his name; it might have been Donald or Kevin or Paul. He, too, was sentenced to Special Ed, because he stuttered. He couldn’t get words out as quickly as other students could but it didn’t affect his listening skills, his writing, or his demeanor, which was gentle and respectful to his classmates, to his teacher, to me. No one in this class made fun of him. They wouldn’t dare; they had their own issues and these could be turned against them. An administrator must have made the decision to shield this young man from sometimes the harsh reality of his peers in junior high school and placed him in Special Ed, where he was stunted and protected in another way, and not allowed to ferment and grow.
My first writing assignment for this new class of mine was to write about each other. There was no money for photography or art supplies so the students paired up, with guidelines from me.
Tell me something about your classmate, as if you’re writing a letter to a stranger who has never seen them before.
What does your classmate look like?
What are they wearing?
What garment is long, short, striped, what are the colors and shapes?
            While Ticonderoga yellow number two pencils moved slowly and carefully on large lined loose-leaf paper, I swallowed a swig of water and wiped perspiration from my damp forehead with tissues that left lint in my eyebrows. The classroom teacher, quiet, patient, well coiffed and experienced, split the class in half and we reviewed the work individually. 
Several students were clinically astute in their writing, even noting clothing labels by manufacturer, care label, and size. I praised them for their attention to detail. Some could only write their names. Another pointed out a hole in a sweater, long eyelashes and even larger feet. Our young man who stuttered attacked his paper after looking his classmate up and down and around. He approached my desk.
“Can you look at my work?” he stammered.
“Sure, “ I said. “Let’s have a look.”
What a bountiful description of the student he wrote about: I recognized her immediately through his writing. But everything was out of order. The first paragraph included details about her clothing, and so did the second and the third. It was if he was stuck as to where to put everything, a series of stops and starts. A line describing her hair sat in one paragraph and then in another and then another. I attempted to explain how to consolidate information into one paragraph but I could see we weren’t connecting.
Suddenly, like smelling salts lifting a prizefighter from the canvas of a boxing ring, I caught a whiff of the cafeteria lunch. Today it was the eternal and aforementioned lunch hot dogs and beans.
I’ve got it. Compartments, like on a lunch tray or in a lunch box.
“Okay,” I explained to him. “Here’s how it works. Every idea goes into its own compartment, its own box. So if you’re describing a hot dog, all of the details like the dog and the bun and the mustard go into one compartment.  And that compartment is a paragraph.
“Say you’re writing about hair. Details about hair all go together in the same compartment. Just like the supermarket. You’ll find the ice cream is in its own section, not mixed in with the meat or bread. Boxes of cereal are all together. So when you’re writing, keep the details about each item, subject in their own compartment. And think of that compartment as a paragraph.”
He sat across from me and I could see the words struggling to come out.
“Now, I get it!” he exclaimed, beaming.
He rewrote his paper and handed it back to me. All of the details were organized into separate paragraphs. Not a period or comma or detail out of place. I wished I had saved the assignment. But it belonged to him. A+. Well done. I could have hugged him.
            I wonder what happened to this student.  He must be in his mid twenties by now, long out of junior high and high school and hopefully, college. Does he still stutter? Does he remember that lesson?

            I do. As for me, I still refuse to eat hot dogs and beans, remain traumatized by those bologna sandwiches, still search for tuna sandwiches as delirious as Mrs. Miller’s, and I find myself acquiring new plastic lunches boxes filled with compartments that I use to store buttons and thread. And when it’s late at night and I’m thrashing out an idea while writing, there’s nothing more comforting than running out to the corner bodega for a sandwich, a package of Devil Dogs or Twinkies or Yankee Doodles washed down with a Yoo-Hoo.  No bologna here, literally, figuratively and metaphorically.
As long as everything, including words, is in its proper place, I can begin.

Author’s Note: The Peanuts lunchbox in the photo is not part of  my childhood but a recent eBay purchase.  I wonder how many childhoods this lunchbox passed through. Due to circumstances beyond my control, several sandwiches and bottles of Yoo-Hoo were consumed before the photograph was taken. And due to the author’s perpetual aversion to bologna and to a lesser extent, American cheese, genoa salami and provolone were happily substituted in the photograph. I am thrilled to report that Hostess cupcakes with swirls and the Yankee Doodles pictured here are just as tasty as I remember them, but seem a bit smaller. Perhaps I am a bit larger. The Yoo-Hoo, still boasting to be a good source of vitamins and minerals, now comes in a glass bottle. An extra day at the gym has been added to my routine as a result of this essay.

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