I was a public school lunch kid. It wasn’t a stigma. I just didn’t bring my lunch to school.
I’m not sure when I realized that other kids consistently brought lunches with them, or when I understood that I *didn’t* have someone packing my lunch in the morning (or the evening before). If I wanted anything other than what was on the menu at the school’s cafeteria, I would need to wake up early and bring it myself. And it’s not because my dad was a bad parent (he was and is a *great* parent). I just don’t think he thought of those things.
School lunches were clearly the most practical option. Variety, convenience, socialization. I’d like to think my dad calculated the cost of packing lunches every day (“25 cents for bread slices, 30 – 45 cents for deli meat and a slice of cheese, 15 cents for a pint of milk or juice box…”) and weighed it against the cost of the annual school lunch “card.” Not only was it cost effective to eat lunch at school, it was a good way to make sure I developed social skills. Whether I chose to eat my lunch alone or in a group, I at least had to squeeze through the cafeteria line shoulder to shoulder with other children of efficiency-minded parents.
But those brown paper amulets, rough and crinkly. Sometimes with a staple at the top of the folded peak. These set a kid apart. By the time you were sitting down at the table with your plastic molded platter of orange-colored yam discs, homemade sandwiches were already half-eaten and some kids had already skipped ahead to the pudding cups that weighed down the bottom of the bag.
When did I start thinking of kids who brought their school to lunch as self-important and superior? That’s right — It was Jane.
Jane was a year ahead of me in school. Blonde, pretty (with glasses, like me, so she was still in a class I could reasonably compare myself to), and she was smart. Really smart. Though I didn’t know her personally, I was aware of her — in the same way all insecure middle school girls are aware of any potential threat.
When she moved into the ninth grade, I joined her former middle school Odyssey of the Mind team. There was a mysterious aura of “Jane” surrounding everything we did.
“What if we write a song to sing during the introduction?”
*“Oh, do you remember last year when Jane sang an impromptu song when the boom box wasn’t working at competition?”*
“Well, maybe it could be like a Greek chorus, you know, with everyone singing?”
*“Jane could always come up with a good rhyme and keep the line in iambic pentameter.”*
“Is anyone listening?”
*“Jane, Jane, Jane.”*
What a bitch.
When middle school was over, my friend group naturally attached itself to Jane again. I was no longer safe from Jane-in-the-flesh.
I wish I could have seen it as a blessing — the idea of someone is always bigger and more intimidating than the person themselves. But I wouldn’t be aware that our shared human frailty and need for love and belonging extended to Jane until years later (that is, after college). What had been an aura now was real, threatening, nauseating life.
She had already taken a full year of Spanish. She had a full season of marching band under her belt. She was already taking trigonometry and AP English. And whatever boobs she had in eighth grade were now, in tenth grade, massive. Kill me.
It should come as no surprise that Jane brought her lunch to school every day.
Unlike every other kid I knew who brought their lunch to school, somehow Jane’s rough brown paper bag at the lunch table soured my taste against kids who brought their lunches. (And yes, it *was* worse that her sandwiches were in the fold-top plastic baggies instead of the zip-top baggies. What the hell were those?)
She would have her lunch laid out in front of her by the time I got to the table: turkey and cucumber sandwich on white bread (no crust), carrots that were *clearly* chopped from larger carrots (not the convenient kind that came pre-wrapped in a bag at the supermarket), exactly five pringles chips, and a pudding cup (always chocolate). When she didn’t have an obnoxious Capri Sun, she had a soda… proof that she had money to spend in the cafeteria vending machines when her expensive juice boxes weren’t enough. Everything was outside of it’s original package and placed on top of it, neatly ordered. A presentation. She ate only one thing at a time. Smugly.
It was a combination of the brand-name food, the meticulous preparation, the occasional soda, and the incredible consistency of her lunches that gave off an aura that Jane, despite her being the best at *everything* at school, was also well loved and materially taken care of at home. I was well taken care of, too. I had new clothes every semester, fresh pens and paper, full meals every night and healthy cereal every morning. But I didn’t have parents who had time on their hands to assemble lunches every day, much less *cut off the crusts of my sandwiches for me*.
Of course in my adolescent rage toward Jane’s existence (I was definitely more upset at the thought that she existed, rather than directly at her or anything she did), I never considered that she might be making her own lunches and meticulously cutting crusts from her sandwiches and cutting up whole carrots. Nope, never crossed my mind until right now, at age 31, as I write this.
Her well-ordered and consistently-prepared lunches were proof positive that she thought herself superior to me and to everyone around her. Jane’s lunches definitely were not windows into my own insecurities about my family and my home life, the adolescent ennui that would stick on my back through adulthood like a sunburn.
That’s probably why, one day in junior year, I jumped on the opportunity to take the crinkly forgotten bag lunch underneath my chair in World History.
Here it was! A chance to eat a sandwich that someone prepared in a home (not in a cafeteria assembly line), to be surprised by someone else’s thoughtfulness (“I wonder what kind of sandwich it is!”). For once, I could sit down at a near-empty cafeteria table before all the other lunch-line kids had to start squabbling for a seat.
The sandwich was… anti-climactic. Just a turkey sandwich on french bread with a smear of cream cheese on one side. (Cream cheese?!) I acted like it was the best sandwich In the world.
That same day Jane came back from a few days absence. She had oral surgery. The roof of her mouth was raw and tender (maybe they had to replace some appliance in her braces?). She winced that day when she ate her five pringles chips.
I was oddly satisfied.