Friday, October 21, 2011

Lunchroom visit shows how far kids have come

From today's Briefing:

This school year is a series of lasts in our family.
It’s Cooper’s sixth and final year in grade school. We’ve already conquered his last meet-the-teacher night and last first day of elementary school, a cozy place where everybody knows your name.
As more last moments pile up, I’m feeling particularly sentimental.
Thankfully, I’ve got the perfect antidote in Katie, who still has almost five full years of elementary school. Cooper will be moving on to lockers and electives and a long list of teachers and a whole bunch of new students, but Katie still has years of cubbies and rotating specials and one classroom teacher and a smaller circle of friends.
Cooper will be moving on to lunch breaks in which parents are pariahs. Katie still has years of lunch periods in which parents are welcome, even hugged upon arrival.
At our school, parents are welcome any day to join their children for lunch. A row of tables in the back of the cafeteria is reserved for folks to sit with their kids and visit — even eat a slice of pizza or some steak fingers if you’d like.
A couple of days a year, parents volunteer as cafeteria monitors so that teachers can enjoy a PTA-prepared appreciation luncheon — secluded from their energetic charges.
There’s a lot to learn from a 30-minute cafeteria shift. The most obvious: Teachers perform miracles daily.
They wrangle disparate personalities, learning styles, struggles and strengths. They don’t get to turn this off. They manage all those differences while teaching reading, writing and reasoning. They monitor behavior during hallway transitions and assemblies and recess.
They keep their teacher hats on while helping to open water bottles, clean up spills and mediate disputes during lunch.
Another observation: Dessert often gets eaten first. And piles of food go to waste. I seriously wonder if our generation of parents needs to revive the old “There are children starving in (fill in the blank)” line.
Another cafeteria truth: The younger the child, the needier the child.
During my first-grade lunchroom shift, I fetched a bandage and patched a paper cut; cleaned a chocolate milk spill and found a pair of spare pants for the milky child (who happened to be my own first-grader); opened more bottles and packages than I can remember; fielded questions about life and death from an especially curious table; granted permission for various children to go to the bathroom, return to the lunch line or get a drink of water; and encouraged a handful of children to keep their pockets on their chairs, their hands to themselves and their voices low.
Later that day, I worked fifth-grade lunch. If a fifth-grader needs something, he motions with a specific hand signal. He waits for a wave of approval and then carries on.
So, during that half-hour I mostly stood with fellow volunteers and chatted. I did say hello to Cooper, ruffling his hair and then retreating so he could resume conversation unabated. (Whereas first-grade Katie would have preferred I sit by her side the entire lunch — clearly impossible given the nature of the work required.)
Standing on the sidelines of Cooper’s lunch, instead of in the trenches, I was feeling sentimental. And strengthened.
Cooper and his peers aren’t quite ready for middle school, but they’re close.
For the most part, they know how to follow the rules and control their bodies and emotions. As they’ve taken on more responsibilities, they’ve gained more independence. They don’t need help punching a straw in a juice box, and they often don’t need help settling disputes.
I can’t promise that I won’t find lots to cry about as this year of “lasts” continues. But I’m comforted knowing that the timing is right. And that next school year we’ll have a whole bunch of “firsts.”
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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