Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Memories of School Food

The people behind the Memories of School Food contest at NBC must be counting on the fact that they're opening a Pandora's box of formative traumas. The only place I remember more grade school angst going down was at actual recess.

I went to Catholic school, where we had rules for everything, poly-blend uniforms, and mass on Fridays. And nuns. An army of them, scorning our innocence into military-like precision under the beatific gaze of our loving Lord Baby Jesus and Virgin Mother. I encountered my first school-engineered meal in the first grade at Our Lady of Fatima. After months of knowing only the homemade fare packed into my metal Strawberry Shortcake lunch box, I piled into our burnt-orange 1981 Volvo one morning to my mother's shocking announcement: "I couldn't make you lunch this morning. Here's money to buy it." She handed me a tenner. This was more money than I had ever held in my entire six years, and I was stunned into silence. Buy it?...You mean like those kids whose mothers don't care about them? With this? No one is allowed to have $10 by themselves. The food stinks like grease and plastic...

Seeing my worry, my mom walked me into class, where she briefed Sister Ada about my monetary surplus situation. Sister slipped the bill into an envelope and said I could get it before lunchtime. As if I wanted to. Lunch eventually rolled around and I obediently picked up my cash and made my way into the eating hall line like a little prisoner clutching an atom bomb. My menu options were sweaty hot dog in flaming hot plastic or gritty hamburger in flaming hot plastic. Both sat shrieking under the gamma rays of a heat lamp. Distrustful of the grease collecting at the bottom of the hot dog packages, I chose a naked burger, burning the total crap out of my fingers.

My stomach churned as I approached the cash lady with my specimen, who did a double take at my loot. "This is all you have? This can't be all you have. Oh, well..." and she dug below to change the $9.25 in singles and coins. At which point I began sobbing because I had no idea what to do with all that money. (No pockets on a standard issue first-grade plaid jumper, strangely.) The lunch monitor jumped to my aid, promising to keep the money for me if I would just get some milk and sit down. Humiliated, I did so, taking refuge in my cold dairy goodness and nearly gagging on the smell of the burger as I attempted applying mustard to it.

My peace didn't last long. Sister Lucille, our 5 foot tall, bulldog of a principal in a dress, brought 80 clamoring children to a halting silence with the repeated bang of her keys on the metal cash box. "Who put the wrong money in here?!! Someone paid with ten dollars!! This is the WRONG MONEY! WHO PUT IT IN HERE?!" She was facing the children, and she wanted names. No one, apparently, had discussed with Sister Lucille the idea behind this particular form of currency being legal tender for all debts public and private. Nor the virtues of stocking the till with plenty of ones. I looked at the cash lady. She avoided my glance, probably nearly as afraid as I was. And that was the first time in my 16-year parochial education that I had the thought: To hell with the nun and her crazy talk, I've been through enough.

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