When I signed up to be a lunch lady, no one told me there would be self-serve condiments. It is a horror show.
I didn't know that tiny five year-old hands would grapple with adult-sized ketchup dispensers. I had never laid eyes on a five-gallon bucket of ranch dressing, or realized how quickly 160 (or so) kids can tear through said bucket when left to their own devices.
The students stack their condiment-covered trays in my window only after they have navigated the byzantine regulations regarding the disposal of their trash. We are in the Portland metro area, after all, so there are four different waste receptacles from which they need to choose. This necessitates special training every fall, one classroom at a time. My kids usually bring their lunch and just pack all their trash home, thereby garnering a few extra precious minutes of recess time.
The younger students often comment on the state of their trays as they hand them over to me.
"You might want to wash this," says one earnest first-grade boy, as he sets down a tray with ranch dripping from a corner.
"It's pretty dirty," says one little girl sheepishly as she passes her tray over. I tell her that's OK.
"Wash this tray!" demands a Kindergartner, whose tray is barely visible beneath a lake of ranch dressing.
"Wash it!" she says the next day. "Wash this!" the next.
"That's not very polite," I let her know. She doesn't say that anymore. Now she just sets her tray down with a smile.
So many of them want to share:
"I ate all my lunch!"
"My tray is clean!"
"Look, I lost my tooth!"
They come in waves, dismissed from lunch one table at a time, one grade at a time. If any student stops to say more than a single sentence to me, the line gets held up, and all the kids start bouncing off each other in something akin to a freeway pile-up. I try to get the talker to stand to one side. If he doesn't, kids will start reaching over and around with their dirty trays. If things get to that point, the applesauce will start to fly (applesauce--WHY, God?) and at least one person will get clocked in the face with a tray. So I try to keep the conversations short and sweet if I can.
One day a first-grade boy approached with a tray in each hand. He was slight and rail-thin, with short blond hair sticking up from his head.
"This is my friend's tray," he said, only barely managing to set it down without dropping it. I saw a sturdy round girl just behind him, half a head taller, with long, dark disheveled hair. She was sniffling.
"She got hurt. I'm taking her to the health room," he said. And he put his scrawny arm around her broad shoulders and gently guided her down the hallway. That happened at the start of last year. It made me feel like maybe I could stick around for a while.
A month after that, one of my favorite fifth graders came by. The first time I met her, she had walked into the kitchen to help. Her very first words to me were, "We're reading the book Holes. It is SO GOOD. Do you like that book?" She talked like a modern-day Valley girl, and I found her delightful and terrifying. She popped up in my window on picture day.
"I can't help in the kiiiiiiiiiitchen," she trilled. "It's picture daaaaay." She wore a fancy dress and lipstick, and her hair was curled. She stood there in the window, and I became concerned as a line began to form behind her.
"I'm wearing heels!" she said. "Really!" The next thing I knew, she had vanished. But then an arm appeared in my window. It was waving an espadrille with a two-inch jute wedge heel. I could hear her voice coming from the other side of the wall, somewhere near the floor.
I affirmed they were indeed legit, and off she went to recess.
And the kids kept coming to my window.