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School Lunches, or, What Cafeterias Taught Me About Seeing

for Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard

By Catherine DorianPublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 9 min read
School Lunches, or, What Cafeterias Taught Me About Seeing
Photo by Isabella Fischer on Unsplash

We were sitting at the lunch table, a rectangular piece of school manufacturing with six stools attached to either side, when someone mentioned Caitlin's crush in that way that middle school girls so often do. His name was Tommy McDowley. He was Caitlin's Tommy, and, apparently, as a table, we'd already invented an entire life between the two of them.

"Wait," I said. "Who's Tommy McDowley?"

"My God, Catherine." Gabby, a girl with a pointed nose and dimples at her cheekbones, rolled her eyes. "We talked about him yesterday."

"We did?"

"Yes, we did," Elisabeth confirmed.

"Uh-huh." Jen nodded, eyes wide behind her crustless tuna sandwich.

"I swear," Gabby said, addressing the rest of the table, "every time we're in the cafeteria, it's like her brain just shuts off." She flicked her fingers near my temple.

Caitlin, was quiet, carrying that strained, heavy expression of so many young girls in love, and I wondered if I disappointed her while I swallowed my questions about who Tommy was, what he looked like, where he was sitting in this arena of contained chaos. I didn't doubt that he'd been mentioned yesterday, but I didn't know how to explain my incredulousness.

School cafeterias were, for me, an environment that numbed. I'd stare off into a kaleidoscope of images that were at their whole nothing but at their finest points everything: the neon cans of green apple Izze lined behind the glass of the machine against the back wall, whose concrete was painted a glossy, gluey white; the perpetually twitching Kyle Schulz gesticulating to a pack of hyenic boys around a stack of trays piled with half-chugged chocolate milks; Bianca Dennis dumping her tray, splattering a firework of meat sauce on the black trash bag that lined the bin, Mr. DiDomenico meeting her recalcitrant gaze with an equally defiant stare.

My own table, where my friends of over five years shared secrets, was not obsolete. I appreciated its predictable, unmemorable banter and the consistency that came with us having reserved it as ours from the first day of sixth grade. I wanted to know the boys that my friends talked about, and I myself had crushes that I wanted to confess. But I didn't understand how anyone could engage in, much less retain, any sort of intimate conversation in the mess that was a school lunchroom. Moreover, I didn't understand how anyone could take a crush that seriously in a place like this one, where everything, especially us and our fixations, seemed impermanent.

I was, at the time, in a phase of constant overeating, a compulsion which perplexed my poor mother and plunged me into bouts of detached euphoria. School lunches weren't delicious, but many of them were reliably filling: meaty, saucy, cheesy concoctions paired with slices of French bread whose dryness was offset by butter and garlic; green beans soaked in sodium and peach slices basking in fructose; squares of mediocre yellow cake with pasty frosting and blue-and-red star-shaped sprinkles. These were the meals that I was conditioned to know and expect and whose monthly menu delivered. These were the meals that I bought with $2.50 and carried on a Styrofoam tray to my place at the table, where I'd sit, and, unable to organize the varied sources of stimulation around me, consume only what was in front me.

Only when I was finished would I think to ask who Caitlin's crush was. But even then, I was more apt to wonder if Kyle's friends made fun of him for his twitch or why Bianca was so angry all the time. Still out of myself, I participated in the cafeteria only as a spectator, bouts of curiosity guiding my consciousness.

Home wasn't any better. I was usually hungry again between the hours of three and four, and, after calling my mother at work to let her know that I'd made it off the bus, I'd scrounge the fridge for last night's leftovers, which I'd sometimes inhale cold from the Tupperware. I'd reach to the back of the cabinets, gathering graham crackers or cookies that I'd coat in peanut butter and jelly. I'd decide, then, that I wanted something salty, and go for the sesame sticks. Sometimes, I'd beg my brother to share a few chicken fingers or bagel bites, which he often made in the toaster oven after band practice.

I had no sense of the pacing that seemed to come so naturally to my friends, who stopped when they'd had their full. I had no way to explain that I never felt full.

My compulsion only tempered in bouts throughout high school and my early twenties. With age, I learned that I could escape myself in other ways besides food. Singing and accompanying myself with an acoustic guitar worked only until people demanded that I show them. Then, I developed a sort of comical, seductive persona, an alter-ego that I could only perform with playful self-mockery. I was too afraid to really pursue it, and, usually, after hours of callousing my fingers and fantasizing that I was Colbie Caillat, I'd retreat to the kitchen again, where, ashamed, I could forget myself in a box of Oreo's.

The only thing that brought me no shame was the privacy of my writing, which extrapolated so much from my mind and my hands that eating was not within the realm of functions needed for my survival. Writing was the practice I could keep private as I forgot myself to the page, which held me without reaction, praise, or question.


In Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, the writer Anne Lamott says that when her students don't know what to write about, she asks them to write about school lunches. My own students, upon hearing these directions, are often disbelieving, until they hear me read Lamott's explanation:

“Here is the main thing I know about public school lunches: it only looked like a bunch of kids eating lunch. It was really about opening our insides in front of everyone. Just like writing is. It was a precursor of the showers in seventh- and eighth-grade gym, where everyone could see your everything or your lack of everything, and smell the inside smells of your body, and the whole time you just knew you were going to catch something. The contents of your lunch said whether or not you and your family were Okay. Some bag lunches, like some people, were Okay, and some weren’t. There was a code, a right and acceptable way. It was that simple.”

Now that I'm a teacher, I usually have to attend one or two school lunches a week, whereby I and the other teacher on duty stand authoritatively at either entrance to the cafeteria. Bored, I pretend not to observe the array of lunches spread in front of my students, who I know by their IEP's, 504's, their calculated contributions to class, and panicked 3 AM emails that they don't expect me to answer. I know them, somewhat, by their writing. I try not to remember who brings half an Italian sub from last night's takeout or who asks for an extra apple from the lunch lady. I try not to look when the kid who speaks only with trepidation when speaking about literature orchestrates his table's cacophonous joy over some discovery that will punctuate the monotony of their overscheduled days. I try not to be noticed by the girl who just confessed to me that she can't really read when I stroll past her table — one millisecond of eye contact will pull her from the uncensored milieu that holds her without judgment.


I've been teaching for eight years, and I maintain that I am not meant to chaperone or participate in anything that resembles school lunches.

School lunches are invasive. They're just so public. The other day, a coworker was eyeing my combination of marinara, mozzarella, and pepperoni on a sweet potato. I felt obliged but also hesitant to explain that I was craving pizza but wasn't in the mood for anything bread-y, but I refrained. Justifying myself would signal insecurity.

But now that I've kicked my addiction to eating, I know that what bothers me about school lunches is their contradictory expectations.

In middle school, I wanted to be in the discussions that wove their way around and between our seats. I wanted to be enraptured with Caitlin's crush or Elisabeth's beef with some girl in her social studies class. But there was too much to see, too much to hear, too much to capture and store in the diverse galaxy that was the lunchroom. So, I folded into the things that felt tangible: the nuggets on my tray and the fragments of exuberance of impetuousness coming from the kids at the other tables, the kids who seemed like they could eat lunch in places like a lunchroom. I couldn't help but forget myself and stare.

I have a friend named John, who edits professionally and who I met at a coffee joint because we both enjoy reading the Atlantic. He says that he could tell that I was a writer from the moment he met me.

"It's your way of seeing things. That's how I can tell you're a writer. And Catherine, you are a writer."

I still get anxious when I'm in the lunchroom. I hate having to find the source of the potato chip bag that flew from one end of the room to the other and having to scold said kid and tell him to throw it away. I hate hovering over clusters of students as I remind them to scoop up their cookie crumbs.

What's most humiliating are our professional development days, when we're forced to endure a catered lunch in the cafeteria. Standing in line at the taco bar, I feel myself degenerate to sixth or seventh grade, and, when I join my colleagues, I must be there, or else face the shame of being an occupied seat in an otherwise boisterous cafeteria. I must pull myself out of myself. I must appear as if my brain is not shutting off.

In her essay, "Seeing," Annie Dillard explains that if she "wants to notice the lesser cataclysms of valley life," she has to "maintain in [her] head a running description of the present." "Otherwise," she continues, "especially in a strange place, I'll never know what's happening" (Dillard 704).

Lunchrooms are surely strange places. I wonder now if taking a catalogue of what I'm seeing is my only way of existing in a lunchroom.

Perhaps, my brain wasn't shutting off, as middle school Gabby deduced. I was just seeing too much, and, when I wasn't hiding in food, I was seeing in order to feel that I was there.

I don't really hide in food anymore, I think because I'm so comfortable hiding elsewhere: in stories that I pen in my notebook during meetings, in lessons I dream, using materials I create from scratch. But in lunchrooms, you can't really hide from what's in front of you.

When we're on lunch duty, the Dean of Students encourages us to find the students that sit alone, to sit with them while they eat and get to know them. But the thing I know about school lunches is that they are horrifically public rituals, and that students who are anything like I was — who are anything like I still am — may need this opportunity to assert what little privacy is possible in a situation as invasive as this one. They may need to stay within themselves, where, like Dillard, they can keep a running list of what they're seeing. That way, maybe they won't disappear.

Work Cited

Dillard, Annie. "Seeing." The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate, Anchor Books, 1995, pp. 693-706.


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About the Creator

Catherine Dorian

Writer and teacher. Sometimes, I write about teaching.

For me, writing is compulsive, but it never feels self-destructive; it’s the safest medium by which I can confront what scares me.

I've been told my Instagram needs a makeover.

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Comments (3)

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  • Rachel Robbins3 months ago

    What perceptive writing. This was so beautifully detailed.

  • Kendall Defoe 3 months ago

    I own a copy of the Lamott book, and I was very interested to see if there was any interest in it. A very interesting piece!

  • John Cox3 months ago

    Catherine, in this piece you have turned the lunch room into a universe of experiences and feeling. I won’t list all of the evocative phrases and sentences that I loved, because there are too, too many. Although ‘hyenic boys’ merits a special shout out. Several years ago I read a review for a book the title of which I have long forgotten (the book failed to do its review justice). The reviewer wrote “We contain multitudes,” but your writing demonstrates that you contain entire worlds. This essay brings the lunch room to extraordinary life!

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