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Memories of barf and gravel

February 9, 2009

by Matt Kane

The good old days of juvenile behavior came to the forefront of my memory recently. It happened during a trip to Orono Intermediate School, where I was asked to speak to the fifth-grade classes about commentary writing, which, according to the fifth-grade teachers, is seen in this column every week.

This was the third year I spoke to the pupils, and all went well. I managed to complete a few sentences and spew a couple thousand words at the students, hoping something I said made sense.

After answering students’ questions, ranging from where I get my ideas for my columns to which team do I think is going to win the Super Bowl during the morning session, I was treated to lunch by the host teacher, Ms Bacon.

And, oh, what a treat that lunch was. There is nothing like school food. Apparently, by the Lean Cuisine she brought, Ms. Bacon didn’t feel the same way.

I ate “hot lunch” all the way through grade school, junior high and high school, and I never had a problem with what those orthodic-wearing lunch ladies, made famous in Adam Sandler’s hit song “Lunch Lady Land,” spooned onto my rectangular tray. I wasn’t at all worried about the food. Actually, I kind of liked some of the options my own school had when I was growing up, and I approved of what was on the menu at Orono this day.

Ms. Bacon escorted me through the food line, showing me the correct protocol. I felt guilty budging in line, but nobody seemed to mind. I guess that’s what happens when I’m bigger than they are, whether their dad could beat up my dad or not.

So, I picked out my fork, and placed it in the long, narrow compartment designed perfectly for a fork. Then, I scooped up some of the Asian lettuce salad (made Asian by the chow mein noodles), grabbed a paper cup full of peaches and cottage cheese, accepted an industrial-sized scoop of peas and carrots from a lunch lady, and picked out a half-dozen-or so pieces of breaded shrimp, or “Shrimp Mates,” (must be Australian), as the menu mounted inside one eager and most helpful fifth-grader’s locker said.

Shuffling through the lunch line, like a Pinto on the assembly line, thoughts of school lunches from 20 years ago raced through my mind.

I remembered referring to the often-served combination of mashed potatoes and beef gravy as “Barf and Gravel,” and the pizza rectangles with crust cut from a refrigerator box. I also remember, in junior high and high school, sprinting to the cafeteria to get a front-of-the-line spot on “Beefy Nacho” days, and convincing someone who brought his or her own lunch from home that day to stand in line with me so I could have seconds, immediately.

Getting back to my recent school lunch experience, while in line, I quickly realized I hadn’t planned my lunch line attack well, as several of the food items seemed out of place in the wrong lunch tray cubicle. I also realized, I wasn’t going to be hungry after I finished this meal. I’m wondering if all the students get that much food, or if it’s just the big ones, like me.

A dollop of tarter sauce, a squirt of “Asian” dressing for that “Asian” salad, and a carton of milk, and my lunch tray was overflowing budget-cutting, state-approved goodness.

With tray in hand, I was ready to take my seat in the lunchroom with a table full of pre-pimpled pupils, but Ms. Bacon led me in a different direction. She led me back up the stairs to the fifth-grade hallway, where, behind the big door of mystery, was the teacher’s lounge, full of hungry instructors.

Now, I don’t know about any of you readers, but, when I was in grade school, the teacher’s lounge was a big mystery to me. Like the captains’ lounge at the airport, the teachers’ lounge was that one room in the building I couldn’t set foot in despite a great desire to do so. It was that room where, whenever the door flung open when I was walking by, I stole a quick glance, thinking maybe I would discover some inner mystery of who, or what, my teachers actually were. I mean, how could those human-looking people, a.k.a. teachers, know so much about math, history, social studies and language arts? Their amount of knowledge just wasn’t natural. Maybe that “Teachers’ Lounge,” was where the teachers plugged themselves into some super computer — a Commodore 64 with a giant, 5-inch floppy disk containing “Oregon Trail,” of course — that would upload information pertaining to the teacher’s respective subjects of expertise into his, or her, or its brain.

It turns out, the teachers’ lounge doesn’t house some super computer, and the only thing plugged into any teacher is a pair of buds linked to an iPod. All the teachers do in there is eat lunch, read the newspaper, and joke around.

So, my first trip to the teachers’ lounge wasn’t what I expected (or maybe hoped) it would be when I was 12. I guess that’s OK. Anyway, I followed everybody else’s lead, and ate my lunch, proceeding to get full, and made small talk with Ms. Bacon.

Then, like the rest of those teachers, it was back to work. Back to sculpting our youth — the people who will one day run this world.

A world with school lunches and mystery rooms called teachers’ lounges.