I’m not so far removed from my school days back in Jersey that I’m unaware of the code. It’s unwritten and it’s unspoken, but it’s there. It’s everywhere. The school yard has a code, the bathroom has a code, and for sure the cafeteria has a code.
Now I went to a Catholic school, we didn’t have a lunch room. We ate at our desks with little terry cloth towels laid out for cleanliness sake. But still I know the code of the lunch room. All of that is the build up for what was coming.
So when I did my room mother duties in Frank’s classroom it took me right up to the lunch hour. I decided to go experience the lunchroom with my eldest child. I mean how bad could it be. From what I had seen so far that morning, the kids are well behaved. Plus it’s not like they’ll be alone in there. I’m sure some teachers get stuck with the duty. Well one thing became clear quickly; Frank’s teacher did not have the duty.
The kids walked quietly down the hall in two groups: those that bring their lunch and those that buy lunch. Bringers go in before buyers. Either way both kids made a left face and went into the lunch room. Frank’s teacher waved goodbye and hightailed it to the teachers lounge. She knows from whence she escapes. I, on the other hand, had to follow the kids.
It was a bit surreal watching my 5yr old essentially function on his own with no one telling him what to do. He found a seat, busted out his lunch and got busy, just like a worker taking a break. No grown ups, no teachers, just Frank and his buddies having lunch. He seemed so much older at that moment. As much as I was enamored and slightly dismayed at watching my son age before my eyes I knew this would be a delicate situation.
I cautioned myself to tread lightly here. One misstep could upset the balance of power in the lunchroom. Empires can fall over one careless lunchroom faux pas. The ripple effect of that could reach far and wide. My first test presented itself. There was an empty seat next to Frank. My action here could decide Harvard or trade school.
One of his buddies jumped into the empty seat. I moved to the next seat over. I could see Frank getting torqued over me not sitting next to him. That caught me off guard. I figured he didn’t want his old man sitting with him. Frank tells me to sit next to him. I actually have to ask the the kid next to Frank if he wouldn’t mind scooting over to the next seat. He did. For about 3 seconds. Then he got up and sat at an entirely different table. No one else at our table seemed to care. I can feel the pillars of kid justice shake just a bit.
So I sit next to Frank and he was happy. I was happy he was happy. But I have no lunch. Frank has a 6 or 7 digit code to buy lunch and I could certainly use that but I’m not standing in line with 40 kindergartners. Just not gonna do it. Besides it was only 10:45 and there was a General Tso chicken calling my name on the ride home. So I sat and we all talked.
I’ve experienced the student protection society from the teacher prospective as an instructor at the NCO Academy. I was unaware it started in kindergarten. Well this group is clear on the concept. The gang starts extolling Frank’s virtues. I’m all like, Hey fellas, I get it. Kid’s a saint. Surprisingly that drew a collective chuckle. Quite an advanced humor pallet this group. Then they revert to tricking me into saying underwear.
I was ready for this on two fronts. First, I’ve known this joke since I was younger than them. Second, Mrs Frank’s place repeatedly fell victim to this little joke during her day as room mother. Such a sheltered southern belle. So even though I didn’t need the forward intel, it gave me time to craft a response. A retaliatory strike if you will.
Every time they excitedly said Hey what’s under there? Hoping I would say, Under where? so they could laugh their little heads off, I would reply with showing my closed fist and saying You mean in here? When they look in, because lets face it they’re a bunch of kids they can’t help but look, I would spring my empty hand open and shout. They would jump back and I would laugh. Right. In. Their. Face. Boom!
I was looking good to escape the Thunder-dome in tact. And then…
The runt across from me couldn’t peel the foil off his juice cup. He hands it to me. I start to peel it. No words are spoken in this exchange. It’s man stuff. It’s the lunchroom. Almost have it all off and then some other runt falls against the table trying to get up while balancing his tray. He was holding it like it was filled with nitro glycerine. Good thing it wasn’t or we’d all have been vaporized.
But he hit the table and the juice is now all over me. The runt who handed it to me just looks. His eyes are widening but he’s trying to gauge my expression for permission to laugh. I gave him the exasperated Oh man! he and the rest of the table was looking for. The laughter exploded.
I get it. I mean it’s not all that funny, but I get it. Plus, much like the hobos that made fun of me in the church parking lot when they found out I was in the military, (read here: Sunday’s with Ricky) the lunch table laughter meant I was in. One of the guys. And that’s cool no matter what. Well not no matter what. I let that little rush go to my head.
As lunch comes to a close the kids follow the cues and line up to go to their next class. I walk with Frank, still feeling good about being the cool dad. I tell Frank I’m heading out and to have a good day. He’s not talking and has a strange look on his face. I disregard and move on for a hug. Bad move man, bad move.
He hugged me but it was uninspired. He wasn’t happy about it. The prior look on his face turned out to be his fear I would try and hug him in front of his bros. Lunchroom code man, it’s not to be trifled with.
I had no sooner stood up when I heard for two different voices from the line, neither of them Frank, mockingly say Bye bye daddy I love youoooooo!
Well, trade school it is.