Inside school cafeterias are complex societies full of a hyper-awareness of social status, in which popularity is traded like stock.
Carl Bosch has put in 10,119 days as an educator, with 56 left to go.
A middle school cafeteria is an adolescent version of a World Wrestling Federation cage match, except with hundreds of participants, played out mainly in words. If we want to make a cinematic reference it’s a giant mash-up of Animal House, Mean Girls, The Island of Misfit Toys, and the 1930’s “Our Gang” films. In the case of my current 8th grade class, 254 students eat in just a little less than a half hour. Four adults, three assigned teachers, and our dean of students try to monitor the scene. It’s a bit like observing at a zoo, except you’re in the cage, also.
There are cliques and groups, matchmaking and spats; comedians, clowns, cut-ups and connivers. It’s a prison ward lunchroom on adolescent hormones. You can find polite conversation, a lot of laughter, some studying, flirting, consistent drama, the infrequent tear, the even more infrequent fight, the creation of new friendships and the dissolution of old ones.
Oh yes, there’s also food.
When a new student at this age enrolls from another town, state or even country, there are new experiences to encounter. Many will produce a bit of anxiety. Will I figure out the school schedule? What will my teachers be like? How will I find my way around the school? Will my bus drop me off near home or will I be stranded? These and a thousand other worries wind through youngsters’ minds. But hands down, the most difficult questions of all: Where will I sit at lunch? Who will I sit with? How will I find my place?
Next, comes the question of middle school “status” and nowhere is that as clearly visible as in the cafeteria. Most students have an uncanny sense of who’s “in” and who’s “out”. (Or nearly “out”, or next to “in”, or know, at least, where “in” is. Does that make sense?) Let’s just call it “popdar”, for popularity radar. Students often see popularity as fixed, something like the four food groups or the periodic table of the elements. Yet, there is movement in the heavens: youngsters sometimes sell out and become “posers” in order to be accepted into the popular group. Others are cast out and banished to distant tables. Some stalwart fourteen year old souls move to other sections of the cafe of their own accord, sick of the soap opera and actually stating, “I can be myself,” when they settle down with new or different friends.
The cafeteria is a snapshot of an adolescent caste system without any definable criteria. Are the most popular the smartest kids? Some, but not all. Are they the best looking? Some, but not all. Are they the richest? The best athletes? The best suck ups to teachers? The most upstanding? The nicest? The funniest? The most talkative? Once again, some, but not all. One trait that many of the most popular kids share is a kind of attitude. A bit of an assertive nature, a misplaced confidence (at least with their peers) and sometimes, a sense of entitlement. It’s not very pretty.
Also there’s a group-think mentality—or possibly sugar or hormones are to blame—that takes place in some corners of the cafeteria. Individually quite fine, some cadres of breakout adolescents who have just imbibed seven fruit pies and chocolate milk seem to act as if they’re auditioning for the monkey scene from 2001, A Space Odyssey. It’s not hard to imagine them hooting on table tops and banging utensils as if they’re about to discover tools for the first time.
It’s a side show, replete with ringmasters and carnival acts. It’s noisy and frenetic like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. There’s melodrama abounding—a Tennessee Williams play pumped with teenage hormones. It’s a circus lion act with the tamers outnumbered 254 to 4.
It’s a middle school cafeteria. Did I mention there’s food?
Photo credit: Flickr / woodleywonderworks