Thursday, April 11, 2013

Lunch With A Side Of Excommunication

Those three words are an incantation capable of powerful magic. To speak them is to be transported to another time and place.

Try it: high school cafeteria.
Can't you just feel the air heavy with grease and gossip? Smell the sloppy joes and social anxiety? See the heaps of tater tots rapidly congealing and the heartless interpersonal hierarchy being enforced  like some particularly gruesome scene from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom?1

As high school cafeterias go, the one at Pembroke Academy, where I spent most of my high school career, was worse than most. The school had been built into a hill and over the years, additions had been tacked on in a haphazard and inelegant manner. Half the cafeteria was in one of the newer portions of the building--it had high ceilings and tall windows that let in lots of light. The other half of the cafeteria was in the basement of the oldest part of the school--it was windowless and dimly lit with a claustrophobically low ceiling. The kitchen and serving lines were in this cave-like space along with as many tables as fire regulations would allow, all the better to cram in as many freaks, geeks and social outliers as possible because, of course, the sunny side of the cafeteria was reserved for those with some measure of social standing.

I was a cave-dweller, huddled with my friend Toni at a round table near the snack bar window. By default, we sat with three people we barely knew: Jon, who rode my bus and Joanne and Suzanne, who were friends with each other. For most of the school year, the five of us didn't really eat lunch together, we ate lunch near each other. Toni and I carried on one conversation while Suzanne and Joanne carried on another and Jon did mysterious nerdy things involving hieroglyphic markings on oversized sheets of graph paper.

It seemed likely that Joanne and Suzanne had been exiled to the dark side of the cafeteria primarily for their academic achievements and for the primness they both radiated. Joanne, especially, gave off an air of displaced royalty--she spoke fluent French, quoted Shakespeare, and stopped just short of raising her pinky finger while daintily sipping from her carton of chocolate milk. She seemed to be patiently biding her time among her lowly subjects until she could be rescued by her knight in shining armor from the evil witch's curse that had banished her here in the first place.

It happened that Joanne, Suzanne and Toni did have one thing in common--all three of them were Catholic. While Joanne and Suzanne were apparently church-going Catholics, Toni was more of what I guess you'd call a "cultural Catholic." She and her family did not regularly attend church, but many of the traditions of the Church seemed to be deeply embedded in their DNA.

For Lent that year, Toni had given up meat--not just on Fridays, but for the whole forty days. She seemed to be doing okay, until one Friday, when I noticed she was staring a little too intently at the pepperoni on my pizza.

"I really, really want that pepperoni," she said, reaching for it.

"It's Friday," Joanne warned.

Toni's hand paused for a second, as she considered the fate of her immortal soul. "I know," she said, "but it's just one tiny pepperoni."

"You can't," Joanne said. "It doesn't matter how big it is, it's still meat."2

Toni snatched the pepperoni from the top of my pizza and popped it into her mouth.

Joanne gasped. "You are no longer a member of the Catholic Church."

Toni licked a string of cheese from her finger and said, "It was worth it."

J is for Judgment

1. Lions? Lions aren't ruthless. I'd take a pride of hungry lions over a gaggle of teenage girls any day.

2. An argument could be made that high school cafeteria pepperoni is not really meat at all, but I doubt Joanne would've been swayed.

12 comments:

  1. Your cafeteria description made my stomach react. I was right back in that old lunchroom...ACK! Catholic school as well...

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    1. My grandmother had some pretty horrific Catholic school stories and ended up leaving school altogether with a seventh grade education. As an Army brat who moved from school-to-school, lunch period was often the darkest part of my day--never knowing where or how to fit in or if I even wanted to.

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  2. Naturally, I attended Catholic school - NO lunch room - an outside eating area near "The Cage" - a fenced in block of vending machines. But the social crap of adolescent life? Alive and thriving. Sometomes I escaped it by going to sit alone in the darkness of the on campus chapel (built for escape, if you ask me). Easy to disappear here. Be invisible. Survive.

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    1. Oh, that so speaks to me, Gracie.

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  3. Many good memories and tastes reside in my brain of cafeteria shenanigans, long ago.

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    1. I have a couple of good cafeteria memories buried in there...it was definitely not my favorite place, though. Particularly in high school--maybe it was all those fluctuating hormones all in one space that gave me the willies so bad. ;)

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  4. i remember the pizza and chili at my school being really good and the mashed potatoes and vegetable soup!

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    1. Pizza was one thing most of the schools I went to did right. Some of the other entrees were downright disturbing.

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  5. Ha! My husband always discounts the no-meat Lent decree citing that the practice can be traced to a corrupt pope whose family was big in the fishing industry. On that note...man I want some pepperoni!

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    1. That's hilarious, Marianne. I can't even begin to tell you how much I wish Toni had been aware of that corruption at the time. ;)

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  6. Oh my gosh, how funny! I'm Catholic, so I can remember those days! And yes, the high school lunch room is the worst. Talk about judgment! We did have the best cherry pie though. Cute post. I like your style- I'm a new follower. :-)
    from The Dugout

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    1. Thanks, Mare. And cherry pie--yum! :)

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