Lunch Duty

I will not tell you my political leanings. To be fair, they are a little nebulous anyway. When I consider what I want the world to be, my opinion is determined by supervising the cafeteria at the elementary school where I work. I am a paraprofessional, well-treated in spite of my lowly status, and thankful that, because of my husband’s hard work, it is not necessary for me to seek more lucrative employment. I get to have an experience denied to most people with more important jobs: I get to watch the natural, spontaneous interactions of children. If you want to understand my views and hopes for the world, then come and experience 30 minutes of lunch duty.

I can’t show you my actual angels, but you get the idea.

I open ketchup packets, yogurt tubes, and milk cartons (the design of which has not changed in at least 50 years). I deliver napkins and sporks (a cost-effective combination of fork and spoon), and I slosh sticky fruit juice over my hand opening vacuum-sealed fruit cups. Did you know that if you put the lid on a thermos while the food is still hot in the morning, at lunch-time the seal is unbreakable by the average 8-year-old? Actually, sometimes it cannot be opened by the average 60-year-old either, and requires the intervention of custodians who are strong enough to move the solid wood furniture of the 1950’s.

Welcome to my world.

But when I can stand back and simply observe my young charges, I see the foundation for all of my hopes and dreams. Our school is extremely diverse, so much so that European descendants are no longer the majority. They sit together, dark skin and light, Muslim and Hindu, Protestant and Catholic and Coptic, Jewish and Jehovah’s Witness. They laugh together, they tell secrets together, they draw together, they aggravate their lunchroom monitors together. They eat curry and meatless hot-dogs and salami and bacon. Our lunchroom provides for vegans and vegetarians, while still serving meat-eating, hamburger- and chicken-nugget-loving omnivores. Muslim children fast during Ramadan, but still laugh and cause trouble with their non-Muslim friends. Hindu students have beautiful henna markings on bare arms and wonderful, light-filled Diwali celebrations at home. Hispanic families are given the respect of Spanish interpreters at conferences, as are Chinese and Korean and Russian parents. Special education students are absorbed and included as much as they are able by innocents of incredible kindness. Frightening, uncontrollable outbursts are accepted and understood at some visceral level that those far-removed have long forgotten.

Not my kids, but could be.

The conversation of three hundred 5- to 11-year-olds is deafening, and often conducted at decible levels that send adults to specialists to determine if they have permanent hearing loss. Teachers try to sit them boy-girl to curtail the awful din, but after two or three minutes of moral outrage, they resume their animated exchanges, either at or across each other. Gender is irrelevant. We play music so that we can catch our collective breath and make sure no one is choking, and they can chew a bite of lunch to fuel young bodies that know only one speed: supersonic.

Sometimes even the kids can’t stand the noise.

You get my point. At the elementary level, kids have little awareness of cultural, political, or religious differences. They know of no reason why they can’t be from different backgrounds and still be friends. Not just friends, you understand. They are good friends, laughing and playing together as though there was no difference between them at all. Indian and Chinese and Korean and white and black and Hispanic girls give me hugs as they walk by, while ridiculous boys with vibrant blonde hair and freckles inspire their dark-skinned, dark-eyed friends to leap at me across the table in silly parody of their feminine classmates.

Is it perfect? It is not. Are there conflicts and prejudices? Yes, there are. Are some children still lonely and excluded? Unfortunately, yes. But they are far rarer than you think.

What does this have to do with being a writer? I write romance because I believe in the happy ending. I believe in the possibilities of the future. I believe in it because I am the privileged witness of its custodians. Today, they make rabbit-ears over each others’ heads without discrimination. Tomorrow they will work side-by-side to solve problems we haven’t even dreamed of, unhindered by the stereotypes us older folks have to work so hard to overcome.

Look to the children. They hold our future in their small, sticky, wonder-filled hands.

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