STAFF NOTEBOOK: The Lunch Ladies never really liked me much



When folks talk about their education experience and they turn weepy eyed over their philosophy professor or their football coach, they consistently leave out the real educators who mold, develop and shape chaos into order.

Nobody ever thanks the lunch ladies. There’s probably a reason for that.

Standing in a ragged row facing the most hardened creatures on earth, these ladies turn stoney stares, tight-lipped quips and giant serving spoons into the poetry of feeding the hogs. With their hair nets, clear plastic disposable gloves, they greet the future MENSA members with the same sardonic glare as the future felons standing next to them in line. You know it’s pretty hot right there off the kitchen and cooking for hundreds isn’t exactly the same as getting to see the love in a face that finally understands the logarithmic tirade you’ve been on all semester.

I was always a little skinny, skinny kid. I saw the lunch hour as kind of a forced death march. To line up and scoot a food tray along with a glazed, uninterested look on your face is a dead ringer as a dud to the lunch lady sorority. It’s like being a non-gambler in Vegas or a vegetarian at a Whataburger. When the lunch ladies discover you’re a non-believer in their wares, you’re about as welcome as a cop in a crack house.

“You need to eat,” said one in Illinois.

She was easily 350 years old and looked to be in the mood to take a belt to me. I stared down at my tray then back up at her. I wanted to explain that I had heard this same threat, admonition and advice all across the USA and from two different sets of grandmothers. But when I looked back up at her I could tell I was being profiled as a sinner in the lunch line.

As the always-new kid, by the time anyone learned I was sweet, very polite, funny or an insatiable reader —I was loaded up and headed for another state. So when other people talk about lunch rooms, cafeterias and lunch ladies…I laugh. Their scientific sample of one or two towns is utter silliness.

Although I dreaded new schools, the teachers always snapped on my abilities. They often made me feel accepted. Often I was a semi-celebrity because I had read literature, knew the history and geography answers and liked learning. But the lunch ladies of America held out on me.

By the time I graduated high school, I had attended over 16 schools. The number would have been much higher, except for the fact that by the 9th grade I formed a pact with myself and never moved again.

But in 1972, while marching through the lunch line of horrors in the Greenville, Texas, Junior high school there was a major breakthrough.

Skinny as ever, as disinterested as ever, I got the nerve to ask a question.

“Is the turkey and dressing good?”

This particular lunch lady leaned forward slightly, looked down the row to make sure no one else could see us. She did not reply, but her left eyebrow was almost to her scalp as she passed over the mush in the dressing pan and carefully placed a yeast roll on my plate.

Our eyes met. She placed turkey on my plate. Then in the voice of an east Texas angel she said, “the green beans are just won-der-full!”

Every day I would find myself looking forward to lunch. This renegade lunch lady and I worked out our own system of secret communication.

I would look at her and she would ever so slightly grimace and make an almost unnoticeable negative head nod, and I would know the funk in front of me was not for human, boy-man consumption.

But she always gave me a roll and advised me about something that she thought was delicious. I ate squash, all manner of legumes upon her suggestion.

There were all kinds of issues that year that could have caused my life story to turn out different. Divorcing parents and an unstable home life isn’t conducive for good grades or student conduct.

However, I’ve had a pretty successful life and have always given credit to the teachers who invested in me, who saw some potential and cared.

But looking back I can say that it was a lunch lady in junior high who turned it all around.

Charley Wilkison is Executive Director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas and co-owner of The Independent.