I never had organic lunches. Like the kids I’ve come to know who eat their whole grain bread and organic strawberries and granola, I never had organic lunches. I remember when I was in kindergarten, looking around at the other kid’s lunches and comparing it to mine, wondering what type of parents they had and where they came from. Whether there parents were abusive or loving as the best parents could be. I wondered if the kids with no lunches had problems at home and if they were sad that they had no lunch.
I remember the teacher feeling sad for the kids who didn’t have yogurt or a pb&j or anything at all. Offering them animal crackers on a napkin, they felt sad that they couldn’t offer more. One time a teacher had split up her lunch for four kids in the class who had brought nothing to school to eat. I was one of them. She split her sandwich into four small squares and offered us each a piece. It was salami and cheese and no one was picky enough to say they didn’t want it. Beggars can’t be choosers. We were thankful for such a gracious teacher, offering her own food to the kids who had nothing at a time in the life when they should have everything.
“Growing girls and boys need food to blossom,” she had said in a sweet high pitched voice, talking to us as if were babies.
We were babies, young and naive, knowing nothing about the world, only noticing that we had no food for lunch. We didn’t understand why that made us sad. The boy with two bruises on his left arm and a stain on his white t shirt ate his piece of sandwich very fast, scarfing it down in one bite or two. The girl who smelled like cat urine with choppy hair, a thin face and wrinkled clothes ate her piece slowly, savoring every bit of the taste. The other boy sat there staring at his piece, he couldn’t believe that someone had been so kind to him, offering them whatever they had to give. He sat there and cried. He got up and offered the sandwich back to the teacher. The worry in the teacher’s face grew and grew as the boy continued to cry. We hadn’t forgotten lunches, we just didn’t have anyone who cared enough to pack us a lunch. The other kids looked at us like we were weird, infected with some type of contagious disease they might catch. The disease that left you with no food at lunch time. I was lucky enough to have friends from preschool that I had kept till kindergarten so I wasn’t alone. But for the kids with no lunches, raggedy clothes and broken smiles, they stayed away from them.
“Don’t go near him,” my friend had said, a grin smeared across her face from ear to ear. I stayed silent.
I didn’t know how to respond. I felt a knot in my stomach, like I had betrayed one of my own kind. The kids with no lunches club. I wondered what they went home to everyday. If they received a friendly hello and a hug or if they had to let themselves in and lock themselves in their room until someone decided to welcome them. Or they waited long enough for nothing, going to bed by themselves and waking up for school the next day, again with no lunch. Eventually some kids got the hang of it. Picking quarters and pennies up in the hall or between their couches at home, saving up money for lunch when they had enough to buy one. I wondered if they felt alone, if they had anyone to tell them they were loved and appreciated. To tell them they were beautiful, deserving gifts from the world. I wondered if they cried at night. If their hot tears hurt their cheeks as they fell, if the pain inside their stomach made them want to vomit. One time a kid had come to school smelling like dog feces and all of the kids had complained about the stench, even the teacher. The kid remained silent until it was discovered that it was his clothing that smelt so bad. Later, when I was in the 8th grade, I recalled that memory and ended up behind him in the lunch line at school. We small talked about biology class and how hard the regents at the end of the year might be and then I asked. I asked “Do you remember the time in kindergarten when you came to school smelling really badly?” I laughed. I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings, I only tried to make a joke but his face flushed a deep red and I began to feel like I had spoiled the conversation. He nodded and began to tell me how his parents never washed his clothes, how he had tried to wash them in the sink and laid them out on the floor to dry but when the smell did not dissipate, he tried to wash them again.My face grew red too. “I’m sorry,” I said remorsefully, crawling back into myself, my voice growing quiet, my sides beginning to shake.
“No, no it’s okay. I’m in a better place now. It’s fine, don’t be sorry,” he said, waving away at my embarrassment. I ended up dating that boy for a few months before he moved away, we didn’t talk after that, never meeting in the lunch line ever again.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.