School Lunch

What I remember about 3rd grade could make up volumes.  And every book starts with a first page, so here we go. [The only thing about this that is Mormon centric is that I am one and so were most of the players.]

You have to know, first of all, that my parents were both employed.  My mother worked in the office of a steel fabrication business, my dad worked for a railroad, and they were gone during the day.  You have to understand that, or none of this makes much sense.  They were also of the opinion that you should be part of the system and make your way through it, without a lot of outside help. Also, this is a true story. It happened before the “progressive” lunch programs my kids experienced.

My primary school (or elementary school as you prefer) was roughly 1/2 mile from my home.  Not a big walk, and I took it every morning, Monday through Friday, except for those blessed holidays!  My 3rd grade teacher was a spinster who I always supposed was 85.  I’m sure she was 50, but she seemed 85 to me.  A mean 85.  In order to protect the descendants of her cousins, I’ll call her by the pseudonym, Miss Ruler.  Ruler* took no crap.

In our school, there was a rule about lunch.  Everybody ate school lunch (except as noted below), produced in a mysterious kitchen in a lower level, and served in a darkened cavern that at the time seemed like an extension of Carlsbad to me.  It was huge.  Long tables with bench seats occupied the lunch room.  If you brought your own lunch, you still ate in the lunch room.  To me, it now seems Dickensian.  The menu for lunch was a rotating one.  They had hamburgers occasionally, or hotdogs with this thick skin that gave me the creeps.  But mostly it was different kinds of soups or variations of soups poured onto something else, like potatoes or sometimes rice I think. There was this stuff known among the students as “rag soup.” I won’t go into that.

One day, after surviving Miss Ruler for 3 hours, we went down to the lunch room. Being a loner, I didn’t get to sit by those who radiated goodness and popularity.  I sat by myself mostly, though I was not alone, really.  Lunch was served by strange looking people in stained white aprons.  That day, the fare was some kind of stew.  The meat was gristley stuff, not sure which animal it originated with, but I’m sure it was assigned the name “beef.”

The lunch room rule was you ate everything.  Even if you had to miss a bit of class after lunch, you stayed until you downed it.  Because of the previous week’s rations I had reached a kind of  psychological crisis.  I snapped.  Got up from the table and strode out of the lunch dungeon and out the front door, like I knew what I was doing.  I didn’t think anyone noticed me and that was usually true.

Out the door, around the back of the school yard, and down the street. I walked slowly, wandering the streets, heading inexorably to my house.  After an hour or so, I made it home.  My parents did not trust me to bear a key to the palace, and rightly so I suppose.  I was a peripatetic 9-year-old.  My father would be home in a few hours. In the meantime, I sat on, not the front porch, but the concrete pad at a side entrance,  bored stiff.  I figured I’d be in some trouble for cutting school, but I just couldn’t take the food anymore.  I was a picky eater, as my mother characterized it, and I had reached the breaking point of my nature.

What happened next has always puzzled me.  I was staring into the neighbor’s backyard jungle, when without warning I was struck in the head with a stick.  I turned to see the two class bullies standing right next to me.  “Come on **** you’re going back to school!”    The irony of this situation only hit me years later.  These two dopes spent half their lives in truancy.  And they were grabbing me by the arms to  haul me back to school.  Odd.  Resistance was futile in my present state of mind.  I meekly allowed myself (hoping, successfully, to avoid the stick in the mouth) to be dragged back to school, up the front stairs to the second story classroom of Miss Ruler.

The class was quietly sitting there, doing some sort of copying from the chalk board.  Miss Ruler took possession of me and marched me back to rear of the classroom.  To my horror, sitting on one of the long low tables in  the rear was my uneaten lunch.  Great Scott!  I knew what was coming next.  A chair was provided, and I was instructed to eat.  Of course the stuff was stiffer than a 12 hour corpse.  Cold.  Gristley. Gross.  The class was twittering [no, not that]. The girl who lived across the street, with whom I had a kind love-hate thing going, laughed so hard she got sphincter betrayal. The one bright spot in a scary afternoon.  I sat, and slowly began the gagging process of eating the dreaded lunchroom stew.  Miss Ruler sat next to me, and took the spoon, dipped it into the brown slush and pushed it into my reluctant craw. I was at it 2 hours until the dismissal bell rang.  Miss Ruler  was not waiting around so the rest was disposed of and I was sent home with a note.

I never ate school lunch again.  Thanks mom.  My love of baloney was born.


*I give her this moniker as a reference to her practice of whacking the tops of your out-stretched hands with a ruler, for any number of classroom solecisms.  The kid who sat behind me got it once a week or so.  You deserved it, Brian.


  1. Painful, but well told.

  2. Your Miss Ruler then moved to Springville and taught 2nd grade until her eventual retirement. Don’t ask me how I know.

  3. :)

  4. Miss Ruler – Worst Comicbook Character Ever.

    I’ll get you Batman, with my measured approach, inch by inch, I’ll get you.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Great story!
    We didn’t have to eat a school lunch, but I went through a phase where I wanted the same lunch every day for a year. First grade it was PBJ, second grade it was cheese sandwiches, third grade it was liverwurst (!), and fourth I think it was bologna. After that I grew out of it and went for actual variety.

  6. So great!

  7. Mark Brown says:

    WVS, I had to take school lunch too. It was a special treat to bring a lunch from home, and to this day I love bologna sandwiches made with white wonder bread and miracle whip.

    I also had a teacher like Miss Ruler. Her name was Miss Bear (for real) and she lives eternally in my nightmares.

  8. Wow. I feel like my childhood was all butterflies and roses by comparison.

  9. Ah, the memories of school lunch. We had the same rule, but I got around it inadvertently one day when they served some gloppy mixture of overcooked shell macaroni, watered down tomato paste, captured Viet Cong rice, and some sort of meat, apparently from stray neighborhood pets (at least that is what it looked like). I ate my drippy canned spinach. I ate the stale roll with butter. I even managed to eat the pasty brown chalk stuff that passed for chocolate pudding. But I could not get the rice/macaroni/mystery meat stuff into my mouth. After looking at it for about 20 minutes, the lunch room monitor finally gave me a stern warning about consequences if I didn’t eat it. I put some in my mouth, tried to swallow, and projectile vomited it across the lunch room table to land at the feet of the monitor. It really was involuntary, I swear, but I was never hassled about not finishing my entire lunch for the rest of that year.

  10. StillConfused says:

    My school lunch story — came from a very poor family. We qualified for free lunches. I was too proud to take them. My brother, on the other hand, would often go back for seconds.

  11. I feel your pain, but my grandkids don’t. Their dad is stationed at Aviano air base just north of Venice, Italy. They live off-base, and my grandkids are enrolled in Italian schools that have mandatory school lunches. The difference is they have on-site chefs preparing pizza, pasta, and panini, and other dishes from fresh ingredients, along with fresh fruits and vegetables. All three of the boys used to be picky eaters.

  12. I’m pretty sure you left out the part where you and the rest of the class stood up and told Ms. Ruler in no uncertain terms that you didn’t need no education, and that, in fact, her dark sarcasm in the classroom was thoroughly unappreciated.

  13. We must not have had the eat-it-all rule, because I can remember the dish scrapers — sixth grade boys — who peeled the peanut butter off of uneaten sandwiches and rolled these gigantic peanut butter balls that they tossed from hand to hand and threatened to drop in the hair of little girls.

    I never got school lunch {sigh}. Instead, I had to make do with ham sandwiches on homemade bread, homemade cookies or cake, Space Food Stix, or celery sticks stuffed with peanut butter, fresh oranges (already peeled by Mom), and chocolate milk in a little thermos, all carried in my red plaid lunch box. Yeah, I suffered.

  14. My sister and I also qualified for free lunch. I would have been fine with this except as we filed into the lunch room everyday one would state to a women sitting at a desk one of three things: “Cold”, “Hot” or “Free”. “Cold” was to let the women know that you brought cold lunch from home, “Hot” was for if you were eating school lunch that was purchased or “Free” if you qualified for free lunch. So everyday at lunch I got to remind everyone within earshot that I was poor.

  15. I didn’t have school lunches when I was in grade school. In fact, the only kids who did were the ones who came from poor families and therefore qualified for a free lunch. Their lunches invariably consisted of either a PB&J or cheese sandwich and an apple or orange. I cannot fathom living off of that, year after year after year.

    I have seen many different school lunches in my days as a teacher here in Champaign, and the rule regarding eating everything is quite the opposite. When lunch is over, lunch is over, whether the students finished or not. I have seen many lunches that go in the trash with no more than one or two bites taken out of them. I find it appalling, especially since so many of these students receive their meals for free, and yet they have no appreciation for what they are getting (and I am sure their parents have no clue about the amount of waste).

    Such different times!

  16. I almost never ate lunch at school, but walked home where Mom often had a plate of Frano-American spaghetti waiting for me. One day in first or second grade, I was walking home and a hornet flew into my open mouth, stung me several times and then retreated. Another time (in fact, very early in first grade, perhaps my first day) I went home for lunch and did not come back — turned out I had the mumps.

    One day in first grade when I finally DID carry my lunch to school, I was totally unaware of the lunchroom protocol and got in trouble for leaving my seat to throw my lunch bag away before our table was dismissed. My first grade teacher kept motioning for me to sit down (from the teachers’ table on the stage), and I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do with the bag! I was so pathetic and lost.

  17. My poor little girl is a very slow eater (she talks a lot) and when she started Kindergarten, they had the rule that when time was up, the food got thrown out. So she’d only be able to get through a third of her food and would come home crying because she was so hungry. I started having to send lunches with her just so she wouldn’t have to waste time standing in line for the hot lunch.

    We were supposed to finish our plates, but most of us figured out that they never checked our milk cartons so all of the nasty food would go in there. It’s amazing how much you can stuff in there.

  18. jenna, would you mind giving your daughter a hug from me? I think I like her. Milk carton waste operations. Excellent.

    And Paul, a hornet in the mouth?! Gah! I got a bee in my motorcycle helmet once, but it was dead. It hit me when I was doing 120.

  19. From a different slant, not lunchroom, but leaving school.

    I was thinking about a sort of similar incident that happened to me the other day. I am a little ADD, but not ADHD. So I have a hard time paying attention. I think I was seven and the teacher kicked me out of class into the cold, gray November morning standing by the empty playground. I can not recall, for the life of me, what I was doing to obtain such a punishment. I think teachers were made from sterner stuff in those days. Most of them were not nice and I was a chump.

    I stood outside for a while, but being ADD, got bored and decided that I should go home because the teacher was never coming back. Home was one and a half miles away, through vacant lots, across the stream, and past the ruins of an old carriage house in a vacant field of an old mansion gone to blackberries and decay. My mother was not home! So I turned on the outside spigot to get water so I would not die of thirst. I could not turn it off! I was very worried.

    Finally my mother arrived full of sympathy. I can only imagine what transpired at school, since I was never ejected again.

    I can only applaud modern pedagogy which has largely removed the misanthropes from the classroom.

    Thanks, WVS, for your engaging story. D…mn kids! ;)) Sorry for piggybacking. (Are all of us here so crossed to civilization?)

  20. My “Miss Ruler” was in 4th grade and exactly as you described. Everyone in the whole school was terrified of her. I still shudder when I think of the day I found out I was going to be in her class. It was a loooonnnngggg year. That was the year I developed eczema due to stress – presumably because my teacher had a particular loathing for me.
    The bright spot was that I always brought lunch…which I am sure I took for granted.

  21. Left Field says:

    My third grade teacher 40+ years ago was Ova Bing of Elkridge Elementary School in Maryland (she doesn’t deserve any anonymity). She bullied me mercilessly, lied to my face, and ridiculed me repeatedly and openly in front of the class. I had moved in during the school year and she evidently thought she had too many students already. So naturally, she took it out on me because I had so much to do with what class I was assigned to.

    My first day, she mocked me in front of the class for being so stupid as to not use her sacred format for numbering math problems. She carefully transcribed my math paper onto the board so the class could fully appreciate my stupidity, but she still hadn’t told me how she wanted it done. Mrs. Bing was mighty exasperated that even after being properly humiliated and mocked in front of the class, I still couldn’t read her mind and she actually had to tell me what format she wanted. It turned out that she wanted the math problems numbered 1A, 1B, 1C. I had numbered them (1) A, B, C–like, you know–the way they were numbered in the book.

    It really went downhill from there. It was a long year.

  22. Does it really make sense to herd our children as cattle? I agree the occasional primary class needs this, but it appears we’ve become long accustomed to such behavior by authority. Does this signal insecurity on the part of our teachers?

  23. DJ, # 14, at our elementary and junior high schools when I was a kid, the kids who got free lunch were required to be lunch room workers, and helped with serving or cleaning up. Again, it had to be embarrassing because everyone knew who was receiving free lunch.

    I had also forgotten about being dismissed by tables, so even if you were done and wanted to get out to recess, you had to sit there while some girl or guy dawdled over their lunch. Arrrgh!

  24. #23 At a school I attended there was a sign up sheet to “volunteer” to help in the lunch room kitchen in exchange for a free lunch. I volunteered – not for the financial assistance but as a refuge from having to eat with the other kids. I really didn’t like being social at that age.

    As for lunch table dismissals. Ugh. Every school I attended had a different policy and I never knew what the policy was until I violated it. It was always very embarrassing to be chewed out by a teacher who generally used the line, “You should know better,” and then I’d have to counter, “I’ve only been at this school for less than a week!” Sigh.

  25. My daughter is one of those that doesn’t have enough time to eat her lunch. At home it can often take her 45 minutes and at school they get 20.

    Call me crazy but I loved school lunch. Even the snot like turkey chunk gravy poured over fake mashed potatoes. But our lunch ladies always made homemade rolls and homemade cinnamon twists. I think the lunch was usually half scratch made and half from a can/box.

    In junior high school I became a lunch room helper so I could get the free lunch. It was embarrassing serving food to the boys I liked, but then I’d slip them some extra tater-tots, hoping to curry their favor.

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