Ages & Stages: 6-20: School’s Biggest (and Toughest) Classroom

There’s a room in school that teaches many lessons. Not language arts or social studies, but other lessons, some almost as important. Students learn about relationships, friends, manners, social behavior and status. It’s a room unlike any other. It can be a scary place for a newcomer. For the most popular kid in class it’s like a little kingdom complete with followers and competitors. It’s a chaotic world of noisy enthusiasm and youthful fervor. Scary, secure, friendly, frightening — a land of children within the walls of an adult-controlled environment. This location of student angst and energy, buried deep within the school is simply, the cafeteria.

Some schools control their cafeterias, micromanaging the seating and movement of children: Boys on this side, girls over there. Sit with your homeroom, in alphabetical order, or by some other designated attribute. Most schools, especially from middle level on up, allow students to sit wherever they please. Now the real drama begins. Youngsters congregate with their friends. “Popular” boys sit near the “cool” girls. Special interests band together. Here’s a table of skateboarding boys, there’s a group of girls who like to ride horses. There’s a bunch of athletes, and over here are some really bright students who tend to hang together. These young ladies live in the same neighborhood, but this group of girls all love gymnastics and are from all over town.

The cafeteria is a social map of the students within it. An observer who watches carefully can detect types of students and styles of behavior. Here’s a group of boys who are just a bit messier, a little louder, a touch rougher than most others. Their class work and behavior is not much different. Over in that section is the “fashion” set. They’ve got the right clothes with the name brands. They shop at certain stores and show it. Their hair is cut in just the right style and fashionably done as well. They’re generally self-confident and assured — perhaps a bit spoiled.

Here’s a table that’s not quite filled. Six seats available but only three students at the table. They talk, but only a little. It’s difficult to tell whether they’re friends or not. Loners, perhaps? Just shy? Or a combination of both. They recede in the classroom as well, hiding behind peers and hoping not to be called on. Here’s a young boy who always tries to get free food from others. “Can I have your chips? Do you want the rest of that sandwich?” Is he abusing his friendship with others or simply always hungry?

As students purchase food from the cafeteria staff one can tell a lot about politeness and healthy eating. “Thank you” is not an automatic response from every child. Not quite impolite, students are somehow not aware that adults have prepared the meal they’re about to eat and those same adults are actually waiting on their requests. Some children know exactly what they want; others take long moments to decide between ice cream and a chocolate chip cookie.

Bad nutrition abounds as if students are announcing, “Left to my own 10-year-old decision-making powers I will eat junk food and nothing but junk food, so help me!” Others know better. Judicious with their snacks they try to eat something “good,” whether it’s fruit or salad or a sandwich from home.

Trying to find a seat in the cafeteria at the beginning of the school year can be like embarking on an adventure to a foreign country. Most youngsters have a circle of friends who immediately invite them over, but not all. Those children, trying to look unobtrusive, wander through the tables and chairs searching for a welcoming smile or gesture. Not all children are gregarious, or active, animated or even friendly. Some would rather read a book or actually work on homework. They may not be “typical” 10-year-olds. And the cafeteria is the place where that’s very easy to see.

Some students let their worst qualities show in the lunchroom.
They may be messy or silly and try to get all the attention from everyone at their table. They may be rude in the line waiting to be served. Some make fun of others and use the lunchtime as the opportunity to let out their insecurities and anger by turning their sights on children who might be shy, quiet or alone. Bullies have their opportunities in the cafeteria. Adults try to be observant, but there are simply too many students, and too few monitors.

Most students love the “downtime” associated with lunch. Talking with friends, eating, laughing and playing at recess. It’s time away from academic demands, class work and evaluation.

But, as a parent, never think that the cafeteria is totally free of melodrama, intrigue and even a share of fights and “talking behind someone’s back.” As students get older the cafeteria becomes less a communal free time and more of a social “window” into the haves and have-nots, the cool and uncool, the more grown-up and the more innocent. For some it’s the easiest and best part of the day, for others it’s the time they dread the most.

If you’d like to ask your child a really important and informative question when he or she comes home from school today, forget the old, timeworn, “How was school today?” Try this one on for size: “Who did you sit with at lunch today?”

Carl Bosch is a middle school guidance counselor who regularly writes on parenting topics.