Standing in the noisy cafeteria of the old school, I was watching the students line up for lunch. Having wearied of trying to "cut" in line on each other, they were intently moving toward the food. As I continued to watch their progress, I began to remember scenes from my own grade school days. This old school building was somewhat similar to mine.
I could still remember coming into the warm building with the funny smells of furnace heat and cleaning liquids. I visualized the rooms, heated with old-fashioned steam pipe radiators and the hand-turn heat regulators. I could picture the Spartan desks in long straight rows, with scratched and scared surfaces, and the small cloak closets with wood doors folding in along the back of the room.
"Teacher," a small hand tugged my wrist, "I can't eat my lunch," complained a small Asian American boy, standing behind me. My thoughts abruptly returned to the present in the cafeteria of the old school where I was substitute teaching.
"What's wrong?" I replied as I watched the last of the lunch line disappear into the kitchen. "Why not?" I asked as I turned to face the cafeteria at large.
"Jamal and Anthony keep poking at my food. I don't want to eat it!"
Making my way to his lunch table, I took up Lee's cause. I admonished the children, "Keep your hands to yourselves and eat properly!"
My repeated warnings went unheeded, and I began to move the children to different spots at the table. To no avail--as soon as Lee sat down, the pestering began again. As the hearty children began finishing their food, I urged Lee to go back to the kitchen to get a second lunch, promising I would speak to the cooks for him. When I went out to playground duty, he was still sitting in front of his second tray, picking at the food. I tried not to worry about the thin child because I remembered that I had not always eaten my cafeteria lunches and I survived.
I substituted frequently at this school, and in a few weeks, I was back in Lee's small class. Both the teacher and the assistant were absent. The children in this room had some learning difficulties, and each child had different instructions and activities. I soon realized that Lee had a problem with staying on task and with anger. As I moved through the room, I stopped by each child to check on progress and to help with work. Lee was working with educational coloring sheets, and I let him work on his pictures in sequence rather than finishing one at a time. Doing a part of each until all were completed seemed to suit his temperament. He began to smile as if he and I shared a huge joke.
This time, I did not have lunch duty, so I lined the children up and led them to the cafeteria where another teacher took charge of their progress through the line. I went back to the room to check each child's work again and eat a quick sandwich. In fifteen minutes, Lee was back in the room, unable to eat lunch again, having left the cafeteria without permission. I gave him some money, the cost of an alternate lunch, and walked him down to the cafeteria. At the end of lunch, Lee was back in the room with the young man assigned to the room as psychological counselor. Evidently, a cafeteria supervisor sent him to be counseled about his difficulties with eating.
Slowly, with shyness and pride, he handed me my money back and told me what he and the counselor had rehearsed. "Thank you, Mrs. Grishan (his pronunciation), but my mom and dad will not let me accept money. They provide my food."
I smiled, accepted the money, and watched Lee go with the counselor for further discussion. When he returned, the counselor stayed with him to keep him sweet and on task.
Later in the year, I was back at the same school to substitute with a large fourth grade class for a week. The day I had lunch duty, I noticed as I glanced quickly around the cafeteria that Lee's table was at peace. They were eating quietly and were not teasing each other. Lee was eating too, and as he looked at me intensely, I glanced away because I did not want to interfere with his concentration on his food. I know, though, that I was smiling, and my heart was singing. I thought of the phrase, "all the little children of the world, brown and yellow, black and white," and these precious children were all getting along just fine. I knew that major work by persistent teachers, a dedicated counselor, fine administrators, and parents willing to partner with the school had wrought a change in the life of these troubled children.