Tuesday, November 08, 2005


In Which I Have Lunch with Nobody...

Thomas's class was divided into four or five long tables each seating about six children. Thomas was sitting at the second table in and to the right and he and I exchanged a quick wave. Then he jumped out of his seat and presented me with a sticker bearing a giant apple and the word "Visitor" on it. With great ceremony, my son stuck it to my chest.

As Thomas sat back down, his teacher, Mrs. Dodd, welcomed me warmly. We have met before during parent-teacher meetings and she liked me not just because she subscribes to my magazine but also because I was one of a very few number of fathers who took time off from work to even show up at parent-teacher meetings. We spoke for a moment; she showed me where to put my book and cupcakes.

Then a bell rang and everything changed.

"All right!" Mrs. Dodd cried imperiously, clapping her hands. "Everyone line up for lunch. And I want it quiet! No one goes into the hall until I hear complete silence! Line leader, let's go!"

Thomas, being the star of the week, was the line leader, so he hopped up and stood by the door of the classroom, calling each table to line up. I waited in the back uncertainly, then as my son called the last table to get in line, I sidled up to him at the front of the line.

"Hey!" cried one aggrieved child. "There's no cuts!"

A general murmur of agreement rose up as I realized I had violated one of the most basic rules of school etiquette. Thomas wouldn't even look at me. Already I had blown it.

I looked over at Mrs. Dodd--who is my age, by the way--but the friendly, welcoming peer was gone. She suddenly went all teacher on my ass.

"We line up alphabetically, please, Mr. M," she said in a clucky sort of voice (although she did give me a quick wink), then turned to the line.

"Class, where are my Ms?" Somewhere in the middle, two girls raised their hands. Humbled, I slouched over and took my place.

The girl in front of me was a bright-eyed young lady in a lavender shirt over which she was wearing a Girl Scout vest (or perhaps they're Brownies at that age?). She introduced herself as Olivia. "It's okay, don't feel bad," she said, patting my arm comfortingly. "It's your first day."

"Quiet!" cried Mrs. Dodd as I opened my mouth to say something. Then she nodded at Thomas and with that, my son the line leader led us out into the hall and down the long corridor to the lunch room, where dozens of folding table and chairs were laid out.

Here, the kids scattered, some to sit with friends from other classes, many to get in line if they were signed up for the hot lunch program. Thomas grabbed my arm and together we carried our lunch bags to an empty table.

And my heart sank.

Ever since school had started, Her Lovely Self had been reporting to me that she felt Thomas was not making any friends. Each day she'd ask Thomas about what he did during the day and his answer was a long, sighing, "Nothing." She'd ask who he sat with at lunch or who he played with at recess. Typically, his answer was, "Nobody." And early on when he had tried to join a game with a group of boys, their ringleader, a fat spoiled pig-nosed boy named Andrew had told him he wasn't allowed to play. From then on, HLS fretted about Thomas' socialization skills, worrying, waiting each afternoon for him to come home and tell her about his day, waiting as she might for the next installment of a daily soap opera, hoping this might be the day for some startling new social development.

HLS, you see, was a very shy child who would never speak to anyone and even refused to answer questions in class when called on by a teacher. Consequently, she felt she'd had a hard time making friends in elementary school. And now she was worried she'd passed some errant anti-social gene onto her son. Although she had chided me for being so anxious about spending part of my day at school, she clearly had an anxiety of her own and made it clear she expected a full report of Thomas' behavior. She also urged me to encourage him to make an effort to sit with other kids at lunch, or play with them at recess.

And now here we were, the only two people sitting at a long and otherwise empty table. All around us, dozens of kids sat together, laughing and joshing and whooping it up. I looked back behind me and saw another boy sitting by himself, a boy I recognized from our neighborhood.

"Hey," I said. "There's Trey. He's sitting all by himself. Let's go sit with him." I gathered up my bag and stood up, but Thomas looked at me, alarmed.

Even as he opened his mouth to speak, a woman's voice sounded behind me. "We don't move around at lunch. Once we pick a table, we stay there." I turned and beheld a woman twirling--I swear to God--a whistle, and glaring at me.

"I just thought--" I started.

"Even guests need to follow the rules," she said, interrupting me, without any hint of the just-having-a-little-fun-with-ya wink Mrs. Dodd had given me. "We don't want to confuse the students."

I sat back down, defeated again. But I was still excited to be having lunch with my son. Even if we were going to be all alone.

"Hey, scoot down!"

The voice came from behind me again, but it didn't come from the whistle twirling lunchroom Nazi. I turned, and there was a little boy with black spikey hair, holding a lunch tray.

"Sorry?" I asked.

"Scoot down," the boy repeated. "I always sit across from Thomas."

"You do? Well, sure! Of course! I'm sorry," I gibbered, sliding down one space. The boy seated himself, then looked at me. "Are you Thomas' Dad?" he asked. I nodded, waiting for the Q&A to start there and then, but the boy simply said, "I'm Nathan. You're gonna have to move down more. That's where Ashley sits. And Olivia sits next to her."

"Really?" I asked staring at Thomas incredulouslt, as he merely nodded. Why on earth was Thomas always telling Her Lovely Self he sat with nobody? Of course, at that moment I had to ask myself: How many times had I given the stock answer of "nuthin'" or "nobody" when my mom had asked me questions about school?

I was about to risk the lunchroom Nazi's wrath by getting up and sitting on Thomas' side, when a gaggle of girls all bounded over and one of them flounced herself down in the seat next to my son.

"Hiiiiii Thomas Tommy Thomas," she said in a sing-songy voice.

Thomas Tommy Thomas? I thought.

My son, who had by this time forgotten I was in the same room--possibly even on the same planet--nudged the girl with his hip as she sat down and said, in a drippy voice that would have made his mother's head explode, "Hi, Caitey Cait Caitlin!"

The other girls came over to my side. Olivia--she in the Girl Scout vest--said, "That's okay. You can sit in my seat. I'll sit next to you."

"Thank you," I said, head still spinning. "So, do you all sit here together every day with Thomas?"

Olivia nodded, but Nathan answered. "Yeah! We like Thomas. He tells the best stories! Is it true you had a race in his backyard and ran yourself over with a tire?"

He was referring to the obstacle course I had set up for Thomas' birthday only the previous Saturday. And yes, I allowed, one of the obstacles required a runner to roll an inner tube down a hill and place it onto a post. And yes, in the demonstration of the race, I had tripped falling in front of the tube and causing it to bounce across my own back and head.

All the kids laughed at this, and that seemed to break the ice. It also seemed to remind Thomas that I was there, so he introduced me to the rest of his friends, including this Caitlin, who he had never mentioned before, not even he was dictating Art Lad blog entries to me. She informed me that she and Thomas were the oldest in the class--she had turned 7 just a few weeks earlier--and that they were also the fastest runners.

"We played Boys Chase the Girls at recess and no one can catch me," she said proudly, then smiled at my son. "Not even Thomas Tommy Thomas."

"I did too!" he cried, offended. "I caught you by the climbing wall and gave you a noogie!"

As the good-natured bickering continued, I couldn't decide what pleased me more: that Her Lovely Self had been so completely off base about Thomas' school social life--or that noogies were still in common usage.

And so we dug into our lunch, and it was then that I discovered a small cheese sandwich in my lunch bag, while Thomas pulled out a roast beef on rye, my favorite. Clearly Her Lovely Self, not used to making two lunches, had accidentally transposed them. I took the sandwich out of Thomas' hand and gave him his.

The table went instantly quiet.

"What?" I asked.

"No trades," Nathan said solemnly.

"It's against the rules. You can't swap food at lunch," Olivia agreed.

"You can't!" someone else chimed in.

I resisted the urge to simply answer, "Can too!" but instead simply explained what had happened, and added that if I ate a cheese sandwich I'd probably barf all over the table. This elicited much laughter and got the conversation back on track.

So we ate and I told some funny stories and also heard quite a few. At one point, the conversation switched to jokes and everyone began telling knock-knock jokes, but that changed when a boy on Thomas' side--Derrick--piped up with this gem. I include it here because I know AJ will get a kick out of it.

"Hey," he said. "I heard this from one of the 6th graders: How do you get a squirrel out of a tree?"

The table sat in silent thought for a moment, then we all shook our heads.

"Easy," said Derrick. "Grab his nuts and run!"

All the kids laughed instantly, while I just dropped my sandwich and put my head in my hands.

I know kids aren't as naive today as they were when I was in school, but some part of me died a little to hear these 6- and 7-year-olds--including my son!--laughing uproariously at this racy joke.

And then Nathan stopped laughing. "I don't get it," he said.

"Yeah, me neither," Thomas said. But Olivia piped up.

"Well, squirrels have to spend all summer gathering nuts for the winter. If you took them all, he'd be so mad he'd have to chase after you to get them back." Then she made a face and looked at me. "It really wasn't a very funny joke, was it?" she asked.

"No," I agreed. But I was still smiling.

Then the lunchroom Nazi came by with her whistle and blew it.

As one, the kids leapt up with their trays and formed a line to throw their trash out. From there, Thomas led me out to the playground.

It was time for recess...

I'm a father of two, boy and girl, 13 and 10. I have been to plenty of lunches and other school activities for both my kids and I'll tell you, I've never seen such serious devotion to the rules in such a significant number of children. It's almost a little scary, a little, well, Orwellian. Maybe I'm a rebel, but that "no trades" rule at lunch, well, I think that is clearly a rule you follow when the teacher is looking. Again, maybe that's just me, and maybe it's a good idea to drill into these kids that rules should be obeyed, even if they are designed to coddle the few kids who can't handle getting the fuzzy end of a lollypop if a lunch trade goes south... as for you, Mr. Man, I hope you'll remember to thank yourself for visiting with Mr. Lad at his office, as you deserve it. I'm the housewife in my marriage and I know how awesome it is when my bride, the breadwinner, takes time out of her crazy-ass busy schedule to visit our little ones at school. Good on ya.
This story is so cute! I groaned involuntarily to myself when I read the title of your latest episode, I mistakenly assumed you got ditched at lunch. I shouldn't have known Thomas Tommy Thomas wouldn't be like that! (Raised by his dad.) Keep up the good work. (But seriously MM, a tyre hit you in the back of the head? Your own tyre??)
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I wonder what will bother HLS more...thinking that Thomas may have had some social problems OR...the truth: that the girls seem to adore him and even have precious pet names for her baby! I am trying to put myself in her position and I'm sad to admit that I would bristle at any girl having a pet name for my baby other than me. Guess that's something all mothers need to work on.
MM, I'm not even the boy's mother and I'M bursting with pride reading your story! You must have been just thrilled. :)
Isn't it such an odd feeling when, in adulthood, you recall memories that your sub consciousness felt necessary to omit in childhood?

It's truly a wonder that MM's inate ability of recollection failed to recall the no tradies rule!
Thomas Art Lad, Pimp Extraordinaire.
A ladies' man, and you had no idea. You have to admire a kid who learns early on how to play it close to the vest... He'll do well in life; Discretion is the better part of valor, right?
Hey, what happened to his other friend who is a girl, Alyssa? Man is your son a player or did he just take a liking to older women? Funny, I seem to remember girls being icky until like sixth grade!
What a great story so far! I cant' wait to hear more. Thomas must've picked up his skill with the ladies from his daddy. ;)
I also wondered what happened to Alyssa. Is Thomas breaking hearts already??
It made me a little sad to think of you getting in trouble at school, even though you are way past first grade and having to stand on an "X" at recess. (That happened to me once when they were enforcing "no talking at lunch" as punishment for the entire class -- can you believe it?) Glad Thomas has lots of friends, though. I don't have kids, but I can imagine my mother's head exploding at some girl using cute, drippy names for my brother (and he is almost 25). That made me laugh.
At my grade school talking at lunch was forbidden. period. and we didnt have a choice of table either. or line leaders.
Whatever happened to what's-her-name what's-her-namey what's-her-name who used to turn Thomas inside out?
I quickly learned and still use "nothing," as a response to the endless list of questions from my parents.

HLS will be proud to hear that Her Lovely Son is socializing quite well with "nobody" at lunch.

Just wait, daddy M, until the boys are calling Miss Brownie Brown Brownie.
Wow, I sincerely feel for all you kids who had a no-talking rule at lunch or recess. I can't imagine the anguish I would have felt if I had to keep my yap shut for that long!

And for a serious moment, why is it that some adults choose not to validate a child's emotions or movements before we remind and/or enforce the rules? Y'know, how difficult is it to stop a kid in the hall and say, "I know it's fun to run, and I can see that you run really fast, but please remember that running is for outside, not inside"... or whatever. You get the point. Again, Magazine Man, I applaud your parenting, you are performing a mitzvah.
:writes down joke:

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