The line is moving too slowly. The smell of food causes me to salivate and swallow. The kids around me must be less hungry than me, because they are talking and laughing together, seemingly unaware of the smell of pizza enveloping us. I am new to this school. Being new to school isn’t new to me. I went to a different school every year. Some years, we moved during the school year, leaving me with two sets of classmates to meet. I was new, the lunch routine was new, the current topic of conversation was new. I clutched the object in pocket. It was a little paper card with my name on it. It also has my teacher’s name, my classroom number, my grade, and another number that would let me purchase my lunch for today. We usually brought our lunches, but this move something changed. We got free lunches now. I didn’t know if I should be proud or embarrassed about that. The pizza sure smelled better than the peanut butter and banana sandwiches that we usually brought. I know that mom was hoping to make our lunches more exciting and tantalizing so that we’d eat. I also know that my parents were worried about my weight. I was too skinny, and I was sick all of the time. I had strep throat a couple of times a year. I didn’t like the peanut butter and banana sandwiches. By the time lunch came around, the banana had become sort of slimy, and they would shoot out of the edges of the sandwich. I didn’t like the texture of the peanut butter, either. I liked creamy peanut butter, but we always had crunchy. We lived in a house once that had little brown crickets in the basement, and I felt that if I couldn’t see what crunchy ingredient went into our food, it must be crickets. I know it’s silly, but it sticks in my head and I can’t turn it off.
I grab at the lunch card again. I don’t want to fold it or wrinkle it, but I worry at it anyway. I rub it with my thumb for a little while, then wonder if I’m rubbing the print off. I take the card out to check. I can’t help making sure that all of the words that I read before are still there, making sure that I didn’t miss some vital piece of information from the last time I read it about 30 seconds ago. I’m terrified that I’m supposed to have the number memorized. I do, but I’m not confident that I could recite it on command. I’m nervous that when I get to the front of the line and it’s my turn to present my card, that it will have disappeared from my pocket. I worry that I’m the only kid in the school that hast to present a card. Will that make everyone notice that I’m new, and that someone else pays for my food?
The words and numbers are all still there, though the paper is getting soft and bendy because my hand is sweating. I’m nervous, but it’s also warm in the cafeteria, and it’s even warmer in my coat pocket. I didn’t need to wear my coat to the cafeteria, the hallway to from the classroom is enclosed and heated. But the card was in my coat pocket, and I knew that if I moved it to my pants pocket, I’d forget it there and it would get lost or washed. I had more confidence that I’d lose or destroy that card than I did in my holding on to it and remembering where I put it. I was always sure to fail. It wasn’t a question of if, just when. I know it like I know my name. My failures have been pointed out loudly and often. I knew when I had failed, so I’m not sure why it was necessary to pronounce it loudly, and often, angrily. Sometimes my failure did result in breaking something, or causing a mess, but usually it was something that inconvenienced or embarrassed my parents.
Being able to recite the number on this lunch card, or to produce it in mint condition to the lady at the register was paramount in my mind. I knew if my card was wrinkled, or if I couldn’t give the information required, my parents would be called and they would be mortified. If they were embarrassed, then they would recite to me how I failed and told not to fail in that way ever again. Ever. Depending on the level of embarrassment and/or expense, there might be spanking, too.
I’m not sure when or how I became such a liability in my home. My younger sister and baby brother didn’t seem to meet the same fate. They were cute and fun. People baby talked to them, tickled them, held them on their laps and told them stories and sang them songs. They were always getting toys and books and things from people, too. I was sometimes given gifts, but mostly it was pointed out how sickly I always looked, how much cuter I might be if I didn’t have those circles under my eyes, or if my cheeks weren’t so gaunt. I felt ignored most of the time, and soon I realized that I preferred to be left alone.
Two more people through the line. Checking my card again. The kid behind me speaks up “Hey, why do you keep looking at that card? It isn’t going to magically change or something.” Then he laughed, and the two kids in line behind him laughed, too. I just turned back around, shoved my hand back into my pocket so hard that I bent the card. Oh, no! I bent it. I took it out and unfolded it. It hadn’t even bent directly in half. It was sort of a slanted fold and one of the corners had bent to. It was ruined. I had ruined it. I’d been at this new school for about three hours, and I’d already ruined something. At least I’m consistent.
I felt a tear form in the corner of each eye. I was both afraid to wipe at my eyes, alerting people that I might cry, or to let the tears slip, which also noticeable. Scenarios played through my head. If I wiped at the tears, someone might mention it, maybe that boy behind me, and I’d be laughed at again. If I let the tears slide down, someone might notice and feel sorry for me, until they decide that whatever it is that caused my distress wasn’t worth the response I had given it. I will have failed again no matter which choice I made. I decide to wipe me tears. If anyone asked, I could say that I was sweating and that maybe I should have left my coat in the classroom.
When I wiped my eyes, that boy noticed. “Hey, why are you crying? I’m sorry I laughed about your reading the card. I know you’re new. Is it different here than at your other school?”
“Yeah,” I answered. I was relieved that he was being kind and seemed to understand. I was so relieved, though, that the tears began forming faster and falling even more. I couldn’t casually wipe them away anymore. Great. I’m at the front of the line, now. It’s my turn. I take out the card and hand it to the lady. She had beautiful curly read hair, piled up on her head, and fantastically bright red lips, like the ladies in old movies. She looked classy and glammerous She looked down at me and asked why I was crying. “I’m sorry that I ruined the card. Can I still use it?” She smiled at me, and I held my breath for what were going to be soft and kind words from her. “Of course it can still be used, but don’t be so careless.” She didn’t shout, she just said it. When she finished speaking, it was if all the lines around her lips formed out of nowhere. I hadn’t noticed them at first. Her forehead was creased, and she looked irritated. I hadn’t noticed that before, either. It’s interesting how people’s faces change depending on what they say. I’ve seen people who look pinched and grumpy sort of smooth out when they something nice. I wonder if other people notice that. Well, wrinkle lips lunch lady’s comment got me to stop crying, because now I knew I was going to catch it at home and didn’t know what level of ‘talk’ this was going to warrant.