By Kathleen Schaefer
I have haunting memories of elementary school lunchrooms. Packed together with barely an inch of stuffy air to separate you from your neighbor, students dug their grimy hands into crumpled paper bags or insulated lunch boxes.
They pull out some overly processed and unappetizing substance, which they proceeded to shovel into their mouths between boisterous conversations shouted across the table. The smell was always the worst. I limited myself to short, infrequent breaths and tried to keep my mouth shut tightly whenever possible, a difficult task in a room designed for consuming food.
My basic strategy for coping consisted of curling myself into the smallest amount of space I could manage, to increase the pocket of air that divided me from the rest of the chattering students and to discourage any unwanted attention. This attempt periodically failed when my neighbors interpreted my shrinking size as an opportunity to encroach further on my limited space.
Occasionally, a classmate dared to intrude on my thoughts, which were entirely focused on surviving the next 15 minutes, to ask why I had eaten so little of my neglected lunch. But even more unbearable was the way teachers treated these breaks as privileges, and students saw them as rewards. I was meant to enjoy them. If I could not enjoy the intended highlight of the day, I could not enjoy any of the day.
My dread of lunch breaks soon transformed into a comprehensive dread of school itself. I spent most of second grade protesting that I hated reading while devouring any book I could find outside of the classroom, claiming that I despised math while begging my dad to write out problems for me on the weekends, and searching for any excuse to proclaim myself too unwell to attend school.
My parents quickly realized that I was not in an ideal situation, and by the end of the school year, my mom suggested transferring me to a new school: a developing charter school with a differing approach to education, and much more importantly, without enough money for a lunchroom. And I left for a new school.
The next four years of my education passed semi-contentedly eating lunches on an isolated bench outdoors. I never enjoyed the breaks, but as long as rain did not transform the classroom into an imprisoning cafeteria, I did not despise lunches. By the time I returned to a traditional public school, I had at least enough freedom to avoid the fermented and slightly sterilized smell of the cafeteria and enough resilience to endure any sporadic discomforts.
I have not entirely overcome my hypersensitivity to senses, and I am sure that, placed in a stifling school lunchroom, my reaction would not differ greatly from my previous experiences. But I cope.
Coping is knowing to sit on edge of a bleacher during rallies to claim that extra inch of space as a barrier between myself and the student beside me. It is avoiding cafeterias when I can, but suspending my disgust when I cannot. It is sitting and conversing with my classmates even when they are eating some food that invokes unpleasant memories. Coping is accepting that I am beyond drastically altering my life for this small hindrance.
The world does not rearrange itself to suit everyone’s obscure needs; rather, we are left to find our own ways of seeking sanity.