Thursday, September 27, 2012

Because I Said So: Grade-school lunchtime a real eye-opener for dad

While dropping G off this morning, I was called out by the principal of Richland Elementary School because of today's "Because I Said So" column. It seems she began the day with phone calls about it. I wrote about having lunch with G in their cafeteria last week - the smells, the food, the ominous silence.

Mrs. McNary took it all in the manner it was intended, laughing along with my desperate attempts at humor, but she also wanted to explain. Richland was built in 1957 by the progressive architect team of Bill Mann and Roy Harrover in a style that must have looked as futuristic then as TV dinners. Mann and Harrover were also responsible for the Memphis International Airport and Memphis College of Art among other well-known buildings. As contemporary and cutting edge as the school certainly was 55 years ago, things change. I don't know if the walls, floor and ceiling of the cafeteria became more acoustically cantankerous or if children have become louder since then, but Mrs. McNary told me this morning that a parent once took a decibel meter into a lunch and the needle was off the charts. They had an architect come in to study it for possible sound dampening measures and were told that it would cost close to $100,000. In lieu of spending that kind of cash, they opted for making half the lunch period silent.

This seems reasonable. I'm sure there is concern for the children's hearing long term and we've all been to too-noisy restaurants, that's never a pleasant dining option. G told me that day that they weren't allowed to talk while they eat because they might choke and I laughed out loud at the reasoning (I was shushed). A certain amount of control needs to be had at all times to prevent chaos and, I'm sure, once it gets beyond a certain point, there is no returning to normalcy.

The kids seemed happy and ate well in their antique/futuristic school, and that's what is ultimately important. I had a good time at lunch with G and her friends. Kids are funny in groups and for a limited amount of time. I hope you will find a quiet place to sit and enjoy today's column.

Grade-school lunchtime a real eye-opener for dad
I had a lunch date with my youngest child at her school last week. She was Star of the Week for her first-grade class, an exalted position that affords her, along with acting as emcee of her own daily show-and-tell, the honor of eating in front of me.

It's an interesting thing, sitting with a table full of 6-year-olds. I recommend you all try it at least once. One time should just about do it.
Walking into an elementary school lunchroom, for me, is like walking through a portal back to my youth, such is the power of the sense of smell to memory. It's that mixture of food smell with feet smell; that oddly comforting yet nauseating scent that is anything but appetizing. Lack of appetite was not a problem as it was only 10:15 a.m., lunchtime for Memphis City Schools.

Also not a problem because these kids were not sharing. The lunch box buffet laid out in front of me offered a tempting, yet off-limits feast of lunch meats, tubes of yogurt, grapes, cookies, cheese sticks, potato chips, mayonnaise, apple slices, crackers and juice boxes; I provided my own hand sanitizer.

The first-grade students were required to eat in total silence for the first half of the allotted lunch period, a policy I'm not on board with. Lunch should be the one place, after recess, when kids are allowed to socialize and laugh and cut up with each other. I understand the need for control of small children; I have four of my own. Without control there is chaos and possible mutiny, but I found the apron-clad wardens walking the line to be a bit much.

The kids I ate with last week were a chatty bunch, too. When, at the halfway point they were released from their shackles of shushes, we discussed summer vacation plans, loose teeth, tofurkey, big sisters, throwing up and middle names.
I asked the kids around me if they ever trade lunches the way I used to.

"We're not allowed to," my daughter said. "We'll get moved to another table."

What we have in the lunchrooms of local elementary schools is a failure to communicate, and solitary confinement is the preferred deterrent. It seems that a lunch spent in the box for these tiny Cool Hand Lukes is what keeps the room quiet.

"But only if we're caught," piped up one of her friends who shall remain nameless, but who will surely be at my table for our next lunch date.

Such hushed hegemony isn't exclusive to Richland Elementary, where I dined last week. It was the same scene when our kids were at Downtown Elementary several years ago. I'm not sure whether it's a Memphis City Schools policy or a practice the principals share at their regular district meetings. I picture them sitting around an enormous conference table, bottles of ibuprofen in front of them, popping them like Chiclets and sharing trade secrets for ways to infuse their schools with sweet, sweet silence.

Can we blame them? I just described the post-bedtime ritual at my house, and possibly yours, assuming you're also washing down the Advil with a glass of wine and soaking in a bath of antibacterial soap.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

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