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The Lunchroom

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Moncks Corner, S.C.

Get in line behind the kid with the basketball. Grab a tray. Don't sweat over whether the banana pudding will run out--they've got plenty. Find a seat anyplace. Then listen to the pandemonium build.

Somebody says something that makes a girl in the middle of the room spit out her Pepsi. Across the way, one teenager swats another and blurts out, "Stop looking at me!" If you were hungry, you'll go away satisfied. If you expected to enjoy the meal, you've got a chance. If you were thinking about overcoming the noise, maybe even finding insight and revelation inside it, you may start to think you've come to the wrong place.

A secretary who walked through the Berkeley Middle School lunchroom back when it was quiet, minutes before the lunch bell sounded, warned about this:"I know you're writing this for a national report, but after a few days, you may want to put it in National Geographic," she said and smiled and walked away.

A 14-year-old boy finally offers some hope. Justin is sitting in the middle of a table that stretches far enough to seat three classrooms of children. He has grown weary of trying to encourage his noontime companions to laugh at his jokes. So he gets serious.

"You want to know about this lunchroom?" the 7th grader volunteers after a tired wisecrack about John Wayne Bobbitt falls flat.

"OK," he says, pausing over a lime-green tray with the remnants of a half-eaten taco, some seasoned corn, a half-pint of milk, and scattered french fries. "Here's what you need to say: All of it is imitation. It is artificial."

Justin, who is beginning to sound like a prophet, explains, "None of this is real."

He picks up his fork. "And you need to say they don't wash these. You take them up there, but the next day when you come back, there is stuff still on them.

"What I mean," Justin says, "is that it isn't real. Food doesn't taste like this anywhere else."

"Except these," he says, pointing at the few fries that remain on his plate. He nods his head up and down. "They are real." Slowly regaining his composure and dabbing his potatoes in the spot of ketchup that remains, he says softly again, "These are real."

Visit the seat of Berkeley County, S.C., or most anyplace, and there will be a historic roadside marker like the one planted behind the Burdette Chrysler dealership here that tells you how the town came to be. Stop by the local chamber of commerce for statistics on mean income, square mileage, and points of interest. Push a cart at the Piggly Wiggly to hear a bit of what people are talking about.

But for a taste of real life--a glimpse at the spirit of the school, a town, and its people--there may be no single place more revealing than the school lunchroom. Lacking as it may be in four-star cuisine and breathtaking presentation, it is often the town's only true melting pot, one that churns with everyday insight and bubbles with local color.

Before arriving at any deeper observation about life in the Berkeley Middle School lunchroom, there is one obvious point to make: We, as a people, are united by french fries.

Justin is but one example of the way that shoestring potatoes somehow elude the sarcasm and mockery of your garden-variety middle schooler.

More than denim jeans and expensive sneakers, the french fry is the one thing that unites boys and girls, leaders and loners, teenagers on both sides of the growth spurt. The affinity for fries joins haggard teachers and obnoxious students and defies race. It crosses boundaries between the rival factions advertised on T-shirts and jackets--the University of North Carolina and Clemson; the Charlotte Hornets and the Chicago Bulls; the Atlanta Falcons and the Miami Dolphins.

The principal and teachers and the school board here are willing to broach the idea of making these little clotheshorses come to school in uniforms, but not a single adult or child will even begin to consider this place without french fries.

In the Moncks Corner lunchroom, fries are waved as a greeting, held out as a taunt, used as a weapon in response to some ugly remark. They are tossed for amusement, promised as a bargaining chip, toyed with as a time killer to avoid the last half of a cold cheeseburger, dropped into an unsuspecting friend's chocolate milk as a practical joke, and, most often, eaten with ketchup.

Week in and week out and from year to year, they are the one item that never comes down from the menu board.

"If you don't have six cases of fries to put out every day," says Myra Thomas, one of the cooks, "you might as well forget it."

The lunchroom at Berkeley Middle School is modest in every aspect. Aqua mini-blinds in the windows set off the plain, glossy white cinder-block walls. Until minutes before lunch begins, a dozen of the long tables are bent in the middle and stand upright on wheels. Blue and red stools stick out from the sides of the dark wood-grain tabletops.

From inside the kitchen, pans clatter above the country music that blares from a clock radio. The cafeteria workers' conversations rise above the songs from time to time. The class bells that ring throughout the morning have no meaning in the lunchroom, which knows different intervals than the rest of the school. It has been that way throughout the 40 years this squat red-brick building has been standing.

Since 1956, this lunchroom has served up a great deal besides school meals. The building opened as the town's "other" high school, segregated for black teenagers. Before and after it was integrated and became a middle school, awards assemblies on the lunchroom stage have recognized Moncks Corner's finest students. At its countless dances, local romances were born and faltered. Sometimes, fights break out. Occasionally, the room has hosted wedding receptions.

"The lunch period was a time when we all sat down and ate together, and there was a dialogue, similar to the atmosphere in a home," says the Rev. Joseph Myers Jr., a vocational-agriculture teacher on the school's original faculty. "It was the place where everybody got together. It was where we met the children's parents."

All these years later, the building still reminds him of students who have moved away and old colleagues like the late Joseph Jefferson, a prominent local resident and fellow pastor who was the school's first principal. "I drive by there almost every day," Myers says. "I can't help it."

The lunchroom continues to host countless community meetings and annually serves as the polling site for the city's conservative electorate. Here, in November 1992, nearly 3,400 voters in the Moncks Corner precinct showed their political colors by favoring President Bush. They were less enthusiastic about the Republican president than the rest of Berkeley County but were more favorable toward Bush than the rest of South Carolina, a state he easily won.

And the cafeteria dictates important statistics all its own. Nearly 52 percent of the students here last year were eligible for free lunches or the 40-cent reduced-price meals--a figure state and federal officials use to define the wealth of this community. Across South Carolina, 45 percent of schoolchildren qualify for discounted meals.

Over the past few years, that number has been going up in this lunchroom, the result of a shrinking job market. The shipyard in Charleston has recently shut down, and the Navy has been phasing out jobs in North Charleston and along the Cooper River, which runs just east of town. Over the same time span, the number of children in the lunchroom has been increasing.

Many of the adults who live here recall their own childhood hours spent in this place. Within these unremarkable walls, many of the friendships and acquaintances that connect the people of Moncks Corner had their beginnings. A friend who endures through all the complexion problems, dental work, and adult-imposed annoyances of those teenage years may well be a keeper.

Toni Bendward, a 15-year-old 8th grader, walks into the lunchroom and takes her usual spot. The lunchroom is arranged in four long rows of tables, 60 seats up and down each row. From several steps outside the heavy kitchen doors, the tables stretch two-thirds the length of the room, toward the stage and the doors on either side that open to the rest of the school. Between the long tables and the stage are six tables shaped like stop signs circled by plastic chairs.

Toni sits at one of the long tables, at the stage end of one of the middle rows. For a few minutes, she sits alone with a can of Coke. Soon, her friend Brandy arrives with chips and root beer. Next comes Adrian with a Mello Yello, and Jamie, the only boy in this group. He's 13 and looks shorter than he is as he sits down next to Brandy. The girls kid him because his spiked blond hair makes him look like Bart Simpson.

A minute later comes the last member of the gang. Jenny Cooper, 14, sits down at the table with her usual frustrated sigh. Jenny can grimace even when she is laughing.

The name-brand snacks that monopolize this part of the table come from a set of vending machines down the hall. The machines--50 cents for sodas, 55 cents for candy and chips--raise money for the school and provide powerful competition for the kitchen, which has to count french fry eaters to say it serves more than half the students each day.

The machines are a sign that $1 square meals are, well, square. The cafeteria workers say they're constantly reminded that the old days are gone--they must learn to compete. Burger King and McDonalds loom. Wavy Lays and Mountain Dew are already in the building.

Yesterday, Jamie said something that made Toni spit her Pepsi onto the table, a moment the group can't help but recall as they gather again.

"Brandy couldn't stop laughing," Adrian remembers. "She was on an Energizer battery or something."

As with many of the 8th graders here, this is a lunch group that has come together and solidified since school started in the fall. Jenny starts to explain how the group bonded.

"Toni rides my bus. I met Adrian on a field trip. And I don't know how he got here," she says, pointing at Jamie and wrinkling her face. "I don't even like him."

"He just came along one day," Toni says.

Actually, Jamie was old pals with Peggy, another regular in this group. And Peggy met Jenny in math class. The rest has happened since the group gained the 8th-grade privilege of sitting wherever they like at lunch. Their half-hour together in the lunchroom is the only time they all see each other.

Their conversation moves in a rapid-fire shorthand that everyone in the group understands. To underscore a particularly biting comment, once in a while two of the girls will reach across the table and slap each other's little fingers. Adrian says something about painting her cousin's fingernails and a guy her dad called "pencilhead" one time on the phone. Jamie makes fun of Brandy because she mispronounced the word warlock.

"She said row-lock," he says to everyone's delight. Pinky slap.

While the lunchroom allows most of its friendships room to grow, teachers and principals make certain it is not uncontrolled growth. Many teachers seem to make it through lunch peacefully; others are constantly trying to short-circuit potential difficulties. One teacher arrives in the lunchroom each day and frantically scans the place for her students, looking for a crisis and usually finding one.

Julius Barnes, the assistant principal, walks the room like a sheriff. Eyeing students as he paces in his suit, he holds his two-way radio and is always ready to speak up. Several loud conversations are pouring out of one large group of 8th graders. Barnes walks up to them and, in one syllable, cuts through their banter. Some of the students with their backs to the assistant principal jump.

"We got one class in here, and I can hear you out in the hall!" he says in a voice that suggests he was blessed with a gift for projection. "I shouldn't be able to hear you out there. Quiet down."

Annie Ruth Lampkin, standing with her back to a wall, awaits the end of another day's luncheon pageant. "Mmmm, mmmm," she says.

From the sidelines, she watches the whole scene unfold. The barely-eaten apples, mangled fries, candy wrappers, and other mess that get scattered all over are hers to silently collect. With a dry mop, she puts an end to the frenzy.

Sit down with a half-dozen kids, and it gets more manageable, but you may be just lucky to hang on.

"The 7th graders wake up in a different world every day, and they are bouncing off all four walls," says Joe Espinosa, the mild-mannered principal here who observes the lunchroom drama most days from a seat at the teachers' table or some position not far from the coffee maker. "The 8th graders are different," he says. "They know everything."

This can be a harsh crowd.

Ask a boy who a teacher is, and he says, "She's Satan." Ask a kid who the boy sitting next to him the day before was, and he says, "He does not exist."

Ask a girl what she thinks of the lunchroom, and she says without hesitation, "There are cockroaches everywhere. Sometimes, they crawl right up on the tables."

A quick disclaimer: There is a large blue A embossed on an official certificate affixed to one of the serving-line sneeze guards here. It is not just the stamp of approval of state health officials, mind you. It is their highest rating. Of course, you don't walk into South Carolina eateries and find certificates boasting a B or C, but it doesn't really matter. The middle school lunchroom and kitchen are ridiculously clean, despite the amazing capacity of the customers for slander and for making a mess.

The complaints arise because the cooks here have the same job as the teachers: to literally give these students what's good for them, whether they like it or not. And just like the faculty, what the cooks usually have on hand to work with is a lot of tasteless, government-issue material that is made for the common good, not individual satisfaction. They work it into a menu they have little to do with--the meal plan comes two weeks in advance from the district office.

Myra Thomas pounds her fist against a desk near the walk-in refrigerator as she looks ahead on the new menu. The cooks here are not always so keen on the menu themselves. "Chicken again!" she says.

She pores over the pages of the advance menus. "Excuse me?" Thomas says to nobody in particular. In a spacious tiled room where the machines and radio mix to flatten everyone else's voice, it somehow amplifies hers. "What is sliced k-i-w-i?"

All around the desk where Thomas sits are rooms stocked with huge quantities of food that is hardly appetizing. In the storage room, the cardboard boxes labeled as surplus kernel corn, pinto beans, sweet potatoes, and apple slices each bear the humanitarian message, "donated by the people of the U.S.A." On a rack that looks like a display at a paint store, Dutch Boy-sized cans hold masses of everything from tomato paste to pineapple tidbits. On shelves backed against the wall are 50-pound bags of sugar, gallon tubs of tartar sauce, and a single package of 4,000 chocolate chips.

The food comes from everywhere--refried beans from Texas, corn from Wisconsin, peas from Minnesota, applesauce from Michigan, lima beans from Pennsylvania, nonfat dry milk from California. But as if the packagers knew it was all going to the same place--some cafeteria--the look is plain, and the taste is flat.

When the first item on your cake recipe is 13 pounds of butter, it's probably a good bet that any battle between copious portions and subtle flavor has already been settled.

Stockpiled cottage cheese, hamburger buns, Idaho school fries, and fresh cantaloupes from Honduras bide their time in the 40-degree walk-in refrigerator. French toast sticks and beef patties are preserved in a walk-in freezer that hovers at 4.

"Usually, people don't think about more than one or two pounds of hamburger meat," says Gail Crosby, who handles the lunchroom's meat selections. "Here, it's always 30 or 40 pounds."

As Crosby runs one of four starter logs of processed ham through a slicer, Sara Wilkerson works at the silver industrial mixer that stands 5 feet tall and turns a dough hook as big as a man's arm. She is pouring a gallon of water and almost three times as much flour into the mixing bowl as she creates nine large loaves of Italian bread from scratch.

Soon, Helen Haynes starts cutting up lettuce and tomatoes and peels a few carrots, tossing the salad in a bowl big enough to give a baby a bath. Earma Copeland takes down the black menu boards and presses in the white letters that spell today's selections:

spaghetti w meat sauce
crisp garden salad w dressing
ham n cheese sandwich
lime sherbit
And, of course, french fries.

Once she has stacked 300 sandwiches, Crosby boils a batch of pasta and revives a pan of three-day-old spaghetti sauce. As school meals go, this one is popular with both the children and the cooks. It doesn't rank as high as pizza day or cinnamon rolls, when teachers seem especially perky. But it is not as bleak as, say, meatloaf or the worst: stuffed green peppers. Crosby makes a face just thinking about meatloaf and stuffed peppers.

"Sometimes, it's difficult to make a recipe if you don't like it yourself," she explains, trying to be polite.

Margaret Springfield, the cafeteria manager who has been in the school-meal business for 25 years, is not sure whose idea stuffed bell peppers was.

"We just fix enough for the teachers, because the kids are not going to pick them up," she says.

Springfield, whom all the cooks call "Miss Margaret," has been managing lunchrooms since 1971. It was a day in April, she recalls, when she was sitting in her living room and a school district cafeteria supervisor knocked on her front door with the job offer.

For the first dozen years, she managed the lunchroom at the high school up the road in Cross. In 1984, she moved to the Cross elementary school. Since 1991, she has supervised this kitchen.

"I've always loved to cook," Springfield explains. "My momma was sick when I was growing up, and we had to learn to cook back then."

Her job, however, leaves no time for cooking. As often as teenagers line up for lunch, she sits down to federal, state, and local paperwork. She spends three days a month updating the cafeteria inventory. Other days are consumed by filling out forms explaining what is being served, accounting for how leftovers will be used, working in unexpected government-commodity arrivals, ordering food, dealing with the payroll, and making sure everyone remembers to wear a hairnet.

It is not as easy as just picking the fruit of the day.

"If we want pineapples for 200 children, and each one is going to get a portion that is 1/4 cup, then you have to know that means you're going to use up four No. 10 cans," she says. "And when you start to see spots on the bananas, you know the kids are not going to take them because if they aren't perfectly yellow, these kids are going to think they're not any good."

So she sees to it that the bananas get sliced into pudding.

And then there is the magic of reincarnating meat sauce--the act that every schoolchild suspects but no one ever actually acknowledges. Springfield looks at today's spaghetti sauce. "I can put that in a bun for Sloppy Joe," she proclaims with no hint that she might have just betrayed some lunchroom worker's secret oath.

A soft-spoken woman with gray hair, a grandmother's friendly face, and bad feet, Springfield spends a good deal of time in her office--the farthest spot in this school from anyplace devoted to formal learning. But over the years, she has come to know children and teachers pretty well. She knows their tastes, and she knows that the way into a middle schooler's heart is not through his stomach. To be honest, there may not be a direct route.

"You take corn," Springfield says. "Elementary school children will eat up corn. They love it. You just ask them to try it, and they believe it's good. And high school kids will maybe eat a little corn because they think it's good for them. But in middle school, they won't eat corn. They just won't.

"High school kids can be very, very picky," she continues. "Very picky. But middle school children are the hardest of all. First, they won't eat anything they think is good for them. You could give them french fries and hamburgers every day, and they'd be satisfied. But on top of not eating what's good for them, they will stop eating something just because somebody else they know doesn't like it.

"Of course," she says looking up and smiling, "I was that way, too. My brother wouldn't eat onions to save his life, so there for a while I didn't eat onions either because I knew momma would fix him something else."

Other traits of the modern teenager come as a surprise, though.

"They are pretty good, but they will cuss you sometimes," says Brenda Driggers, the head cashier here. "I guess they have their bad days just like everybody else."

It's in the lunchroom that some of the students find the most understanding adults. The cooks wear a different brightly colored T-shirt every day to soften their image from the stereotypical, ultra-sterile chow wardens of old.

"You learn to love the children and make a minute for them," Springfield says. "Sometimes, we don't just give them their only good meal, we're also the only smiling face they see all day long. And they may be in a classroom where a teacher might not have time for them."

One morning at breakfast, Thomas goes easy on one boy who asks if he can exchange his sealed plastic bowl of Apple Jacks for Fruit Loops. "I'm not supposed to," she says, catching the boy's eye. "But I'll let you."

Another young customer jokes with Thomas and gets a quick retort. "I've got news for you, son," she tells him, starting to laugh. "Have you ever heard the old expression that young puppies can't keep up with the old dogs?"

"Myra, is he harassing you," someone asks kiddingly.

"Honey," Thomas says, "if he was harassing me, I'd have done sent him out the door."

Breakfast is a breeze compared with the daily lunch. Some 800 children--an hour of 7th graders and an hour of 8th graders--descend by homeroom. One minute is peaceful. The bubbling of the deep fryer sends up only a low hiss and a light steam as the fries brown. The next minute, an almost tireless stream of children fill the kitchen door, grab their trays, and join the lunchroom mob.

From his place in the lunch line, Phillip Griggs, a lanky though not yet tall 13-year-old, scans the room behind him. Everyday, he takes silverware, a dish of fruit, an order of fries, and a chocolate milk.

His friend Saleem Shaheed, 12, is always waiting at their spot. Saleem frequently bypasses lunch altogether. They sit with their homeroom, as the 7th graders must, at one of the long tables on the edge of the room near a door that leads outside to a courtyard. Phillip and Saleem make the most of the spot. From their stools, they see everyone coming and going. At any moment, they can watch most anyone. With nods and waves and short phrases, they work their contacts at the next table, the far wall, or the most remote corners of the room.

This may be the birth of networking.

As Phillip picks at his fries, Saleem starts explaining that Phillip has a girlfriend. He says Phillip knows everyone in the lunchroom.

Phillip sidesteps the girlfriend issue. But he does confirm that he knows everyone here and begins to point all around the place, naming his friends and acquaintances. As classmates see Phillip pointing them out, he feels obliged to say something about them.

"See her," Phillip asks, nodding toward a red-haired girl. "She's crazy.

"He's in a gang," Phillip says, pointing at a boy who has trimmed one eyebrow to look like it has notches. The boy gives Phillip a mean look.

"Oh yeah, and her," Phillip continues, singling out a girl looking back at him with a mocking smile. "She's conceited."

Saleem laughs. So do Raymond and Damarius and Dennis and Justin, who sit across from Phillip. The others start talking as Phillip, who has not touched his fruit or opened his milk, crouches in his seat. He sinks down to eye-level with the table and looks around silently as the noise takes over.

Across the lunchroom, at the teachers' table, something catches Mr. Barnes' attention.

"Young men!" he says, calling out five boys sitting at the table nearest him. He stretches a finger toward the group. "You know we don't allow that.

"Fix it, please," he orders.

At once, all five boys rise from their stools and twist and fidget to tuck in their T-shirts. Once their shirts are neatly inside their waistbands, the boys, almost in unison, add another step. They tug at the back of their pants, yanking their jeans down to the middle of their hips. They sit back down, in full compliance with the school's policy and the latest style.

At the faculty table, where many of the adults bring a homemade lunch, conversation often revolves around nutrition issues--fat levels and cholesterol--except when they are too busy enjoying the kitchen's cinnamon rolls or fried chicken.

Another favorite topic is the unruliness and slovenly ways of teenagers.

The support group looks out over its affliction. A frustrated substitute teacher speaks up.

"Subbing is bad," she says. "They don't have any respect for you."

"They don't have any respect for me, and I'm a teacher," one woman says.

Mattie Sanders, a guidance counselor, offers her advice.

"If you are going to get through to these kids, you have to do it through their peers. You find a friend and get them to pass the message along," she says. "All that matters is what their peers think and say and do, not adults."

Back at Phillip's table, the substitute homeroom teacher asks Phillip and Saleem if they are finished eating. Saleem was finished with lunch before he started. Phillip says he is still thinking about it.

Across the table, Justin is reciting an old Jeff Foxworthy redneck comedy routine. Nobody is laughing.

"Don't you get it?" Justin asks with chagrin. "Don't you know what an outhouse is?"

"We get it," Phillip says, "but it's not funny."

Phillip nods at people leaving the lunchroom.

"OK," he quips. "I'm bored."

From behind, the boy with the shaved eyebrow surprises Phillip with a bear hug. "You said I was in a gang," the boy accuses.

"He knew I was lying," Phillip calmly replies.

The conceited girl stops by, too. "I heard what you said, Phillip," she says with a lisp. "I'm not conceited.

"And I don't usually talk this way," the girl adds, explaining the lisp. "But my retainer is pushing my teeth back."

After the visits, Phillip picks up his tray and walks toward the trash cans and dirty-tray counter. He tosses his unopened milk and uneaten pear-half into the trash. He hands his tray and utensils over to Myra Thomas, who feeds them into the mechanical washer and dryer. Phillip and Saleem disappear with the rest of their classmates. And as quickly as it was filled, the lunchroom is empty again. The sounds of the vanishing children fade down the hallway.

Annie Ruth Lampkin weaves her mop along the floor, collecting the remnants of one more feeding.

"Another day," she says.

One afternoon, after the kitchen staff is long gone and students are sent home, the lunchroom reawakens for 40 young teachers. Their name tags show that they have come from all over--rural schools further north around Lake Moultrie and suburban schools in Goose Creek, down toward Charleston. Moncks Corner is sandwiched comfortably in the just-plain-small-town middle.

They arrive for training and to talk about the logistical and morale problems that beset rookie teachers. For a couple of hours, the lunchroom becomes a classroom--one with Piggly Wiggly party trays on a side table: chicken wings and veggie dip and three-liter bottles of Coke. At the front of the room, Bob Winters, the district's social-studies coordinator, preaches instructional technique. "Teaching to the Objective" is his lecture theme. He keeps calling a hypothetical schoolchild "the learner."

As he gets around to his point that "effective instruction is offered on a straight line"--an important message that is written and diagramed on the projector screen in front of the lunchroom stage--several of the teachers have been lulled into a trance. Some doodle. Some fix their gaze on a stage curtain or a window or a wall. One or two break the haze by getting up to freshen their cup of Coke.

Except for the escape valve of the goody tray, the place starts to seem like a real classroom. The teacher talks. The students listen, or at least look like it. They reflexively perk up when it sounds like a question is coming. Maybe school does this to everyone.

When the training session ends, most people pick up and go, finding a friend or two to talk with, and mostly not about class. A few of them linger to speak to the teacher. Within a few minutes, everyone is gone.

Watching the grown-ups grow bored and restless suggests that conclusions can be drawn about this place that go beyond the world of hypersocial teenagers. Maybe it is never so different. You hope your skin clears up. You hope the visits to the dentist become less frequent. Eventually, you don't have to be coerced to tuck in your shirt.

But as sure as french fries, you are always glad for a break from class, you are always relieved to see your friends, and you never stop trying to get in a good lunch group.

And just when you think you are all alone, you realize something else. Outside the lunchroom door, a broom leans up against the wall. And somebody else is there, cleaning up after you.

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