I used to be a lunch lady once upon a time, back under the realm of Dr. Ben Canada who was the Portland Superintendent of Schools for several years. A lot of people didn't care for the way Dr. Canada ran things while he was at the helm but I got invited to breakfast with Dr. Canada one day and I found him to be a very gracious and genuinely nice person. Dr. Canada tried hard to make the school district more cohesive on all levels and one of the tools he used was inviting around a dozen employees at random thruout the district to come to the school headquarters building for an informal breakfast with him once a month. Well, lucky me...my lottery number got picked and it was time for me to meet the Doctor.
We gathered at the headquarters at 7 am, all of us a little uncertain and nervous because most of us worked "out in the field" in schools, not at "Big Orange"....the headquarters building is an incredibly ugly structure, nestled next to the Broadway Bridge near the Rose Quarter where the Portland Trailblazers play when they're not out doing something on their off-time to end up as today's headline in The Oregonian newspaper or on ESPN...drug busts, animal abuse, fighting with their girl friends/wives. Oh my...my mind wanders away from my task at hand here....the Blazers are a very touchy subject in our fair city.
Anyway....Dr. Canada came along and had us all sit at a big conference table. We were served coffee, donuts, bagels, fresh fruit, tea...a very nice spread but most of us were too nervous to eat. He spoke to us for a few minutes to put us at ease....I sat just to the right of him and pretty soon I kinda kicked back and started enjoying myself. Then the fun part began....he wanted to go around the table, have each of us introduce ourselves, and then TELL EVERYONE WHAT WE DO! Hey, I'd come for breakfast, NOT to have to speak in front of a bunch of people including HIM!! He started with the person to the left of him. So-and-so had a PHD, Master's in Education......it went that way all the way around the table 'til they got to me. The last lady to speak before me specialized in autistic kids and had more degrees than I had fingers and toes. Well. Dr. Canada turned and smiled at me and said, "Kristine?" I thought, "Well, here goes nothing!" But, you know....everyone had been so self-promotive, so 'Look at ME, Dr. Canada...ain't I grand?!' that I decided....I am who I am, just like Popeye. And I was just going to say it as I am. Sink or swim. Live or die.
So I told them how I was just a lunch lady from a middle school. That in our Cafeteria, children truly DID come first - which Dr. Canada truly believed in and so did I. I told how our Cafeteria was open to all the kids, how they'd come in to visit with me and my boss before school opened...how they'd tell us their secrets and fears, their jokes and their silliness. How we loved them and hugged them -- we weren't "politically correct", we were just a couple of moms ourselves who loved kids. How the teachers and staff said our Cafeteria was the best place to visit in the whole school. How no child EVER went away hungry from our kitchen. How I'd had such an awful childhood of my own and how much I could empathize and sympathize with a lot of the problem kids. How much I loved them all.
When I finally wound down you could've heard a pin drop and they were all staring at me. I thought "Uh oh...what'd I say?!" but the lady who sat next to me who had the bazillion degrees reached out and touched my arm and said, "That was so eloquently put!" Well. Eloquent, I dunno. But I never lost touch with the reality of what MY job was about....being there for them and loving those kids. No degree....nothing more than a high school education...but all the degrees in the world don't guarantee a loving heart. And kids of today....you don't have a CLUE what they face out in our world. I was there on 9/11 and saw their reality being altered forever....many of them had relatives in New York City who perished that day. You wouldn't think it'd be far-reaching enough to touch Portland, Oregon...but it did.
I'm no longer a lunch lady....haven't been for a few years now. But not a day goes by when I don't have some child come to mind and wonder what happened to them as time went on. My first batch of 8th graders graduated from college this year, one of them going on to become a very renowned basketball player for his university and who will most likely go on to play for the NBA. I've seen others in the news, in the paper. Those are MY kids, the ones who on the last day of school would come up and throw their arms around me and tell me they'd never forget me. Whether they do or not...that's not what matters. It's how they each touched MY life as they passed thru it, making my life richer, making it fuller. Each one is stamped in my heart forever.