The High School Lunchroom (Or, Social Darwinism At Its Apex)

I went and ate lunch with some high school students today (I was invited by one of the students from my church). I blogged about the entire adventure here, but there was one particular aspect that I felt worthy of exploring in more depth here on my personal blog.

After 17 years of post-high school life, and several trips back into the belly of the beast over those 17 years, today was the first time that I actually felt safe in a high school cafeteria.

Pathetic, I know. But true.

I stood in the midst of the typical chaos that is a high school lunch (which has changed a bit since I was last in school) and felt completely secure, completely at ease, and not the least bit intimidated. It was liberating.

Now, I’m sure you’re nothing like me; you’re probably well-adjusted and socially secure, and have never battled the powerful forces of Social Darwinism on its home turf. But for me, today was quite an achievement, as I believe with all my heart that one of the most socially destructive (and perversely formative) places in the universe is the high school lunchroom.

It begins as soon as the bell rings: who are you going to eat with today? Where will you sit? What will you eat? What will you drink? Will you have dessert? What will you talk about? With whom will you talk? The average high schooler has to have these and other questions answered in the five minutes it takes to get from your classroom to the lunchroom, because once you walk through those double doors, you’d dang well better have a plan in place or else you become the wounded gazelle in a field full of ravenous lions, hyenas and other predators.

I hated the lunchroom in high school so much that I eventually quit eating there. We mercifully had a drama teacher that allowed her students to eat in the theater lobbies, a sanctuary just off the dreaded killing floor strewn with green beans and crushed egos. It was a perfect haven – only people like me would even think of eating there, and no self-respecting jock or popular would even think of stepping inside the doors. Thinking about it now, it was a strange inversion of the actual lunchroom – a place where the unpopular ruled and the popular feared to tread.

So powerful was the lunchroom that it forged the social destinies of many people; all it took was one bad day and your entire life could become an endless joke for the amusement of others. But there were the occasional fairy tale endings where a jock or a popular would actually sit next to one of the great unwashed and discover something interesting or attractive about their unpopular classmate and begin a relationship that crossed lines more stringently drawn than those of race or creed. Indeed, the lunchroom was the place where only the fittest survived, though most came away wounded.

So, when I stood in that lunchroom today, liberated as an adult from the need to please others, the need to be perceived as cool or interesting, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I looked at the kids surrounding me and wondered how many of them felt the way I did as a student: hating the fact that no one seemed to notice me, but scared to death that I would do something stupid that would live in infamy. And with thoughts like that rattling around in my mind, I sat down with very interesting group of kids and enjoyed myself. I realized that if I can feel that way in a high school lunchroom, I can feel that way anywhere in the world.

And that’s a pretty great feeling – but that’s just me. What do you remember from your high school lunch days?

7 thoughts on “The High School Lunchroom (Or, Social Darwinism At Its Apex)

  1. I remember having an entire milkshake spilled on the top of my head once. Yeah. ‘Nuff said, huh? I then began eating with the theater kids too.

    Great post, by the way…

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  2. Jason, you just described my high school lunchrrom experience! If I ever wanted to know where I was in the social strata of our high school, the lunchroom was a grim reminder. The picture you posted brought back memories of all those anxious feelings walking into the cafeteria (which, by the way, was not NEARLY as state of the art as the school you visited today) and insecurity issues I battled as a teen. I had a “safehaven” of sorts too! For a semester I was a library assistant and ate in a backroom of the library. It was such a relief to avoid the constant reminder of my inferior social status. For once I didn’t dread lunch! My heart breaks for those in the picture that are sitting alone or at a table that’s half full. That was me. I want to tell them this high school environment does not have to define who you are! Life gets so much better than this. Hang in there because college is a whole new and much more accepting world. I’m impressed you were able to walk in and experience the high school lunchroom with confidence and ease. In that situation I’m afraid I might revert back to my insecure and painfully timid high school self. So I applaud your bravery! You revisited the lions den and came back the victor! 🙂

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  3. I don’t remember the cafeteria being any worse than the rest of high school but that’s not saying much. I felt like I never fit in anywhere. I had no social life, never had a date, and went stag to prom. I was so happy to go away to college where I could start over. I never realized you felt the same way. Maybe I was so focused on my own issues that I didn’t notice others were going through the same thing. Teenagers tend to be self-absorbed that way I guess. 🙂

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  4. Thank goodness, my school was so small that we didn’t have a cafeteria. We ate at our desks or on a pretty day on the “wall” outside the gym. I would have NEVER survived if I had to eat in a cafeteria. Next time you go, you might need to take some more of “us” with you.

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  5. I actually miss eating in the theater lobby with everyone. I have nothing else to add. Your time in the dreaded lunchroom and my time mirrored so much we did the exact same thing and it is one of the reasons we are friends today. So I guess something good came of it. Oh, and that one giant food fight was awesome (note to any kids reading this—it was not awesome it was lame and you should never ever have a food fight. But it was awesome)

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  6. I’m actually a high school student (Sophomore) and this article mirrors everything that happens daily at my school. Thankfully, on good days we can walk home for lunch and avoid the social Darwinism that happens. But, on dreadful, rainy days, we have to eat in the cafeteria. And the signs are there fully; the Popular table (where all the condiments are like salt and pepper and spices), the Thugs, the Jocks, the self absorbed pretty girls, your “Pot heads” as we call them,the rappers, the Cheerleaders, the Band, and the losers (where I preside). And don’t dare sit at the wrong table or you will be set out and kicked out fully. In fact, you cant even look at the wrong table full of people or you will get bullied forever. But, I am looking forward to College and I know now that it it not just my High School, but every High School.

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