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?