When I was 5, which is when this picture was taken, my mom was a single mom. My parents had split up when I was 2 and my mom hadn’t yet married my stepdad and so she was doing it on her own. I think she got $75 per week in child support and that was for all 3 kids. She didn’t work because, well, it was 1970 and most moms didn’t work in those days. At least, not most moms where we lived. So, we didn’t have a lot of money. I never felt like we didn’t have enough, there was always food and our house was warm and I can honestly say I didn’t want for anything.
I got free lunch. And in those days the kids with free lunch were pretty obvious because everyone else paid for their lunch and we (I think it was a we but I felt like I was the.only.one) had an orange card that the cafeteria lady punched when we went through the line. It didn’t bother me, though. I thought it was cool and I was special.
The lunch lady, Mrs. Holmes, (and I won’t describe her other than to say – picture your typical lunch lady with the white smock and hairnet) decided that maybe I didn’t need free lunch. I’m not sure why she decided this but I think it may have been because I had pretty nice clothes. My mom had a very good friend with 3 daughters and I got all of their hand-me-downs. And there were a lot. I wore a dress to school every day and I could go weeks before I had to wear the same one twice. They were pretty much all Polly Flinders dresses and I must have looked like a little rich kid who was taking advantage of the system.
I’m not sure how a kid could do that but anyway, she decided to start following me to my table. And making sure I ate my lunch. All of my lunch. Now, I was a good little girl and I liked to follow the rules so I tried to do as she said. But one day? One day we had cowboy stew. It was some kind of meat in gravy that was grey and it was ladled over mashed potatoes. I thought it looked like someone threw up on my mashed potatoes and I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it. And when I didn’t eat it Mrs. Holmes started yelling at me. She told me that other people paid for my food and I had better eat it because it was free and I wasn’t allowed to waste it. So I cried. And I got more and more upset. And then I threw up on Mrs. Holmes.
That, of course, earned me a trip to the nurse and she called my mom. I told my mom the whole story when she came to pick me up and I can still see the look on her face. She was angry and indignant on my behalf. And crushed that a person of authority, one who should have been compassionate, instead berated and belittled me. I remember her taking me to the principal’s office and I remember her telling Mrs. Bohlin, the secretary, that she absolutely had to see Mr. Kelleher, the principal, immediately. And I remember sitting on the chair next to Mrs. Bohlin’s desk while my mom went in and talked to Mr. Kelleher.
My mom told him the whole sordid tale and Mrs. Holmes never bothered me again. In fact, I don’t really remember her after that. I’m not sure if she left or if she just stayed far away from me but I don’t really recall interacting with her ever again.
Are you wondering why I’m telling you this story? It’s not so you will feel sorry for me or my plight as a 1st grader. It’s not so that you will run out and make a donation to your food pantry. (Although, if you want to do that it would be awesome!)
Here’s why I told you this story: It’s partly because it shows how amazing my mom was. She was my champion and she wasn’t about to let any lunch lady be mean to me. But it’s mainly because I learned an important lesson from Mrs. Holmes. I learned not to judge others by their appearance. It’s hard not to do this, especially at this time of year when all of the charities are asking for help and we wonder if it’s going to the right people. We see the people at the grocery store, paying with their EBT cards. We wonder if they really need help. We wonder if they are making good choices with the money they get. Why are they buying junk food instead of vegetables? Why do they have things we have to work so hard for? We wonder if they are scamming the system.
But before you judge them, think about me, the little girl in the very nice dress who got free lunch. And remember that you don’t know anyone’s story until they tell it to you themselves.