Throwback Thursday: The One About Not Judging

carole first grade for carole knits

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.

But.

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.

Until.

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.

 

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Comments

  1. Robby says

    I am also indignant on your behalf. And on behalf of all kids who may not have enough food, heat, and/or love in their lives. I think you must have made out like a bandit on that last one.

  2. Judy H says

    This is a great story about judging. I am one of ten children and my father was diagnosed with MS when I was young. He was unable to work so I got free lunch as well. It never bothered me but my older sisters were too embarrassed to let their friends see them get free lunch so they would either go without or use their babysitting money they earned. Their friends would make fun of those who got free lunch. It’s sad that judging starts at a young age.

  3. Jo-Ann says

    It is stories like this that make me glad that the school has made a change in how children pay for lunch – at least here in our little town. Now kids all pay with their ‘lunch card’ and no one knows who is getting it for free, reduced, or full price. Sad that it took until the 2000’s for them to figure out the stigma in getting some help :( It is definitely difficult not to judge, especially when you’re struggling with one thing or another – but I try to always think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

  4. says

    A very thought provoking post, Carole. I’m appalled that someone would take out their suspicions on a child. Horrid woman. Yay for your mom and thanks to you for making us stop and wonder what the whole story is.

  5. says

    What a horrid woman! I remember that feeling though myself, but not as a child, but as the Mom of 3 children. When I was single in the 90’s I was getting 75.00 a week for 3 children because my ex-husband started working under the table to avoid child support and I was forced to go the food stamp route to feed the kids and they received free lunches as well and we all frequently received similar treatment. You never really know someone’s story or where they are on their journey. I have tried very hard over the years not to judge as well.

    …and yes, please do donate to food pantries and Angels and Elves who give children a Christmas they might not have received. (can you tell I feel strongly about this? )

  6. says

    I’m always happily reminded how similar we all are when we share some of our stories. Thank you for your important story; I love that it has justice, love, lessons, and those lovely Polly Flinders dresses!

  7. says

    Amen.
    There is never a need to humiliate a child, but I fear many of us were and we see it everyday on the news. It’s a wonder we turned out to be the people we are. Thank you for sharing this story and reminding us not to judge the people we see.
    This time of year it is very easy to give money to charities without leaving your house. Our grocery store asks if you want to add a few dollars to your bill to give to the food pantry in our area. It couldn’t be easier to give.

  8. Bev S. says

    Thank you for sharing this Carole. I have always wanted to be the mom or the sister or the aunt or the pastor (which is what I am) who would be one who would walk into whatever “principal’s” office and speak out in justice and love. God bless your mom.

  9. says

    Thank you for posting this. As someone who grew up poor and from a family that used food stamps for a long time, it’s important to remind everyone that just because people are clean, neat, and have decent clothes, it doesn’t mean they are “rich.”

    Also, you should always remember that, but for the grace of God …

  10. Debbie says

    Thank you! The reasons for poverty are complex and it seems we are quick to judge those who need assistance. I volunteer at our local Catholic Worker house that provides a home for single women & their children who otherwise would be homeless or hungry. My favorite time at the house is when I put dinner on the table and we all gather in the dining room to share a meal together. During that daily meal, the barriers between guest & volunteer become blurred and we become like a family.

  11. Sue says

    As I was reading your story this morning I was thinking ‘please throw up on the lunch lady, please throw up on the lunch lady’. And you did!!!

    It is so important that parents advocate for their kids. Your mom was awesome.

  12. says

    I hope that lady one day had an experience that made her take a long look in the mirror. So sad. We had food stamps at one point when my Dad was unemployed in the 70’s. I know my Mom didn’t love it but you do what you do. Your Mom was awesome.

  13. Shirley says

    Your story is very powerful and really hit me. The kind of treatment you received is sadly still around, probably even more so. We should be hating hunger, not the hungry.

  14. Mary K. in Rockport says

    Stunned — I thought just the nuns were mean like that. Events like that stick with us for our whole lives, don’t they?

  15. says

    agreed. I grew up in an affluent town as a not-affluent kid. Warm dinners at home always,but very few dinners out. Clothes clean and fitted, but lots of hand-me-downs. Lots of play time w/ our parents, less toys. More camping vacations (i.e. cheap), never a plane ride or beach house. As an adult now, talking to my cousins & family, I realize that the fun “soup and crackers” dinners my mom announced as “a treat!” and that I LOVED (still do) for us were really a way of stretching a tight budget. That “clean out the fridge” dinners were another way of dealing with empty cupboards just before paychecks. You had free lunch, I remember being getting a christmas gift at CCD… and wondering why not all the kids got gifts. my mom said “b/c you were extra good.” not really- the CCD teachers knew we weren’t having a great year. Also didn’t know some of us didn’t have to pay for CCD.

  16. Trista says

    What a touching reflection on your mother’s love and support and also on judgments we can make on others, going awry – that speaks to me deeply and thank you for sharing. I love your mom a little after that story! (I mean, I was always sure she was a nice mom to you and that you are awesome, but in fact this transcends the blog aspect and I really care, know what I mean? I hope so- in all sincerity)

  17. Vivian K Watson says

    If this were facebook…I’d hit “like.” Today..I am emotional, so I sit at my lunch room table at work and cry. Because I see and hear this sort of judgment all the time, and it makes my heart hurt.

  18. TMK45 says

    Thank you for such a great story. In our house we had six children and both my parents worked and did shifts. My Dad would work days and my Mom nights. Money was always tight in our house but like you said we always had dinner on the table and usually heat in the house. We would occasionally run out of heating oil and I would think why can’t they remember to fill the tank? As I grew older I found out it was that some weeks it was food or fuel oil, but they did they best they could do with what they had. One thing we always had was plenty of love and that was better than heat anyway. I love this time of year and Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Thank you for taking me back to the days as a child and thinking about how lucky we were to have what we had. I will work hard to make sure to help those in need and not judge anyone based on their appearance. :-)

  19. Jo says

    This is such a touching story, and it makes me want to apologize for every insensitive adult who has the potential to damage a vunerable child who didn’t have a wonderful mother like yours. These were acts of a bully…sadly, reminding me of some of the words of today’s politicians. Only the very sheltered or the very lucky have not experienced a situation like this. You ave emerged as a strong and beautiful woman…kudos to you!

  20. says

    Because of a glitch with my feed reader, I missed this post on Thursday. Oh, Carole! What an important story to share. Your mom was an awesome advocate! What a powerful experience for you to have at such a young age. I’m sure this is very much folded into who you are now! Thanks for sharing. I am completely verklempt. XOXO

  21. Kimberly says

    Very well said and a very important reminder to not only reserve judgement but to remember how far woman have had to come to be able to take care of themselves in times of death or divorce.

    Oh, if I could go back in time and give that woman a piece of my mind. And a very big hug to your mother. My grandmother was a single mom from the time my dad and his brother were very little. I remember the extremely frugal conditions under which they lived while her ex husband went on to have another wife, a girlfriend or two, and more children.

    I always felt very fortunate that when I divorced I was already doing well, despite not having been able to finish college and didn’t need a penny of the meager child support that my ex owed and never paid. I’ve always counseled my children not to judge others in the way that they live, dress, or look and have stressed FINISH COLLEGE before getting married to my daughters.

  22. April says

    Thank you for sharing this story. My 13 year-old son and I work at our local food pantry. His first day there he learned that kids with Gameboys may still need food assistance. This is a beautiful reminder for all of us. Judgement is a very human ideal and a difficult reflex to suppress. Go mom! She sounds like one awesome lady.

  23. Hillary says

    You tell stories so well Carole and this is one that really needs to be heard. It’s important to be reminded that things aren’t always what they seem.