The school hours are often a black box for parents, but after taking an opportunity to lunch with my elementary-school kids for a week, I discovered their hidden world.
I bent down to ask my 7-year-old son to eat his cheese stick. I had to get close so he could hear me over the din of his school’s gym/lunchroom. He pulled a few strings free from the cheese, jammed them into his mouth on one side of the space where his front teeth once where. He chewed. Then he looked up at me with his sweet freckled face and told me, matter-of-factly, that my breath smelled “like the dog’s poop.”
It was Friday and I’d been joining my son and his brother during school lunch for most of the week. The novelty had worn off. But I wasn’t really upset. His comment was blunt (and might even have been true), but at least I was being insulted by my son in the middle of the workday. Some dads have never had that specific pleasure. And even as I turned from his table to self-consciously corroborate his claim, I felt pretty good. By spending lunch with my kids at school, I’d gained valuable insight into a world many parents never get to visit.
I learned that I was welcome at lunch during the school’s curriculum night at the beginning of the year. My wife and I had just enrolled the boys in a local K-8 Catholic school and my son’s second-grade teacher was quite clear that parents were needed to help keep an eye on the kids during lunch and recess. It sounded like a good opportunity to see my kids, who I was missing after summer. Because I work from home and live close to the school, joining my boys for lunch was no hassle. I was excited about it — as I would be almost any deviation from routine.
The next Monday at 11:45, I signed in at the school office and was given a visitor’s badge. The secretary thanked me for getting involved and sent me to the gym, which has fold-down Murphy-tables in the walls to turn the space into a lunch room. I walked into the adjoining kitchen and was put to work by the jocular but busy lunch lady. She was happy that I’d decided to get involved. I lined up some thawed juices. I felt useful.
“What do I do during lunch?” I asked.
“Just be out by the tables. The little kids might need help opening things, but mostly try to keep them from running around,” the lunch lady said. Easy enough.
A moment later, the gym door was opened and the Kindergarten class tumbled in.
“Poppa, what are you doing here?” my younger son asked, suspiciously. I had decided to make my cameo a surprise.
“I’m here to have lunch with you,” I said. He smiled and skipped away with his lunchbox, joining his friends.
Moments later the second-grade class sped in. I received the same question from my 7-year-old who hugged my legs and refused to let go. I hobbled over to his table, half carrying him and set him down with his lunchbox.
“Okay,” I said. You have to eat lunch and I have to help other kids. And I did. Hands shot up among the tables and I went to work twisting open thermoses and putting straws in juice boxes. I had never felt so strong in my life.
After a couple surprise attack hugs from my boys, they forgot about me and went about their business. The 7-year-old ate quietly, not interacting much with his peers. He didn’t seem isolated, just quiet. My 5-year-old, on the other hand, played and joked with his peers. He was part of the crew. It made sense the brothers would behave differently, but it was interesting to see the behavior in the wild. I felt like a naturalist observing my own family.
I apparently wasn’t doing a great job helping keep kids in line. Each table was like a pot of water set over heat. At the beginning of lunch, they were calm and still, but as the minutes progressed and the food was finished, the children began to stir and roil. Before I knew it, they were away from their tables, boiling over.
Suddenly the principle was stalking across the gym, her face set in a look of determination and frustration. She clapped her hands and the children all responded with their own clap.
“God is good!” she said loudly.
“All the time!” the children replied.
“All the time!” she echoed.
“God is good!” the children replied.
Silence fell and the principal stared the children down before loudly scolding them for their lunch behavior. I felt scolded too. After all, I was supposed to be helping keep things in line. I’d failed. Suddenly, I remembered the dread of these moments at school. My stomach twisted involuntarily.
Still, I came back the next day, which seemed to surprise and please everyone at the school. It’s easy to be a good dad, it turns out. You just have to show up. Nevermind that moms show up all the time and don’t get nearly as much praise.
I stood beside one such mom — a fellow lunch-watcher — and confessed the children had been yelled at the previous day. She looked at me and chuckled. “They always get yelled at during lunch,” she said.
On the playground after lunch, I watched my boys. The youngest played chase screamed, ran and played with his friends. The oldest paced on his own in a corner of the playground, lost in a game in his own mind. I asked him why he wasn’t playing with the other kids his age.
“They don’t want to play my games,” he said. And when I asked why he didn’t play their games he replied, “I don’t like playing sports,” before wandering off on his own again. It was both profound and painful to see this part of my oldest son’s life. I knew he liked to disappear into his own world, but I hadn’t expected to see him so alone. And, worse, I had no solutions. But at least now I knew about these hidden moments in his life.
The daily lunches progressed in much the same way until Friday. It was the third Friday of the month, a lunch reserved for dads specifically to join. Fathers would serve pizza and hang out with their kids.
As the dad’s trickled in, I felt like an old hand. The lunch lady knew my first name and welcomed me happily. Was that jealousy in the other dad’s eyes? Envy, or god forbid, concern?
We made halting small talk as we waited for the children to arrive. And when they did, lunch progressed as normal. Nobody really got yelled at by the principle. My son told me my breath smelled like dog poop and then we went outside for recess, dads and all.
It was then, I realized, much like my older son, I had stepped away to be in my own head. While other dads grouped up in the shade, I wandered away. My son, I realized, comes by it honestly. It was an insight I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t gone to school. I had to see him in that space and I had to see myself as well.
At the end of the week, I was feeling more connected with my kids. And I was feeling far more connected with the school. I was learning about their classmates. I was seeing hidden dynamics I could never have been aware of. I had faces I could put to names and saw behaviors that could give me context as I talked with my kids at dinner. It was a gift.
Sadly, I know that I’m one of the lucky ones. I can do this whenever I want and plan to do it frequently. I’m not sure what’s on the menu for this week, but I know I’ll get a hug from my boys. I’ll be able to watch them play in their own ways and I will learn from that. I’ll linger until they ask me to go. I’ll bring tic-tacs.
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