Character Counts: Everywhere, All the Time
That’s what it says, painted on the north wall just past the front entrance to the school. Beneath the admonishment is an illustration of six Ionic columns, pillars of virtue labeled Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Citizenship.
I see this peripheral-vision eye-catcher every morning on my way in to work, and being of a general nerdly and earnest disposition (when not giving the stink eye to mean girls who make me feel like I’m back in high school), I take the message to heart.
For example, one afternoon I forgot to count the leftover milk pints in the dairy case. It hit me just after I’d clocked out, and for a split second, feeling dead tired, I imagined playing dumb to myself and just continuing to make my way out the door and into the freedom of the parking lot.
But I couldn’t, so I turned back and confessed to Lina, my boss.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, and waved me off. “Go home.”
She gave me a look, as if to say, “Don’t mess with the Lunch Lady Supervisor. She might be skilled in the art of silent intimidation.”
Today on my way in, though, something was different. The message of the north wall had been sullied. Plastered smack in the middle was a flyer: “Comedy Hypnotist! $6! October 29!”
Well that didn’t take long, considering school had started less than five weeks ago.
A wave of foreboding washed over me, but by the time I entered the kitchen, put on the first of many pairs of latex gloves, and began to prep the cookies, I’d moved on to new concerns.
This would be my fourth day on hot-lunch duty. Monday was “Breakfast for Lunch,” and the girls squealed with glee as they defected from the wrap line. Tuesday was neither here nor there, with soft tacos, rice, and refried beans. Wednesday was meatball subs with star-shaped taters. Happy Boy was elated. “Meatball subs!” he exclaimed. “Oh my God, star-shaped potatoes! This day just keeps getting better and better!”
After he’d floated off, the lad behind him looked me straight in the eyes and declared, “Boys in high school should not be talking like that.”
“Who’s to say…?” I said. “The ability to find the joy in small things will serve him well in life.”
“OK, Confucius,” the budding cynic replied as he arched his eyebrows and swiped the lunch tray from my outstretched hands.
So today, Thursday, I’ll be serving “Italian pasta and meat sauce with garlic bread.” The sides were green beans, faded and from a big can, and steamed spinach–decidedly not sautéed in olive oil with garlic, but, mercifully, with butter sneaked into the pot by our kindhearted cook, Carrie-Ann.
I expected the garlic bread to draw familiar faces from the sandwich line, and it did.
From first lunch through the third, all was well and good and (at least partially) yummy. By fourth lunch, news of this hardy favorite meal had reached the masses, and the line of salivating students was twice the size of any I’d ever seen on sandwich duty.
After about ten minutes of dishing out the food, I noticed there were only three pieces of garlic bread left–not enough to dispense to the eight or so people left on line. I wasn’t the only one who spied the looming dilemma.
“Look at that!” came a booming voice. “There isn’t enough garlic bread for everyone!”
“Don’t worry,” I said, looking up to find that the panicked would-be diner was actually a teacher behaving badly.
“Everyone,” he said in a tone of voice many octaves louder than before, “listen up. We should all protest this craziness! What’s wrong with you people?” he said, looking directly at me, who is about one-eighth his size and not responsible for the amount of food prepared or brought to the steam table. “Why not enough garlic bread? We need more!”
He started to bang on the counter, and I decided it was time to use the red phone.
I dialed into the kitchen, and to whoever it was who answered on the other end I spluttered, “I need more garlic bread–stat!”
“It’s OK,” said the next person in line, a noble young lady named Phoebe. “I’ll have mine without the bread.”
“I’ll be back,” I said to her as I dished out a heaping serving of pasta and meat sauce, “and when I return, I’ll find you, and you shall have garlic bread.”
“Either way,” she said. “It’s all right,” and she gave me a big smile, then cringed when the booming voice spoke again, inciting the kids to riot.
When I got into the kitchen, Carrie-Ann told me we’d run out of bread, but to fear not, as she grabbed a bag of hot dog buns. We basted those things with the speed of comic-book superheroes and popped the tray into the oven.
While we waited the two minutes it took to toast the bread, I told Carrie-Ann about the teacher gone wild. “Who is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know his name,” I said, then added, “Paunch de León.”
“Ohhh…Mr. Jones. He must be extra hungry today!” she said, laughing.
When the bread was done, I ran out and back toward my station. On the way I spotted Phoebe and gave her the best-looking piece.
As I neared the steam table, the kids cheered. I noticed that Mr. Jones was at the front of the line.
“We let him get in front of us,” one of the girls whispered to me. “There are more important things to protest over,” added another.
“You’re good kids,” I said.
“Character counts,” said a boy from the back of the line.
Everywhere, all the time.