Kindness in the Cafeteria


I wore several professional hats during my pre-children phase. Once I became a mom, I worked smaller, part-time jobs so I could be available to our two children. We were lucky that my husband was a bread winner, with the tradeoff of him being away often.


My jobs were a little more varied. I taught religious school, I was a substitute in all levels and I even worked as a collector! But who would have thought that I’d be one of those “cafeteria” ladies. I’ve realized that this job is the one that has given me so many special experiences—more than just a paycheck ever could.


Most of this job required supervision of children at lunch time in the cafeteria and then outside on the playground on the hottest and coldest days of the schoolyear. I had to toughen up. I even supervised football—nonathletic me. I enjoyed the marveling at their athleticism.


The students ranged from younger, smaller fourth graders, maturing fifth graders all the way to confident 6th graders. Though the goal was safety always, there were many whom I got to know and care about. 


It was kind of funny to talk about the show “Chopped” with a few of them. I learned from a Portuguese 6th grader that Pele wasn’t Pele’s real name! Pele meant foot. These were just some of teachable moments all the way around.


Really any opportunity for an adult to shed light on and validate a child is a worthy one. We all can think back to when an adult, teacher or coach, mentored us with a kind remark or noticed what we do best. We never seem to forget them.


We all have images of school cafeterias being extremely noisy, messy places. Of course, rules are necessary, sometimes unspoken, sometimes listed prominently on the walls. Where I worked, the rules were: 1. Always remain in seats, except for returning trays and throwing out trash; 2. Clean the top of the tables and sweep the dropped foods and trash; 3. Be quiet during dismissal; and 4. Be respectful with everyone. In my opinion, most students were appropriate given the natural chaos.


However, some co-workers’ focus seemed to be primarily on discipline and had picayune expectations. One example is that the tables and floors had to be flawlessly clean and other small things. There were a few children with oppositional behaviors requiring tougher consequences. But I think some of my co-workers saw all these children as “snowflakes” (in this case, labeled as brats). I assumed differently, that they would respond to kindness and fairness, and surprise, they mostly always did.


Some students stood out. Fifth grade “Sarah” was one of them. She was delightful, articulate and she liked to draw. She was a taller, bigger girl. She reminded me of me—gawky, and always day-dreaming at age 11. I checked in on her often, just asking how she was, what was she drawing. We had an inside joke each day. As the days progressed, we commiserated up until we hit Friday. Then we shared high fives. We played this game from early in the school year.


A few times, children told me they were leaving and going to another city and another school. I remember the look on their faces, that seemed sad, while holding back tears and resigned to their fate. And one day, around January, “Sarah” broke with the same news. She would be leaving. Even worse, the next day would be her last. I surmised it was about divorce. She would be moving to a whole new school and town.


I was determined to let “Sarah” know she was delightful, really an older soul. That night I wrestled with what to give her and what to say to her. Realizing I had to maintain boundaries, I decided to write a little poem about the days of the week and gave it to her the next day, sadly her last.


Just watching her read it and smile was a gift in return. When she approached me a few minutes later with a drawing of me with a pony tail and the Yankees hat I was known for (despite living in South Jersey). I smiled.


I thought it was best not to exchange phone numbers or emails, but we vowed we’d bump into each other one day. Here’s the poem that “Sarah” inspired.


School Days  

Monday, it will be ok.
Tuesday, we’re on our way.
Wednesday, we’re in the middle.
Thursday, what’s left is little.
Friday, we made it, yay!
The weekend’s left for fun and play.


I hope “Sarah” internalized this sweet experience, I know I did. The picture she drew of me is in my book of memories reminding me that being a “cafeteria lady” was a gift that keeps on giving. What special experiences has your job brought you?



Beth grew up in Camden, New Jersey and majored in Education and History at Rutgers University and later obtained a Masters in Family Therapy at Drexel University. She’s married to her husband of 41 years with two young adult children—a daughter and son—who both work in NYC. She loves movies, Netflix, books, history, linguistics and exploring the human condition. From her extensive background, she’s accumulated many stories and lessons and looks forward to shaping the conversation.