At lunch time I go with the students into the cafeteria and sit at a table with the other teachers and eat my lunch. I’ve grown accustomed to eating at 11:30, though it’s at least an hour earlier than I used to. On the weekends, though, I start getting hungry by 11:00 and have to force myself to wait. The cafeteria is noisy and smells like mashed potatoes and greasy hamburgers, pizza cut into rectangles, sprinkled with bright red dots of pepperoni. Underneath the food smell is mop water and chemicals, bleach. At first it was all I could smell when I went in there, but now I don’t notice it. Some of the teachers get the same hot lunch the students do, which seems so odd. The second grade teacher, whose name I always forget because she’s new this year, Mrs. Fenton, and Mrs. Carlton always go through the line together. They say the cafeteria food isn’t that bad, but most of us bring our lunches. We have salads in Tupperware containers, sandwiches on whole wheat bread, sometimes frozen meals that we have to heat in the microwave in the teacher’s lounge before bringing them into the cafeteria.
The students come up to us at the table to ask questions—can they go to the restroom, the nurse’s office—and they stare at our food like it surprises them. They point at my lentil salad and vegetable soup, organic black bean burritos, and ask “what’s that,” and I have to tell them it’s rude to point at someone else’s food. “They’re just curious,” Ms. Foster says, and I can see she disapproves of my reproaching the students, but I tell her they have to learn manners. She thinks I’m prudish and old-fashioned, I heard her telling the other teachers so in the lounge when she didn’t know I was there, but I don’t see any reason to start a fight over it. Ms. Foster and I are the same age, but she likes to think of herself as rebellious, as someone who bucks the system. We both work for the public school, I want to tell her.
After lunch the students have a half hour to work on their art projects. They are making shadowboxes, and I walk around to all of them to look at their progress. Megan is gluing cotton balls onto the blue background of her shadowbox, and when I tell her she’s making lovely clouds, she just smiles and goes back to what she’s doing. “What do you say when someone gives you a compliment?” I ask her, but she doesn’t say anything. “Class, can you tell Megan what we say when someone gives us a compliment?” I ask, putting my hand on Megan’s shoulder, “she must have forgotten.” They stop what they’re doing and look at me, then at Megan, and I’m getting ready to ask them again when one of them speaks up. “Thank you,” Ben says quietly, not looking at the rest of the students. “That’s right, Ben,” I say, smiling at him, and the others frown a bit. “Now Megan,” I say, still holding Megan’s shoulder, “I just told you you’re making lovely clouds. What do you say?” And for a minute I think she’s still not going to say anything. I take a deep breath. Of all of my students, Megan is by far the least intelligent. She tries, but I can’t help but be concerned. She will probably have to be held back a year, and at the very least she’ll be attending summer school. I have told her parents that she isn’t making satisfactory progress, and have even offered to tutor her on my own time, but they tell me they’ll hire someone to help her. Megan looks down at her shadowbox, and whispers something. “Did you say ‘thank you,’ Megan?” I ask her, leaning down so our heads are almost touching.
“Yes,” she whispers, still looking down.
“Good,” I say, straightening back up and turning to the rest of the class, “you’re very welcome.”
I don’t think of myself as pushy or overly strict, certainly not prudish, but I want my students to grow up knowing how to behave. Their parents don’t teach them manners anymore, and so they come into my classroom not understanding how to act with adults, or even with one another. When I get frustrated with them, I remind myself they’re children and have to be taught. “It will never hurt you to have manners,” I tell them, “people always appreciate politeness.” When the half hour for art is up, I give out lollipops to the students who have been the most quiet and productive. I give one to Megan, and she says “thank you” loudly and clearly as she accepts it.