For three years, from fourth to sixth grades, I largely sat alone, in silence, at the lunch table every day.
When my kids ask me about what my life was like in elementary school when I was their age - I went to a semi-private small laboratory school - I tell them about the tennis lessons and swimming lessons we had in PE, about the special attention we got as we had countless student teachers rotating in and out of the classroom. I tell them about my favorite teacher in second grade who, once we filled a marble jar for good behavior, would take the class on a field trip to an ice cream parlor as a special treat.
But what I haven’t mentioned much, at least until lately, was how gut-wrenchingly hard it was, at least for the last half of elementary school. Because the school was small with only one class per grade, the same kids were in the same class every year. In the early grades, it was great. But during the last half of elementary school, when bullying started and girls became catty - it was awful.
First, I was called “toothpick” because I was very tall and very thin. So, I did what any normal 9-year-old kid would do: I ate my feelings after school every day. I got fat. I permed my hair, because well, it was 1990. That turned out to be a bad decision. I then cut off my hair because of the bad perm into a very short boy-cut. That was another bad decision. I spent an entire week at camp the summer after fourth grade being mistaken for a boy.
Back at school, the name-calling got worse. I retreated into myself, deciding it was easier just to spend my lunch alone, and in my own head. It was around this time that my dad, who lived an hour away and whom I only visited twice a month, got a new job as a Schwan’s delivery man. Dad started showing up at lunch at my school, sometimes two or three times a week. He’d eat with me and my class, and then stick around to sit with my sister and her class.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone anymore. I had someone else to talk to, but as my dad loved to joke, many of the kids who would never talk to me alone flocked to our table when my dad came to visit.
I looked forward to seeing him walk down the school hallway, wearing that navy Schwan’s delivery jacket with his name stitched on the front.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized that my dad wasn’t just coming for lunch. He was coming for me.
While clearing out my dad’s house this summer, I pulled a thick stack of dusty coats out of his coat closet - there isn’t much of a need for thick coats in Southern California. And in the pile was Dad’s old Schwan’s jacket, his name patch still stitched on the front.
He didn’t have that job long - only a couple of years before he got back into construction. But when I think about the bullying of elementary school, I think about my dad, and how he seemed to do everything he could to make things a little better.
Last week, I got a call from the school counselor at my daughter’s school. Now in fifth grade, my oldest child is in those awkward years when girl friendships are so important, but also so precarious. My daughter broke down in tears during her lunch over a minor argument with a friend at school.
And instantly, I couldn’t help but think about sitting in my old school lunchroom, alone, not physically in tears, although there were plenty of times when I felt like crying. When I hung up with the school counselor, I cried, because if there is anything we want to do as parents, it’s protect our kids.
When my daughter got home from school that day, I sat down with her and I pulled out that old Schwan’s jacket. I told her about sitting alone in the lunchroom in silence for too many years. And how my dad, her grandpap, did everything he could to make it better - he seemed to have a knack for that.
How much I wish he were still alive to help me now.
I promised my daughter that things will get better, that even though things may seem bad today, they won’t stay the same. She wiped her tears away, and the next day, things had improved. A week later, it was like nothing had happened at all.
But I can’t help but think that I need to go have lunch with my kids at school more often. I know they would love that.
I know my dad would have loved that, too.
Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.