Free Lunch

I read a status that a woman posted today about receiving free lunch as a child and it took me back. Way back. To my own free lunches. There are things about our lives, irrevocable things, things we wish weren’t there. Things that make us ashamed and embarrassed, and for years, free lunch was mine. “Free” in this case, is a misnomer. Free means that something is given at no cost. Receiving “free” lunch may fill up a hungry child’s tummy, but there is so much more to it than that.

I was the child of a single mother. A bastard child. The result of a love affair years in the making. Unfortunately, my father was married to another women. Had other children at home to take care of, so I was not on his list to care for. Which means all the responsibility rested solely on my mother, and she did her best.

She was a housekeeper, a bartender, a babysitter, she was even a “lunch lady” working in several of the lunchrooms around the district, going in early in the morning to bake those soft buns we all enjoyed with our chili on cold November afternoons, and staying until the last child brought their tray back to be washed.

Now my mother’s job barely afforded us a place to live and electricity. So I could wish all I wanted for a cool, new, sparkling lunchbox every year and yummy named-brand treats to fill it up, but I never knew that kind of life. I was the recipient, instead, of a “hot lunch”. Day-in and day-out I walked through the line, picked up my plastic trays, grabbed my carb, my vegetable, my protein, and my chocolate milk. I walked slowly to the woman at the desk and gave my name, or my number, or my bright yellow punch card that signified my difference in the line. That set me apart from all the kids behind me.

A free lunch kid. Free means something good, something fun. A surprise! Free to my son means he gets to have a good time on someone else’s dime, or finds a surprise in a bag of cereal. Free means that he doesn’t have to save up his own money, it means someone treated him to something. Free is good at our house! Free is exciting.

But when I walked into the lunch room every day “free” was not fun. And it wasn’t fun for the people paying for my “free” lunch. It wasn’t fun for the cafeteria workers and the teachers whose salary depends on how many “free” lunches were given away. It wasn’t fun for the people arguing in our town about cutting taxes. And it certainly isn’t fun now. Because like most programs that helped people like my mom and me back then, it was a short-term solution to a problem that is not short-term. It was a half-assed attempt to help “needy” people. And after a while, it doesn’t seem to matter how big your heart is, some people get tired of helping needy people.

Now please don’t mistake my morose words for ungratefulness. I am grateful. I am grateful for the government, the State of Kansas, the school district, the teachers and staff, and the people in the town I grew up in who may have been financially burdened because of my “free” lunch. I am now far enough removed to realize that the burden it lifted off my mother’s shoulders outweighed my adolescent embarrassment. But it was tough for a bit. Really tough.

Middle school is tough. I don’t need to tell y’all that. Anyone who has spent a day in a public middle school knows what I mean. There were days that I didn’t go through the lunch line. I instead told my friends that I wasn’t hungry and sat at the end of the table and watched them laugh and eat their Pop-Tarts, PB and J sandwiches, and deli sliced turkey. I would watch them read the cute notes their mom’s would pack in their lunch boxes. I watched them poke the straws through their Capri Suns and unwrap their Oreo’s. They would ask of I wanted a bite. No, I would lie. Say may stomach hurt.

But the reality was, as a nervous and anxious kid, I sometimes just couldn’t deal with walking through the line and punching my card. I could feel the anger, the condemnation, the uproar that having a “free lunch” meant in my community. I couldn’t see the woman working the desk look at me with that knowing smile. The one that says, I know you don’t have any money. I know your mom can’t pay for your lunch. Go ahead, take an extra milk. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take the pity.

Now I am not sharing my story today to make you look at me in a different light. I am no longer that kid of the single mom who couldn’t afford lunch. I am now the kid of the single mom who found a way, against many odds, to care for her child in all aspects of life. From free lunch, to borrowing money for field trips, to going to the Christian Associates for school supplies. I am the kid of a mom who knew how to care, whose heart is the biggest part of her body. I am the kid of a mom who put everything she could into her baby, and I hope she is proud of whom and what I have become.

But I am also a kid straight out of “the system”. I am also that kid who didn’t always have news shoes when I needed them. Who had to say no to party invites because we couldn’t afford a gift. I am the kid who almost slipped through the cracks in second grade because my teacher was concerned about the kids whose parents had the time to spend in the classroom or who volunteered more or who gave more money to the school, then the quiet girl in the back with a 6th grade reading level and a mother who cleaned houses for a living.

I am simply sharing my story with those of you who didn’t know that life. In hopes that the next time you talk about, or read about, or argue or complain about “free lunch”, that you realize it may not be exactly what you think it is.

It may not be exactly who you think it is.

Instead of passing judgement. Instead of complaining about tax dollars, instead of moaning about people taking care of their kids, just know that they are taking care of them. The best they can. And for some kids this “free lunch”, well it is the only thing they will ever know of free. It may haunt them. It may help them. But in the end, most of them will strive to never have to be looked at with that kind of pity and blame ever again.

M.

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