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Class Notes
Lunch designed to promote non-eating
(Published September 23, 2002)

By H. WELLS WULSIN

Lunch is the one true break students receive in their busy class-filled daily schedule. It is the time to eat, of course, but it is also a time for conversation, for a touch-football game outside, for greeting friends, for chatting with teachers. We need a break from our daily routine, a time to set aside assignments and let our bodies and minds rest for a brief time before returning to work and responsibilities.

Unfortunately for most students at H.D. Woodson High School, each day's 55-minute lunch period is no time of relaxation. One thousand students try to squeeze into a cafeteria that has seats for just over 300. Those who can't find a seat mill about, talking, munching on bites of food, hopping from one social circle to the next.

A row of hulking boys - large enough to be grown men - lines one section of the wall, where they joke about football and whistle at passing girls. A ketchup packet sails over three tables onto a scoop of pasta salad, eliciting the anticipated screams of retaliation. A crowd of students gathers just outside the cafeteria next to the elevators, where several leaders are pounding out a thumping go-go beat on the concrete walls and metal doors. A couple of inspired dancers groove to the pulsating, entrancing rhythm, while the throngs of onlookers push against each other for a better view. The volume here is permanently on "Hi": to converse with the person across the table requires near-shouting. Yells and screams resonate off the low ceilings and tiled floors, amplifying an already intolerable decibel level.

Many students here qualify for free lunch, but true to the old aphorism, it certainly isn't free. Students pay for this lunch not in dollars and cents, but in minutes - sometimes 30 or 40 - spent waiting in line, amid a swirl of commotion and chaos. The two lines, for free and purchased lunch, are about equal in length. The menu is simple: free lunch consists of a hot entrée, vegetable, french fries, cold pasta salad, fruit and milk; in the purchase line, the options are fried chicken, pizza and french fries. Sodas can be purchased from vending machines in an adjacent room, which occasionally becomes locked shut as punishment for poor behavior.

The lines move at a snail's pace, since food is sometimes not ready at the beginning of lunch, and it is served patiently, not at the pace necessary to process 1,000 students in under an hour. The formidable dean of students stands on guard, serving as the valve to monitor the flow of students into the serving area, and prevent the stampede that would surely ensue if everyone were free to push their way to the front of the line.

Many students avoid the chaos of the cafeteria and find somewhere else to pass the allotted time. They might go outside to the plaza to play sports with friends, they might find a teacher who lets them study in a classroom, they might wander through the halls aimlessly until spotted by a security guard who gives the command to return to the cafeteria.

Most of these students will not eat anything for lunch at all. They have conditioned their bodies to endure without nourishment during the day until school dismissal. One boy who played on my soccer team last year never ate lunch, and it was a marvel to me that he had the stamina to endure a strenuous practice each day after school. This may not be the healthiest lifestyle, but it avoids the disruptions and long waits of the lunchroom.

Why does such pandemonium persist? Why not solve the problem as so many other schools do, by separating students into different lunch times to reduce the number of students eating at any one time? Such a schedule used to be in place some years ago, but according to reports from veteran teachers, the problem was that students were going to the wrong lunch, cutting class and disturbing other classes at the same time.

More generally, holding two different lunch periods would increase the complexity of a schedule that already cannot be effectively enforced. As it is, cutting class is common, since the penalties for skipping class are vaguely defined and rarely enforced. A second lunch would offer an opportunity and an excuse to the disenchanted to hang with friends, to arrive late to class or to leave early. For a system plagued with tardiness and truancy, the path of least resistance is to have everyone do the same thing at the same time.

Living in such an environment takes its toll. Those students who forego their lunch for some peace and quiet pay the price in nutrition. The students who decide to put up with the hassle to get their lunch become accustomed to the shouting, the pushing, the undirected energy emanating from every angle. One eventually learns to tune out the confusion, but it still affects us all subconsciously - turning some students inward toward reclusivity and impelling others to compensate with exaggerated extroversion.

To everyone, the cafeteria is a reminder that something is not quite right here, that efficiency and orderliness are too costly or too unimportant to achieve. So we accept what we are given, tuning out the ruckus of mayhem as our mind wanders to far-away thoughts, and our body bounces from side to side, swaying with the pulse of a thumping go-go beat.

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Wulsin is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Finance and Business. Please send stories, comments, or questions to wulsin@gwu.edu.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator