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2/2/20

The Teacher Lunch Table

    One of the great disappointments in my budding career as an educator was the teacher lunch table, but had nothing to do with food.  Teachers were expected to eat in the lunchroom and help supervise students even if they brought their lunch from home and I was surprised to see that each lunch period - there were 3 for grades 7-12 - had groups of teachers that sat together in the same spots almost every day.  The groups rarely changed and were always segregated by sex and not by race or teaching experience. I had always imagined that teachers had interesting philosophical discussions about education, politics, religion, history - you name it. I was sure the laughter and collegial debate that I thought I was observing among my high school teachers - we wouldn’t sit close enough to hear what they were actually saying because then they might overhear what we were talking about - but it just HAD to be interesting, philosophical, stimulating and intelligent intellectual discourse - would be a wonderful thing to be a part of after I became a member of the teaching fraternity.  My first few days in the lunchroom as a teacher were met with trepidation and a fear I wouldn’t be able to follow or participate in lofty conversations and discussions about whatever heady topics they chose to discuss. I was more than a little disconcerted when my first few days at the lunch table with the other male teachers - they had made a place for me at their table when I came out of the serving lines area with a tray - and the conversations were centered around the local in-season sport, gossip about who was dating whom and who was getting a divorce and who was running around with whom and, well, sex of all things. I thought maybe they were just lowering the level of conversation so the new guy wouldn’t be too intimidated and that the real discussions would begin after a few days, but no - the topics never really changed.  Sports, hunting, fishing and sex. The first three I had no real problem with but I was pretty sure teachers were not allowed to talk or even think about sex, and especially not at the lunch table. The only thing different about the teacher table and the student table was that students sometimes - quietly - discussed teachers, but teachers never, ever discussed students at lunch. I suppose spending all day 5 days a week with kids meant they really needed that 30 minutes during lunch to think about something besides kids.
After a few weeks I was at a loss - surely they were just waiting on me to get comfortable within the group or maybe, just maybe...that was IT! They wanted me to bring up a topic of interest that would stimulate a great discussion and prove to them that I was indeed worthy to be a part of their table talk and Teacher Conversation. What could I choose? Religion? No, I hadn’t really joined a local church yet and wasn’t quite sure I understood the difference in Methodist, Baptist, Church of Christ and Primitive Baptist and didn’t really want to offend anybody by bringing up a topic that had such personal implications. Politics? There was a potential for danger there, but most of the conversations I had heard seemed to lean toward a Democratic viewpoint primarily because of that party’s traditional support of FFA, agriculture and farmers in general, and this was, above all, a rural farming community.  Maybe that was it - but how could I specifically pick a political conversational strand that would interest and excite such a varied group of professionals, some with almost as much teaching experience as God? Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered a college professor saying something about “a man of 20 who is not a communist has no heart, but a man of 35 who is a communist has no brain”. The more I thought about it the better that seemed for an opening gambit for my initial entrance into what was bound to be a stimulating discussion that might even last for weeks! I could hit an intellectual home run - so to speak - on my very first conversation starter. I really did my homework and, in the days before Google and Apple and before Al Gore invented the internet, went to the school library and looked up “communism” and took copious notes. I wrote down quotes from Marx and Lenin and discovered the original quote was by William Casey and read “I pass the test that says the man at 20 that is not a socialist has no heart; the man at 40 that is a socialist has no brain”. I spent several hours poring over the school library’s Encyclopedia Britannica and prepared myself in ways that should I have exerted such energy and zeal for studying in college might have led to a GPA much higher than the 2.57 I recorded with as little academic focus and effort as possible.  I did know where the library at Ole Miss was and had been there on several occasions, but it was not a place I had spent an enormous amount of time. After several hours of study and looking up related topics - communism, Vietnam, the domino theory, socialism, the OSS and the CIA, I was ready. All I had to do now was wait for just the right conversational opening and I was headed for the teacher lunch table hall of fame.
  The anticipated moment came the very next day.  I hurried across the campus to the lunchroom - built conveniently between the high school and the elementary school and just in front of the gym used by both - and quickly went through the line so I could be one of the first at the table.  I would, of course, wait for the entire male crew to gather before trying to find just the right moment to introduce my discussion point. They wandered in singly, gathered their trays and received servings of food from the lunchroom ladies and spoke amiably to each of them - it never paid to tick off the ladies that made your lunch every day - and wandered to the men’s teacher table where I was impatiently waiting in as outwardly nonchalant manner as possible.  As the last one arrived it was all I could do to wait for just the right moment. The conversation began with the prospects of the Bulldogs against the Sulligent Blue Devils in Friday night’s contest and, after a few remarks about the general health and attitude of the team by the Head Coach someone asked him if he thought there would be a big crowd at the stadium. “I sure hope so” Coach said. “Football has always been a big social event in town and we sure could use a good gate early in the season in case we hit a small crowd or two later in the season or at one of our out of town games”.  This was it! He said “social”. I could just squeeze social and get socialism without it being too much of a stretch and I had to take a chance - the rewards and the possibilities were just too good to ignore and let the moment slip by and not take advantage of the opening - however small - to introduce my topic. Fate seemed to agree with my decision because there was at just that moment a slight pause in the conversation and I took a deep breath and mentioned casually “Funny you should mention social - I was reading one of my philosophy books from college last night and came across a great quote from William Casey - you know, the guy that was one of the heads of the OSS in WW II...”  There was no response, but I forged ahead. They were just waiting, I was sure, to see how I presented this. They weren’t going to just hand it to me. “OK” I thought and took another deep breath. “I can handle this. Just push ahead and they’ll pick it up and the discussion will begin.” “He said something to the effect of ‘a man of 20 that is not a socialist has no heart…..”. I paused to see if there was a glimmer of familiarity or interest in any of their eyes. I looked around the table. Not only was there no glimmer, there was more interest in the lunchroom lady gravy on the instant mashed potatoes than in what I had said, but, in for a penny in for a pound so I continued “and a man of 40 that is a socialist has no brain”.  Silence. No flicker of recognition in any eye at the table. No look that indicated that any of them was about to debate or even comment on what I had said. Coach cleared his throat and my sunken hopes rose for just a second. Maybe, just maybe… “I wonder what Millport has this year. They finished the season last year pretty strong and almost beat us for the county championship. They got any real athletes we need to watch out for?” 
  I was crushed and, hiding my disappointment turned my attention to the consistency of the brown gravy on those mashed potatoes on my plate.  I finished lunch without really contributing anything to the NFL or college game comments, the observation that one of the math teachers was dating a coach from New Hope, that ole’ Steve and his wife were separated and did Mrs. G look like she might be pregnant again?  It took me several days before I realized that my fears were true. I could find no other solution. There were no philosophical debates or witty repartee or Mensa level discussions at the teacher table. The topics were the same as those at the student table with the occasional damn or hell allowed - softly, of course - because we were, after all, adults, but my illusions were completely shattered.  After moping around for a few days, privately disappointed beyond belief I did manage to find a bright side - at least I wouldn’t have to spend afternoons in the library looking up stuff I didn’t know anything about so I wouldn’t be embarrassed or completely excluded from conversations at the teacher lunch table. I had, after all, been going to football games since junior high and was, by guy standards, considered as something of an authority because of longevity in terms of watching sports if not actual participation, had played little league baseball and met male qualifications for “expert” status though that, and darn sure knew which female teachers were attractive enough to comment on and which were out of bounds - there WAS a bright side here!  “Damn” I thought, “being one of the guys may not be so bad after all”. I did wonder if maybe the female teachers at the other table talked about….oh no. I wasn’t falling for that again. Even if they had book discussions on Plato’s “Republic” I wasn’t about to move to their table. There were some things a guy - especially a new guy - just couldn’t risk. I did wonder just how you asked one of the women teachers if she was pregnant. If the answer were “no” then you had just embarrassed her by calling her fat - not the positive impression I really wanted to make. Men were in the minority in the teaching profession and it would not pay to alienate all teaching females by calling one of their number noticeably pudgy. I decided it best just to wait for the announcement if pregnancy were indeed the cause,  otherwise the best course of action seemed silence. I could do that. Discretion was not always my strong suit, but in this case I managed, but there was a fleeting moment of regret at the scintillating conversations I wouldn’t be having with the guys, but a small inner sigh of relief that I wouldn’t be cramming every night for conversations at the teacher lunch table. In this case, I suppose ignorance could indeed be equated to bliss.

     

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