Walkabout. Cafeteria Edition.

 

From my first day of high school, I never knew if the next moment would be an opportunity to experience the pinnacle of exhilaration or complete and utter humiliation. The cafeteria. A note passed could change my world for a week. Or the guy next to me could, without warning, vomit his Salisbury steak onto the floor.

In my memory, the first day of school rocked. Literally. In the middle of lunch, the crowded room grew completely silent. Someone turned on a transistor radio. Full blast. All of a sudden, everyone at that table grabbed their trays and pushed back their chairs and two people, a skinny senior boy, who I would later learn was Sonny, and a big, dark haired senior girl, named Mouse, jumped up on the table and started dancing. American Bandstand dancing. Crazy good dancing. The table shuddered and bowed beneath their movements. The place went crazy. My freshman brain reeled. So this is high school, I thought, until two teachers shut down the dancefest, confiscated the radio, and marched the two dancers up to the office.

Still buzzing, I had Art class with Miss Hipple after lunch. I was seated by myself at an empty table. Halfway through class who should enter the room and dramatically take seats next to me, but Sonny and Mouse. Art became my favorite class! Until I broke my arm in PE. My doctor, who must have been a creative sort, not only used green (Go Panthers!) casting tape, but he fashioned a big loop on my cast to facilitate my sling. I was so embarrassed. Who had a green cast with a big loop on it? Only me. At home, after a couple days of broken arm teasing, I cut off the loop and painted the cast white. Who now had a cast with a big knob on it and one that flaked off white shoe polish all day long? Me.

Miss Hipple booted me from art and I was placed in a typing class. I couldn’t figure out that if I couldn’t draw, how could I type, but humiliation ensued. I was the only boy in the class. I tried to peck away at the typewriter with my cast and stay under the radar, until one day during lunch, some joker threw an old funky jock strap through the open door. I was given a ruler by the teacher and told to pick up the athletic supporter and throw it in an outside garbage can. Who was the guy with the white, flaking cast with the stub on it carrying a jock strap on the end of a ruler in his good hand looking for a trash can? That would have been me.

Three years later, I was a senior. The cafeteria was still the cafeteria. Tacos. Fishsticks on Friday. Green Jell-O. Salisbury steak, which I avoided at all costs. The senior boys sat on one set of tables. The senior girls across the way. Much to my chagrin, I was neither experienced nor knowledgeable in the art of dating. I had managed, to my amazement, to take an attractive senior girl on a date to see The Sand Pebbles at the Catalina Theatre. We even kissed! At lunch, my date shared with the other senior girls that I kissed like Jell-O! In front of everyone, the girls bent their heads down to their lunch trays and repeatedly kissed those jiggly green squares. Hysterical. An action that was not missed by me and every other senior boy at the table. Humiliation ensued.

While there might always be room for Jell-O, at some point down the road, there wasn’t much room in my brain for further agonizing over it. I moved on to other, easy to prepare snack foods. 40 years passed. Low and behold, who should I see at our 40th reunion but my Sand Pebbles date. She looked fantastic and her life was great. But later in the evening, she had something pressing to tell me. She pulled me aside to speak privately. She just wanted to apologize for the cafeteria kissing incident. Oh, that incident! I listened in
amazement. She explained that the fellow she had dated previously had been an aggressive kisser. I was just a softer kisser, she said. Jell-O had been a poor descriptor. I felt liberated. I was now free to love and kiss again! I considered kissing her on the cheek, but I didn’t want to push my luck. Who was that senior boy who kissed like a dessert and whose green lips jiggled like you know what when he talked? That would have been me.