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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

For Whom the School Bell Tolls

August 14, 2006

For Whom the School Bell Tolls

I am now the father of two school-aged children. This week my daughter enters fourth grade and my son enters kindergarten (let’s all bow our heads and say a prayer for Mrs. Prine, his teacher).

Back to school means returning to the daily routine of getting to bed early, waking up early, the before-school scramble, and waiting in a long line for the after-school pick-up. It also means lunches away from home.

Throughout the summer my children eat late breakfasts and large lunches. Lunch might be eaten at 11:30 a.m. or at 2:45 p.m. it depends on several factors: how hot they get while playing outside, what’s on television, which friend is visiting, or what’s being served. Not so in the school year. Back to school means back to a daily routine that will be followed— with the exception of a few brief holiday interruptions— until next May.

I love the fall. Though Mississippi won’t see a hint of fall-like weather until the middle of October, it is my favorite season. The excitement that comes with returning to school— a new teacher, new books and supplies, the possibility of making new friends— is an excitement that we never relive in our adult years. Fall just smells different.

The sense of smell, like the sense of taste, has strong connections with our memories. Today, the scent of pencil shavings from a pencil sharpener will instantly take me back to Mrs. Smith’s fourth grade class at Thames Elementary School. Nowhere in my average workday do I encounter the smell of pencil shavings, these days it’s all rolling-ball pens with precise grips and Microsoft Word with dull and odorless keyboards and screens.

In my youth, the aroma of yeast rolls wafted through the corridors of school signaling the approaching lunch hour. My elementary school had an honest-to-God line-them-up-in-the-back-of-the-room grab-a-tray-and-a-carton-of-warm-milk we-only-eat-greens-on-the-days-they-mow-the-grass cafeteria.

The school cafeteria is an important place for childhood socialization. One is not supposed to talk in a classroom, recess is usually spent running, playing, or competing in kickball or basketball games. In the lunchroom the pressure is off. That is where the art and politics of conversation is learned, friends are made, urban legends are spread, and meals are shared.

Sharing a meal with friends is one of the few elementary school activities that we carry into adulthood. We no longer dust the chalk off of erasers, or line up in single file lines, we don’t turn in homework, take tests, or carry a lunch box, I haven’t played kickball in several decades, but I share a meal with friends all of the time, and I don’t do it much differently than I did when I was 10-years old.

In those days lunch boxes were— like today’s bumper stickers— a statement or extension of one’s personality or views. I had a Charlie Brown and Snoopy lunch box. It was lame and didn’t really make a bold statement about who I thought I was, or what I believed, but it was on sale when my mom bought it, and that was that. As a kid I always wanted a Beatles lunchbox. In retrospect I had more in common with Charlie Brown than John Lennon, but a kid has to dream.

A few years ago I compiled a list of the items that I longed for as a kid, but never got. The list was long and extensive. Most were toys that I no longer wanted or material junk that no longer mattered. Though, sitting at the top of the list were a Beatles lunchbox and a Lava Lamp.

I write this column surrounded by three large Lava Lamps and a Beatles lunchbox, reminiscing about the school cafeteria, yeast rolls, and the many hours I spent dusting erasers, a punishment then, but a fond memory, today.

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