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Brown Bagging is Back
Mrs. Zonemanne was my eighth grade science teacher. She taught us geology and biology with a particular concentration in paleontology (she loved dinosaurs). She was a tall woman, who wore tight jeans and sweaters from Yves Saint Laurent. Her bottle blond hair and perfectly manicured nails made her seem like a saleslady at Bloomingdale’s, instead of a middle school biology teacher. Mrs. Zonemanne was not just any teacher, she prided herself on her ability to “think young” (as she always put it). On the first day of school, wearing the latest from Marc Jacob’s Fall 2005 collection, Mrs. Zonemanne told my class, “The eighth grade is going to be the best year of your grade school career.” I believed her; only too soon did I realize how wrong she was.
Eighth grade is nothing more than the final year of middle school. It is equally as awkward, floundering, and gawky as the sixth and seventh grade. The only difference, however, is that the eighth grade combines our blundering selves with the looming image of high school. We eighth graders were eager to learn all about “high school,” the place where braces, frizzy hair, pimples, and glasses were exchanged for the suave, adult sophistication of those Final Four Years.
Excited with anticipation, my friends and I prepared for high school. We spent weekends watching quintessential movies about the quintessential American high school experience: Ferris Bueller’s Day off, The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and every other eighty’s brat-pack movie religiously. We soaked in the cool lingo uttered by Matthew Broderick and judiciously studied the clothes worn by Molly Ringwald (Tommy Hilfiger, we learned, did not belong in high school). The teen actors on screen, behaved, talked, and acted so much older than they actually were. They seemed inexplicably cool. We wanted to be inexplicably cool, too.
When the eighth grade ended, after the graduation ceremony and the graduation parties, after the rounds of tears from my mother and congratulations from my father, I officially became a Freshman. High school was everything that I thought it would be and more. What I did not expect, however, was the endless amount of homework. I had always been a hard worker but never before had I gone to bed at eleven trying to finish a assignment I only had two days to do. Suddenly, I was constantly being bombarded with term papers, biology labs, vocabulary tests, math quizzes, social studies papers, and guidance councilor appointments. I found myself having to make time to eat lunch during my lunch period!
I am now a junior and have since developed the skills to allocate (at most) fifteen minutes for lunch during the school day. I am usually pretty good at doing this. Last Tuesday, however, I was held up at the library for an extra five minutes. Thus, instead of arriving at the cafeteria at 10:15, I arrived at 10:20, giving myself only ten minutes to order and to eat.
I guess when it comes to food, our school cafeteria is like a small restaurant. It provides the hot lunches mandated by New York State, but it also has a wrap/sandwich/salad bar, grill, and snack bar. Every day I order the same whole wheat wrap with balsamic vinegar, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, and olives (I really like olives). Today was no different. However, in my rush to order I almost didn’t notice the subtle poster that hung over the lunch lady’s head. It was a white placard that proudly exclaimed, “Brown Bagging Is Back!”
I had seen this sign before. Part of a new marketing campaign for Boars Head meats, signs that read “Brown Bagging is Back!” were all over the place, on taxi cabs, buses, bill boards, and now, apparently, in my high school cafeteria.
My mom had seen the signs too.
“You should start taking lunch from home.” She told me meaningfully. The topic of my lunch was always hotly debated in my house. My dad always worried about whether or not I was receiving the proper nutritional value, and my mom always worried about me spending so much on school lunch. On average, I spent twenty-five dollars a week, or one hundred dollars a month (as she always liked to remind me).
Inside, I knew my mom was right, it really didn’t make sense for me to buy lunch every day when she could easily pack or “brown bag” something for me. Still, just because I knew she was right didn’t mean I was going to give in.
“I can’t really fit a brown bag in my backpack, mom.” I explained. “Besides, carrying a wallet is so much easier.”
“If it doesn’t fit in your bag,” said my Dad, “Bring a lunchbox.”
That was even worse. A lunchbox? As in those bulky, plastic, cubes painted with bright colors and covered in cartoons? Absolutely nobody in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off brought lunch boxes to school. I imagined myself sitting in the cafeteria, with the 101 Dalmations lunchbox I had in the second grade. Bringing a lunchbox packed at home to school was out of the question. There was no way I was going to be seen as mature and sophisticated if my mommy made my sandwiches for me. I was most definitely not going to “brown bag it.”
I usually hung out with people I thought were mature and adult, like myself. We prided ourselves in watching Woody Allen movies and listening to Indie Rock. We dressed like adults, forgoing bright yellows and reds for softer, subtler blues and grays. We spoke like adults, using our SAT enriched vocabulary to impress our school’s teachers and staff. We rarely demonstrated excitement over anything, or showed an overt sign of emotion for that matter. We emulated the silent, profound black and white fashion advertisements we saw at the mall: aloof, sophisticated models staring into space, their picturesque faces void of emotion but filled with maturity.
At the end of the school day, I was waiting outside for my mother to pick me up. Unlike all the other students who were also waiting for their respective rides, I chose to sit on the brick wall that borders are school’s drive. I crossed my legs at the ankle and leaned into my turquoise leather bag. I had my red cell phone in one hand and my black iPod in the other with headphones in my ears. I surveyed the crowd underneath me. Everyone was sitting in small groups of threes or fours, mostly freshmen; there may have been some sophomores. All of them, like me, trying to emulate cool, suave, sophistication.
One boy, however, stood out. I recognized him vaguely from a gym class I had taken the previous semester. He was short and scrawny, with black hair that was cut short but stuck out in all directions. He wore sweat pants with a Planet Hollywood t-shirt, a shirt one of his parents may have bought for him. He looked like a lost student from the middle school. He wore his backpack on his back, using both straps, unlike other guys who swung their bags on their shoulders with one strap. His hair wasn’t gelled, his collar wasn’t flipped, and he wasn’t wearing the latest Nikes. The boy was natural; the way we all were…in middle school.
What struck me the most was not his attire, but the fact that in his right hand he held a lunchbox. It was blue with black stripes. He held it absentmindedly; it looked like it was going to drop out of his hand. I considered warning him, but held my tongue. He probably did not care. He was always daydreaming. It was almost as if his face was turned one way but his eyes were elsewhere. I wondered if he agonized over his high school GPA like the rest us. Something about the way he looked so relaxed made me think he didn’t…I noticed the shoe laces on his left sneaker were united. They were sloppily sprawled across his shoe, like dropped spaghetti on pavement.
When my mom came, I got into her car, kissed her on the cheek and said hello to my brother. When we reached home, I immediately went to our basement. Behind the furnace were boxes filled with odds and ends that my brother and I had outgrown. My dad kept them all with the intent of donating them to people in India. The boxes were stacked in groups of threes.
I opened the cardboard box that was closest to me. Inside were five lunch boxes, all of which belonged to me when I was younger. There was the bright red 101 Dalmations from grade school, the pink Princess Barbie lunchbox from Kindergarten, the Rugrats lunchbox from first grade, a lunchbox with sunflowers and puppies on it, and the most recent lunch box, a bright purple plastic box covered with white, fluffy clouds.
Forgotten memories rushed over me: the birthday cakes, the dance shoes, and Harry Potter costumes that were quintessential aspects of my childhood. I felt winded.
Most of all, I remembered every single lunch my mother packed for me. I took a bagel with cream cheese to school every single day up until the fifth grade.
Last Saturday I saw Ms. Zonemanne at the gym. She was busy burning calories on an elliptical machine. Her Nikes made soft wooshing noises, and iPod headphones jangled from her ears. Her hair was tied back in a pony tail, but I could see the streaks of grey that she so meticulously hid during the school week. Come to think of it…without her designer clothes (she was wearing sweats) or her perfume, Mrs. Zonemanne was…old. Not old in the sense that she’s been around for a while. Old in the sense that she looked unwilling to accept her age. Instead, she was desperately trying to appear young, much in the same way my friends and I were trying to appear older.
“Children always want to grow up fast, until they become adults when all they want to be is young again.” I heard a dinosaur say this in a children’s movie, “The Land Before Time.”
When we grow up, the first act of independence is the abandonment of the lunch box, or for that matter brown bagging. We like to think that we are a lot of older than we actually are. After all, TV shows like 90210 or Gossip Girl tell us the only way to be cool is to act as twenty-something year olds. But being cool isn’t the same as being happy. When my friends and I worry over ourselves, the boy with the lunchbox can be seen happily humming to a song only he can hear, his lunchbox swinging to and fro.
My brother is in the fourth grade and has a Land Before Time lunchbox. Lately, he’s been after my mother to let him start buying lunch in school (following in my footsteps, most likely). I’m going to advise him against this. The dinosaurs may be gone, but brown bagging is most definitely back.