I had my lunch at school today. It was roast pork with Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, peas, cauliflower and gravy and not bad for £1.70. I sat at a trestle table on a narrow bench with a rabble of 6 year olds and drank my water out of a plastic cup.
Every term, an invitation to have a school lunch with my child comes home in the book bag. Three children – three invitations. School is very proud of its food and rightly so. Worthy parents did the Jamie Oliver thing before Jamie did it. When the school was built seven years ago, the only kitchen facilities included were for reheating processed food. So, the PTA got together, elected a committee and raised funds to buy real kitchen equipment, sourced local produce and drew up a menu of food that was both tasty and nutritious. And it is still running well. The tables have checked cloths and vases of flowers and the menu is written with artistic flourishes on a blackboard in the corridor outside. It’s rather like a little, French cafe.
But I dread the invitations arriving. My daughter in year 6 is no longer bothered whether I go or not. So I don’t. But the younger two are very keen and would smell a rat if other mothers appeared in the dining hall and theirs was not there. There’s no getting away with it. I simply have to go.
The letter arrives the week before we are invited to go in, one week for each year group so I get mine in consecutive weeks. It never rains but it pours. Of course, not being the kind of mother who shows any interest in what my children have eaten at school, I always ditch my copy of the menu at the start of each term. I end up having to stand at the noticeboard in the playground with my diary, trying to tally my commitments with a day on which the meal is one that I fancy eating.
On the appointed day, I wait in the corridor with all the other mothers, fathers, grandparents and assorted siblings whilst my child has a wee and washes their hands in anticipation of lunch. They are always delighted to see me and immediately become giddy and a bit silly. And this is one of the reasons why I really don’t like going.
My child will invariably misbehave and it doesn’t matter how many dinner ladies assure me that they usually have beautiful manners, I find it frustrating. But I don’t feel that I can reprimand my child. After all, this isn’t my arena. Any authority that I may have at home is misplaced at school. School has a way of doing things and the children are far more familiar with it than me. It is their world and not mine. But I find it hard to bite my tongue and not tell them to use their cutlery properly or sit up straight or finish their food.
But the main reason that I would rather not have my lunch at school is all the appalling childhood memories that it reignites. The smell, the noise, the busy hall, the plastic cups. It takes me right back to my own primary school days. The meals were inedible or at least they were to me. I still cannot eat beetroot because of my horror of the way that it turned everything it touched pink. And yet the dinner ladies used to patrol the hall like the Gestapo. No child could get away without eating. I tried everything. I used to drop gristly bits of meat on the floor under my chair when no one was looking. I chopped things up into tiny pieces to make it look like I had eaten most of it and hid what I could under my knife.
In the middle of the table was a steel bowl into which we were to drop our cutlery once we had finished. As soon as I thought I could get away with it I would ditch mine, hoping that that would mean that I wouldn’t be forced to eat anything else. But there was one witch who clearly hated children in general and me in particular. She used to make me fish out a set of cutlery so that I could finish my meal. The thought of it repulses me to this day. If that dinner lady had any idea of the damage that she did I wonder if she would have been so cruel.
So now, when I am at school memories of this flood back. As I scrape my plate and throw my cutlery in the bowl I feel about nine again with no power and an over inflated sense of injustice. I have to go because my children would be so disappointed if I didn’t but I would rather poke my eyes out with hot pokers! Well perhaps that’s a bit dramatic but I really don’t like it. But I get three invitations a year. Two children. At least another 21 meals to go. Excellent!