My now-12-year-old son ate the cafeteria chow in pre-K, while parapros prowled the lunchroom, invoking the evil-eye and citing students for ignoble infractions. Every child was guilty of something. For these guardians of gruel, it boiled down to a matter of spoiling the furtive fun.
The echoing cafeteria, illuminated by florescent bulbs, under the surveillance of imposing women casting shadows over the long tables, disconcerted my son, who concentrated on naming the foods on his vomit-green lunch tray. He learned to transfer bites of unidentifiables to his mouth with nearly imperceptible movements of his fork.
Fate, however, eventually forced him to look up and address a foreboding matron of meals. Opening his milk carton and tilting it to sip, he caught a whiff of foul-smelling, curdled cow's milk. After heavy debate, thirsty and weighing the best that could happen against the worst, he decided to take one of the only risks the child has EVER taken in his short life.
He raised his hand.
Action, other than disciplinary, happened slowly back then. He had to keep his pudgy arm aloft for quite some time. Driven to have a wrong righted, however, he stayed the course. He sat patiently on the side of truth and justice and felt certain the world sat with him, at his back. For those fleeting minutes, my little man was fearless. Hearing him tell it now, at the age of 12, his shoulders broader, but his will wispy, makes me so proud of that small boy.
At last, a minister of meat nuggets saw his chubby hand extended. She plodded over, her thick-soled Rockports squeaking on the tiled floor, exhaling sighs of serious fatigue. "What?" she barked over the ambient noise.
For a flash he questioned his resolve, almost giving in to the hot acid burning at the base of his throat. Then he regained his composure. "My milk is sour."
"Hmph," she gruffly responded.
He explained the odor and the glomps, to which the lunch lady snapped, "Well, did you taste it?"
He hadn't anticipated defending his case before a biased judge. And his chances of acquiring a fresh carton of milk slimmed as a crooked sheriff, all the kindergarten criminals at bay, shuffled onto the scene. "No ma'am," my son answered, his eyes wider than the guff between a pre-k kid and a teacher's aide.
The sheriff presented to the judge, "The expiration date is okay."
"It smells rotten," interjected the boy, immediately regretting speaking out of turn.
The judge lifted the container of milk to her nostrils and inhaled, saying, in a sarcastic tone, "Smells fine to me."
My child cringed. From where he sat, he could see straight up those nostrils, to the minefield within. Resigned to defeat, silently accepting the decree of the ravioli ruler, he waited for her to return the carton to his lunch tray, along with a ladle-full of tongue-lashings. But, to his complete surprise, she put her lips to the spout, slurped a swig, and rolled it around in her cheeks. With a creamy clump of sour sludge mustaching the left side of her upper lip, she looked my baby in the face and said, "Hey mister, this milk is fine. Your mama paid for it. Don't waste it."
All that he believed about the world topsy-turveyed with that one gesture. For seven long years, soured, he carried the incident tucked away in that secret spot in his heart where a boy hides things from his mother. Unintentionally, I compounded the damage done by responding to his confession with, "Did you drink it?"
(Lucy Adams is the author of If Mama Don't Laugh, It Ain't Funny. Write Lucy at email@example.com and visit her web site, www.IfMama.com.)