In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says that, if you’re not sure what to write, you can start with school lunches.
And so today I am remembering the sound of crinkling brown bags, and the insecurity of youth. Lunch was a litmus test. Would you fit in? Were you acceptable?
I remember being harangued in elementary school having whole-grain bread on my sandwiches when white bread was all the rage.
One girl would say, “Ew, what are those weird things in your bread? Are they bugs?!” She was referring to sunflower seeds, but it was pointless to explain. She was going to make fun of me, and I was going to writhe in humiliation.
My school lunches — and my family — were ‘unusual’. When I started packing lunch, I brought what I ate at home: a salad, with an apple and whole-grain crackers and real cheese and turkey pepperoni. It was food that made me happy, and also self-conscious.
It wasn’t a safe bet like a sandwich, or the cafeteria’s hamburger and fries. It was different, and therefore suspect. (Nowadays, my lunches would seem even ‘weirder’ and healthier too. Viva the Whole30!)
So even though I ate with friends, I kept my food inside its brown bag. I would assemble bite-size mouthfuls ‘under cover’, then quickly pop them into my mouth, as though people couldn’t judge me if they didn’t see the food. (Yes, this was almost as neurotic as having an outfit calendar.)
It sounds silly now, but those of you who remember middle school and high school with any kind of honesty can understand. Socially speaking, it was all about judgment. Did you measure up, or were you too ‘weird’ to be accepted?
But I grew tired of being so timid, and one day, I took my lunch out of the brown bag for all to see.
After that, an interesting thing happened. Another girl who sat at our table started bringing … salad, whole grain crackers, cheese, and turkey pepperoni. I was all astonishment. The lunch I’d feared was ‘uncool’ was actually being copied. Not just accepted, but imitated.
The veil had lifted. In that moment, I realized how arbitrary and ridiculous it all was. We feared other people’s criticism and tried to be ‘normal’, but in reality, everyone was longing for acceptance. The people we were trying to impress were trying to impress us.
So what if we just gave ourselves permission to be who we were?
If you’re struggling with how others perceive your choices, remember school lunches and take heart. If you feel self-conscious about, say, admitting that you love hanging out with your friends with special needs, listening to Fleetwood Mac, and re-reading Jane Eyre for the thousandth time, know that you’re not alone.
Beautiful things happen when you stop trying to ‘get it right’ and start being yourself. A weight lifts as you release the burden of trying to please everyone. You’re liberated. You get to laugh, and take yourself less seriously. And you free up others to do the same.
As is said in Almost Famous, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” We can’t connect with one another while we’re trying to be what we’re not.
But when we meet each other as we are? Magic can happen.
What was in your school lunches? Join the conversation in the comments!
5% of proceeds from the first month’s sales of my new Kindle* Single, I Was a Stranger to Beauty (ThinkPiece Publishing), go to support the vital work of L’Arche DC. The month is almost up, so be sure to get your copy today!
*If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry! You can read Kindle books with Amazon’s (free) Kindle Cloud Reader.
AWCC Around the Web:
- America Magazine Feature: Coming Home: The Liberation I Found at L’Arche
- Greenster Guest Contribution: Lessons from Summer Camp: One Woman’s Journey to Lead Her Life
- ‘Leaving Normal': Weekly column at Autism After 16 (new content published every Thursday)
Upcoming speaking engagements – if you’re in the area(s), I’d love to see you there!
- Florence Lauderdale Public Library, Sunday, February 24, 2013, 2-3pm
- Living Spirit Church, Florence, AL, Sunday, March 3, 1:30pm
- Redeemer Presbyterian, Florence, AL, Sunday, March 10, 10:30am
- Faith Inclusion Network, That All May Worship Conference, Norfolk, VA, Friday-Saturday, March 14-15