The Loneliest Place in High School: The Lunch Room

When I was a freshman in high school, I spent the first half of the school year eating lunch alone. The already awkward transition from junior high to high school was made even more awkward by the fact I wasn’t walking those foreign hallways with a familiar group of friends. I didn’t really care who I sat next to in class because the only person I needed to impress was my teacher. Passing periods were tolerable in their formulaic nature: leave class, go to locker, open locker, swap out books, close locker, get to next class early enough to coordinate the required journals with the preferred gel pens for note taking, eavesdrop on everyone else’s conversations. Lather, rinse, repeat. But lunchtime was different.

Our school had three different lunch periods and it turned out my only real holdover friend from junior high, Amanda, had lunch at a different time than myself. After eating together every day in eighth grade, our midday overlap had officially come to an end and I felt stranded in the middle of hundreds of hungry students. Everyone seemed to be friends with everyone else and I, the apparent Cady Heron of The Colony High School, knew no one.

The way our cafeteria was set up, you could sit wherever you wanted, be it at a table, on a bench or on the floor. Students sprawled out wherever they could find space and it quickly became apparent that there was an unspoken order to how lunchtime worked. Though released once my high school days were behind me, Mean Girls wasn’t that far off base. Every group and clique had their place but if you didn’t belong to any of those groups, you were on your own to contend with whatever was left.

That first lunch period is cemented in my brain as one of the most disorienting moments of my high school experience. Sure, I’d been late to school that morning and had been made an example of in my first class for said tardiness, but that wasn’t nearly as mortifying as standing alone with my sack lunch, looking for a place to sit. Today, sitting by myself for lunch wouldn’t even phase me but as a freshman, it sure as hell did. Seeing students sitting on the floor against the walls, I found myself an empty corner where I could eat and pretend to journal so I appeared less alone.

After a few weeks of loner lunches, I had to walk through the cafeteria for some reason during one of the other lunch periods. It was the Friday of a football game which meant it was a Spirit Day and that week, we students were encouraged to dress up like rock stars. As I walked through the cafeteria, I spotted Amanda sitting on the ground in a corner, surrounded by what looked like the most eclectic and amazing group of people I’d ever seen.

It’s not that she and I were completely erased from each other’s lives, we talked during passing periods from time to time and I still considered her a friend, but it was never quite the same. Our between-class conversations would evaporate entirely the following year when I joined the yearbook staff and our staff room became the center of my high school orbit.

Sitting and laughing with her new lunch friends, Amanda wore a rhinestone cowboy hat and a couple boys around her wore No Doubt and Pearl Jam tour t-shirts. I also couldn’t help but notice the kid who tried too hard—there’s one in every group—loudly laughing with a frenetic exuberance only youth (or drugs) can conjure. I remembered seeing him in the hallways because he routinely dressed with a goth sensibility and true to brand on this particular Spirit Day, he was going for a look that resembled The Crow. He’d painted his face white with black lines coming down from his eyes, sprayed his hair black and used black duct tape to create a skin tight long sleeve shirt. While I’m sure it was a nightmare to peel off his skin once he was home from school, I thought it was impossibly cool for some reason. But beyond all of that, I saw Amanda, laughing and having a good time with a new group of friends. She looked up and waved. I waved back. During my lunch period, I didn’t sit far from where she was sitting now, except when I was there, I was alone.

So I decided I was tired of my corner spot of solitude—even as a loner I knew if I wanted to meet someone, I couldn’t self-segregate—so I began taking a chance on eating at one of the cafeteria tables. I happened into a group of mismatched students from my math class who sat near the doors and for a couple weeks, I thought I’d found satisfactory surface-level companionship. That was until one of the upperclassmen passed what looked like a small blue plastic test tube to me and asked that I hand it to a boy three people down. I passed it down but out of curiosity, asked what it was. He said it was crystal meth. Well that wasn’t going to work for me so I spent the rest of the lunch period scanning the room in an attempt to find anyone else worth sitting with the following day. It was a sea of friendships and I didn’t fit into any of them. I did spot one kid by himself at the other end of our table though so I figured I’d give him a try tomorrow.

The following day, I walked to that end of the table and asked if the seat across from him was taken. I knew it wasn’t but I gave him a chance to reject me. He didn’t. That first day, we didn’t say much. I told him my name, he told me his was Carlton. I’d never known a kid named Carlton—there was a man in our church named Carlton and of course there was the Carlton on Fresh Prince—but this Carlton was nothing like the uppity cousin on TV. He was far more reserved and didn’t make eye contact when he spoke. Still, over the next few weeks, we got to know each other in little spurts. His father was sixty years old—an age that sounded incredibly old to a 14-year-old—he was short and thin, walked with a wide gate, had glasses as thick as soda bottles and talked in what amounted to nasal squeaks. He was the living embodiment of the stereotypical nerd from any 80s high school movie. And he became my friend.

No one ever sat with us, even as the year progressed and I learned a few more people’s names, it was always just he and I sitting at the end of the long row of tables. We sat at the far end of the cafeteria near the windows, away from the doors, and the sunlight beamed down on us. We both brought our lunches in brown paper sacks but whereas mine was more traditional—a turkey and cheese sandwich on white bread, a small bag of chips and a Ziploc of cookies—Carlton’s tended to be tuna sandwiches full of pickles. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.

We talked about the X-Men we liked and the classes we didn’t. He wanted to write comic books and I wanted to write plays. Actually, I spent most of my freshman year writing a play I imagined we’d perform at church (we never did) that involved time travel. The concept was simple: a band of teenagers took a time machine to revisit different moments in history and while they were there, they’d learn about different facets of God. It was sophomoric and entirely derivative of an anime show called Superbook we Super-Christian kids watched in the mid-80s, but I didn’t care. As such, I often edited pieces of my script at lunch but Carlton didn’t want to hear anything about it. “Don’t start talking to me about all that God stuff or I will have to go eat somewhere else.”

I was taken back by him saying that, primarily because we were in the Bible Belt and most people either went to church or were at least tolerant of those who did. It took some time but I eventually learned he’d had his feelings hurt by church folks as pertained to his mother. He wasn’t entirely forthcoming with the details but whatever happened at church—whatever was said to and about his mother—shredded his feelings so completely that he was incapable of even hearing about something church-related without becoming irrationally heated. It only took one loud outburst for me to never bring it up again. I made an innocuous statement on a Monday about something funny that happened in my drama rehearsal at church the day before and he started talking loudly. “I told you I didn’t want to hear anything about that God stuff,” he said as he squeezed his eyes closed and shook his head. “All they do is judge people,” he barked at a volume that attracted the eyes and turned heads of the strangers around us. I sat quietly and waited for him to calm down. When the bell rang, I told him I didn’t mean to upset him and I went to class. The next day, he apologized and we went back to talking about X-Men.

After a few months of sitting together, I asked him if he wanted to hang out outside of school. I didn’t have any school friends, only church friends, and thought maybe he could be the exception. He responded that his dad didn’t like when he had friends over. I then asked if he’d ever had a friend over and he took a bite of his tuna sandwich and said sternly, “No.” I realized he felt as alone at home as I felt at school. I had loads of friends at church with whom I spent my time on the weekends and on Wednesday nights. We went on trips together and my life outside of school felt full. By contrast, I felt completely alone at school save for that one 45-minute span of time each day when I had Carlton and he had me. We weren’t alone.

Carlton and I didn’t become forever friends. After that year, his schedule had him eating lunch at a different time and I began eating lunch in the yearbook room with my new friends. One fall afternoon, I had to walk through the cafeteria for something yearbook related and I spotted him sitting at a new table, surrounded by guys in Ghostbusters and Captain America t-shirts, laughing and debating the merits of one superhero over another. He’d found his people.

Ours was a seasonal friendship, a segue of sorts. We gave each other the relief of feeling less alone during a year of rapid upheaval and change. Being a freshman in high school is calamitous and scary. The school is bigger, as are the stakes, and the social segregation exemplified by the unwritten lunch room seating charts can make a kid feel lost at sea. As such, I’ll always be thankful Carlton said I could sit across from him that day. To him, it may have been unimportant, but to me it was a midday lifeline.

It’s been twenty years since I was a freshman in high school and I’ve learned not all friendships are meant to last journey-to-journey; some are bridges to get both of you from one place to another. I’ve come to understand, mostly through the magic prism of hindsight, that though you may not walk alongside one another for long, you saw each other through. Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home,” and in that, I’ll always be thankful to Carlton. He saw me through that difficult year of my life. I hope I was able to do the same for him.


Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here. 

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