In the elementary school cafeteria, I definitely stood out for my lunches. I sat among a group of children who's lunches I'd stare at longingly, filled with bologna sandwiches and plastic cups of chocolate pudding. Their lunch boxes would be a source of envy as well, with their Muppet themes and matching thermoses. I'd watch the other children eating their Handi-Snacks and wish I was one of them, with a mom at home, lovingly folding a napkin or adding extra cookies to share. I'd pull out my brown paper shopping bag, an utter embarrassment, and inwardly wince as the kids around me snickered. I'd reach in, hoping each time for a peanut butter and jelly or a turkey sandwich. Inevitably, I'd pull out something mortifying, like a steamed crab with a knife, or a goose leg in a sandwich baggie. My surrounding classmates would stare at whatever I had in front of me, at first in a state of shock, their mouths gaping. Then the table would be buzzing with whispers and looks of revulsion. I'd sit looking down at my lunch, refusing to make eye contact with anyone, quickly eating whatever it was that Dad had packed me. I loathed lunchtime because of it, dreading the stares and insults.
A girl named Deborah Jo sat next to me for much of the time at the lunch table, always eyeing whatever was in my lunch and then shouting out how disgusting I was for eating it. She had a face full of orange freckles that connected and created patches of color across the brige of her nose and on her sharp cheeks. Her eyes were orange, too, and always seemed to be scowling, even as she laughed. She was tiny, much shorter than anyone else in the third grade, and because of it, she was extra tough, extra mean. She had even spit on a girl once for no reason, and she had already been suspended for stealing at the age of eight. For weeks I absorbed her taunting, keeping my head down as I stuffed the last of the sardines Dad had packed me into my mouth, hoping she would take pity on me and be quiet. One day, as she scoffed loudly over my homemade venison jerky, I had had enough. I felt my face get hot, not from embarrassment this time, but from anger. At that instant, I hated her. Deborah Jo became all of the children that had ever slighted me, ever made me feel less than, ever laughed at me. All of the kids in the cafeteria who had trash-talked my crude lunch bags rolled into one, giant, mean leader, the head of operations, and that was Deborah Jo. Finally pushed to the edge of my sanity, I pulled my lungs full of air, ready to tackle this girl. I raised my hand to dole out the first of, I was sure, many blows. Then, just as I closed my little hand into a fist, I heard from the next table over, "Hey Meghan, I'll trade you my pudding for that jerky." It was Justin Harris. Everyone loved him. He was one of the cool kids. Even teachers were drawn to Justin for his third-grade charisma. I froze, my hand above and behind my head. The room went silent. Deborah Jo had a look of disbelief and fear on her face as I lowered my hand and slid off of the bench where I was sitting to walked over to Justin's table, relieved that he had thrown me a line before I had actually hit her, honored that he even knew my name. He handed me his pudding for my venison jerky, and I cradled it like a newborn kitten, standing still beside Justin, staring down at the rich chocolate, loving it, loving him for saving me. He invited me to sit next to him, scooting sideways on his bench, and I looked up to see Deborah Jo whispering to her neighboring eater, but a jealous flash was pulsing from her eyes, and it felt like heaven to me. I sat down, digging Justin's plastic spoon into the pudding, hoping he wasn't repulsed at the jerky, surprised when he actually liked it.
That day marked a change in my life. I stopped being embarrassed by my father's lunches. I stopped sitting next to Deborah Jo, stopped allowing myself to be tortured. She still would, every now and then, try to insult whatever I was eating, but it didn't matter anymore. I had someone on my side in the cafeteria. And he happened to like goose legs.