#73: Room at the Table

#73: Room at the Table

While some memories from high school have faded with time (thank goodness), there is one that is for me, regretfully, crystal clear. I’m standing in a doorway, lunch tray clutched in an iron grip, surveying a loud and crowded room. I’m scanning the tables for what seems like hours, though in reality mere seconds have passed. I’ve got that prickly nervous feeling that everyone is staring at and ignoring me simultaneously.

Fifteen tables full of fellow students, and I can’t find a single welcoming face.

Surely at some point I found a place to sit and someone to sit with, but of course I don’t remember that part. Growing up I had few close friends and little confidence for speaking to those I didn’t know. There were all these groups, and I didn’t seem to belong to any of them. That prickly memory is so clear because the lunchroom felt like a gauntlet more often than not.

I’m not sure why I thought things would be different after graduation, when College Me bore more than a passing resemblance to High School Me. There were exponentially more people to both stare at and ignore me as I stood in the doorways of various campus cafeterias. I did get to know a few people in my dorm and we would walk down the hill together for dinner. However, differing class schedules meant breakfasts and lunches were eaten alone more often than not, at a corner table, with a book. Heaven forbid someone think I was both alone and lonely – I was a serious student with reading to do!

Heaven forbid I actually get over myself and talk to someone in similar shoes, sitting alone with their Cap’n Crunch and a book.

I remember a few years after college graduation as rather a high point for my social life. I finally got to know some of the people I had been exchanging smiles with between church services. A new tribe formed of young people with relatively few responsibilities and mostly disposable incomes, so we hung out often. We were good Baptists though, so here is where our resemblance to the Friends gang ended. There was next to no clubbing, drinking, or dating. We mostly saw movies, played cards, and ate out a lot. I found many welcoming faces in local restaurants, and held-out chairs besides. It was pretty sweet.

Eventually I found a full-time job with a rather unusual benefit – a catered lunch, every day. My non-profit salary and student loans meant I appreciated this benefit almost as much as the health insurance! However, there was a drawback. While the clothing and conversations had changed, and there was 100% less Cap’n Crunch, there was no disguising one fact.

I was back in a lunchroom.

Fortunately, there were a few key differences from lunchrooms of yore. Where there were dorm and church groups in the past, now I was part of a department. Eventually I made friends at work, friends who are friends outside of work, even. When work is hard, the lunch table isn’t a place to hide with a book, but a place to vent and commiserate. When life is hard, it is a place to share troubles and gain encouragement. And more often than not, it isn’t a place for loneliness, but laughter.

I’ve worked at my job for a ridiculous number of years now and have been through several cycles of “Lunch Peeps.” I’ve wedding-showered and baby-showered a number of them at the very lunch tables where we’ve eaten countless cafeteria meals. Some have, in classic ministry workplace vernacular, “gone on to another opportunity to serve God – elsewhere.” And a few make only brief appearances in our fabled Chapelteria, taking their meals in to-go boxes back to busy desks. The room itself has seen change as well, from folding tables and chairs in a gymnasium to a beautifully carpeted place with lovely chandeliers.

I suppose I have changed, too. But I still feel it, sometimes, when I’m standing in the doorway with my tray and none of my usual buddies are in sight. That prickly nervous feeling that everyone is staring at and ignoring me simultaneously. That I am alone and lonely, without so much as a book to keep me company. Occasionally I work up my courage to sit with people I don’t know well. But usually I sit at an empty table, desperately hoping some of the usual suspects will be along soon enough. They usually are.

My favorite lunchtime moments? When I’m sitting with a group laughing so hard we are drawing attention from other tables. When my newish work friend Sandy sits down, saying, “I was hoping I could sit at the fun table today!”  When the fun table is so popular that we have to align our trays in “airplane mode” to make room for as many as possible. I’ve been surprised how many we can fit at those tables when we try hard enough.

High School Me is alive and kicking and loves nothing more than to feel she belongs. But I hope she is not too old to learn how to make others feel welcome at the table, too.

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