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High School Cafeterias: The Loneliest Places On Earth

High School Cafeterias: The Loneliest Places On Earth

There’s a story that’s been making the Facebook rounds for more than a year about popular Florida high school kids who started lunching with students who were eating alone. 

They’ve used the hashtag #WeDineTogether to persuade kids in other schools to do the same.

It’s a feel-good story and I hope it’s true. But you never know with Facebook.

I do know this: A high school cafeteria can be the loneliest place on earth. 

Lemme back up. 

I grew up in a small New Jersey village. Allentown, in Monmouth County. Look it up. The place was more like Mayberry than Hoboken. Population now is about 1,800. That’s roughly 500 more residents than when I lived there.

How rural was our town? Shoot, we didn’t have mail delivery. We had to walk to the post office and ask for our letters. We didn’t have a bar, either. Or a movie theater.

We did have a pond, surrounded by a forest and I spent the best part of my childhood there. Climbing trees, catching frogs, fishing. Allentown kids were free-range before that term was coined. 

In retrospect, there’s no place I’d rather have spent my formative years. I’m still a small-town girl at heart.

My parents, however, spoiled my idyllic life. At the start of my junior year in high school they bought a house in - wait for it - Trenton.

I know. I still haven’t forgiven them.

Over my protests and pouting they enrolled me in what was then called Hamilton High School West. It's been renamed.

But I bet it’s still a massive brick rectangle in the city.

Back in Allentown, I'd had a pal whose parents were square dancers. They’d turned a barn on their farm into a square dancing hall. Sometimes, on a Friday night, we’d have parties there, with her dad calling the dances.

The minute I saw Hamilton High I knew my days of do-si-doing and swinging my partner were over.

And they were.

I dreaded everything about this forbidding city school. Like all new kids, I especially fretted about lunch. Where would I sit? Who would I talk to? I felt queasy thinking about it.

I brought a bag lunch that first day. Tuna on white bread, probably. And I had a plan: I’d walk into the cafeteria. If I didn’t see an empty table I’d head to the girls’ room and eat there to save myself the embarrassment of circling the cafeteria, friendless.

As I walked through the swinging lunchroom door, the cacophony stopped me. So much noise. So many kids. All of them, strangers.

Suddenly, I saw someone waving in my direction.

“Hey, Kitten,” she called. “Sit with us!”

A cute girl with a big smile was gesturing like crazy. I did one of those “Who, me?” things, worried that she was looking at someone behind me. She nodded, patted the seat next to hers and moved over to make room.

That girl’s name was Joyce Plust. She was an honor student, the school’s exuberant mascot (a hornet) and would be elected student body president the next year.

My Facebook friends see her on my page sometimes, making upbeat comments. Spreading sunshine. She has a different last name now.

Of all the people who have been nice to me in my life - and there have been thousands - Joyce stands out. She's the one who spared me the agonizing experience I’d been worrying about for months.

I guarantee Joyce doesn’t remember what she said that day or even what she did. That’s simply how she was. Nice to everybody.

But I’ll never forget it.

In fact, I don’t think I ever thanked her.

So I’m doing it now. 

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