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Mixing it up at lunch enables strangers not to be so strange

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By Laura Lewis, Reporter

Moseying toward the entrance of Cedar Grove Middle School on Tuesday, for me it was deja vu, new-girl-goes-to-school all over again.

Since the school was launched just two years ago, I had not yet had an opportunity to visit the mighty Bulldogs.

Would the kids like me? The teachers? Was I dressed OK?

Oh, I know I was just there to take pictures for the Beacon and, seriously, I’m a full-fledged adult now.

There’s just something about middle school—we called it junior high back in my day—that just brings out the wonder in me, as in “wonder if I’ll be cool at school?”

The uniformed school resource officer waved me in as he stood at the front entrance while standing outside talking on his cell phone. That was encouraging.

Back in my day, we didn’t have school resource officers. The schoolmarm just sternly stood in the doorway of the one-room junior-high schoolhouse with a ruler in her hand as we ambled in on foot after walking a mile or two from our little houses on the prairie.

I also had to check in at the office and don a visitor tag suspended on a cord around my neck, something that wasn’t required just a half-century ago. I needed to get myself up-to-date, and fast.

It was National Mix It Up At Lunch Day, and school counselor Tonya Hilliard had invited me to come and mingle with students in the school cafeteria.

This national day isn’t really a holiday. But it is a day to do lunch at school, with a twist.

“What we’re trying to do is to get students to accept other students who are not in their friend circle or in their group or in their clique,” Hilliard said.

The entire student body took part by randomly selecting a fruit flavor—cherry, sour apple, strawberry or grape.

“You have to sit at one of those flavored tables and kind of get to know somebody you don’t usually eat lunch with,” she said.

The goal is to promote diversity and diminish bullying. Making everyone feel welcome builds a better learning community, she said.

That’s good, because Hilliard was busy managing students at lunch and soon left me to fend for myself with a cafeteria full of middle-schoolers I didn’t know.

Anyone who has ever been that age knows what a challenge that can be.

I approached a group of seventh-graders seated at the “grape table” where they were finishing a lunch of chicken, French fries and brownies, topped with the day’s celebratory treats—fruit-flavored Blow Pops.

Kaylen Bryant had quickly gotten acquainted with Mariah Hewett and Cassidy Landrum.

“We’re going to hang out,” Kaylen said, adding having to sit with people she doesn’t know is no biggie for her.

“I’m never shy, so I didn’t really care,” she said.

“It takes a lot to be bold and meet new people, because you don’t know how they’re going to react to you,” Mariah said. “Or if they’re going to like you or not like you or diss you or something.”

At the “sour apple” table, Tariq Price and Onzel Ballard were finishing their lunch. There was no sourness here as the two learned they have the same electives and ride the same bus. Soon, Tariq said they’re going to get together and play ball.

Eighth-graders who do lunch then descended on the cafeteria to mix things up as well. At the strawberry table, Syria Stanley sat next to fellow student Brook Benton.

“I’ve learned that Brook has a sister, and her favorite color is blue,” Syria said. “And she’s on the dance team here, and she’s trying out for volleyball.”

Brook said Syria has a brother and her favorite color is pink.

Teachers monitoring the day found a few students still seated with their same old friends.

“Find a grape,” exceptional-children teacher Laura Brooks urged one student reluctant to branch out to an unknown table. Brooks said it was good for her students since they spend almost the entire day in her classroom.

Another teacher spied another group of “regulars” at a lunch table.
“You’re supposed to be venturing out,” she told the group of friends. “I see all you guys sitting together. Go sit with somebody that you don’t know.”

It was a good lesson for the day: Having more friends makes for fewer strangers in the world—especially at middle school.

 

Laura Lewis is a staff writer at the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email llewis@brunswickbeacon.com.