I spent my high school years avoiding the cafeteria, preferring to eat my lunch in the band room in the rabbit warren of practice rooms afforded by a school district that took the arts seriously. My high school had a nice cafeteria, with large picture windows that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean, but I wanted no part of it. I didn’t want to have to choose a team, I didn’t want to have to be rejected by a team or have one team think I preferred it over another. I just wanted to eat my lunch and get on with my day.
The high school cafeteria, I think, is a good metaphor for most of life, and it doesn’t change when you get older.
I spent most of this week at a work conference. This conference, which shall remain nameless, was populated entirely with people who had titles. Each attendee was a success, to some degree, in his or her career. We were, in our day jobs, the kinds of people for whom others stand when we enter a room and others call “Ma’am” and “Sir.” We have armed security dedicated to our personal protection. We are not to be trifled with.
And yet, come meal time, we were all 15 years old, grabbing the wrists of our friends, whispering, “save me a seat” and avoiding eye contact when necessary.
I don’t care how educated you are, how fancy your job title, or how objectively successful you are, there is nothing more intimidating than walking into a room full of tables at lunch and being asked to choose a seat. If I sit here, then will she think I don’t like her? But if I sit here, then he might get the wrong idea. What if she doesn’t want me to sit there? And if I sit next to him, I’ll get to make all the snarky comments I want to, but that might make her feel left out, but she doesn’t like him, but he just wants to fit in, and what about that poor new girl in the corner that looks nice but doesn’t know anyone? Am I obligated to force one of my friends to give up a seat at a table that already doesn’t have enough seats to include her?
It is a social minefield if you are 15 or 55.
Inevitably, someone’s feelings get hurt, and I hate that, especially when they’re mine. I don’t ever ever want to hurt someone’s feelings, but I am not aware of a method to ensure that won’t happen. In fact, I’m such a blundering oaf that I seem to trample on feelings by accident as often as I trample on toes while dancing. I just want to eat my lunch and get on with my day. Nothing has changed, but now there is no band room to escape to. Now, there is networking to attend to, which requires my in-person attendance.
And what of the dinners?
How does one make plans when we’re on our own and there are 200 people in the room and a restaurant can only accommodate a table for eight? 192 people are going to be left out. Who are the select eight? First come, first serve? The elite eight? Drawing lots?
Who gets to be the cool kids sitting at the cool kids table?
I don’t know. I’ve never been a cool kid.
Unless you define a cool kid as someone who has just given up. Someone who owns the awkward and who declares whatever room she’s in as the metaphorical band room instead of the cafeteria. Come join me in the practice room, fellow misfits. Let’s eat our lunches, spill sauce down the fronts of our shirts and laugh at inappropriate things. Everyone’s welcome.
If you enjoyed this and want to read more like it, visit Lori at her website, www.loriduffwrites.com , on Twitter, or on Facebook. Lori is a National Society of Newspaper Columnists 2018 & 2019 Columnist winner, and a New Apple, Readers’ Favorite, and eLit award winner for her latest release, “You Know I Love You Because You’re Still Alive.” She is also the author of the bestselling books “Mismatched Shoes and Upside Down Pizza,” and “The Armadillo, the Pickaxe, and the Laundry Basket.”