In the first manic weeks of my son’s entry into middle school, I’ve been anxiously waiting for him at the end of the day, apprehensive, concerned, afraid he might come toward me in tears. I am not worried so much about the sudden crescendo in homework and his ability to handle that, or the increasing need to be more organized and work independently. I am not even that concerned – yet – about all the social pressures that are, alas, part and parcel of those middle school years.
My greatest fear is how my son has fared with his thermal lunch bag. Because apparently, it’s uncool to bring lunch bags to middle school.
It’s true and people who are savvier than me about the cultural moirés of middle school in this country, about what’s “allowed” in middle school and what isn’t, told me that children cannot bring their lunch in anything other than a brown paper bag.
Forget about those elementary school lunch bags, even if they’re just plain blue or black and say absolutely nothing on them that could possibly invite ridicule. One would assume, of course, that most kids would have done away with the Batmans, Supermans and Hello Kittys long before 5th grade, anyway, but regardless, in middle school -- that great, big Black Hole of social acceptance, where harsh judgment on whether you’re “in” or “out” are pronounced instantaneously, for the slightest of reasons, with little or no chance for recourse or redemption – only a brown paper bag will fly.
Even though I have lived two years in this country, I am still stumped when I issues like this one come my way.
I am, of course, grateful to the friend who alerted me to the matter. If she hadn’t, I would never have known that my son risked condemnation to a middle school life of social ridicule before his middle school life had even begun.
But as much as I would want to save my son from such a fate, I also knew that in my home, the brown paper bag would not go down well at all for both practical and philosophical reasons.
On the practical side, my children like to take hot lunches from home, and there’s no way you can send a hot lunch in a paper bag. My kids have grown up in Europe and in India. They like quiches and soups; curries and lentil stews. They like fried rice and risotto and they like everything hot – or at least warm – and this requires both a Thermos and a proper bag to carry said Thermos in.
The philosophical side of the matter was even more tenuous because my husband is a confirmed ecologist, both professionally (he has a PhD in ecology and is a scientist in the ecology department at Columbia University and personally (he is a manic recycler, he abhors the wastage of plastic and we do not use paper bags of any kind). I knew that the social ridicule versus ecology debate just would not hold water in my house, even as I argued my son’s case valiantly. It was simply a “No” from my husband. “We will not be sending brown paper bags. Don’t you dare buy any.”
There’s no doubt that judging a child on a paper bag/lunch bag basis is ridiculous, and fie on the kids who do it and the parents who uphold it, particularly at a time when every school is vying to become “greener” than the last. But that is how it goes, I also know, and being an individual in suburban towns like these is no easy feat. I would not want my child to have to suffer by going against the grain.
Which is why on the first day of school, I cheated: I packed a Gouda cheese sandwich and a Nutella sandwich in a Ziploc bag I had lying in my used Ziploc pile. The next day, I used the Ziploc again to hold a piece of quiche wrapped in foil.
“It was cold,” my son said when he got home. “I don’t like it cold. What happened to my Thermos and my lunch bag?”
There was no choice, then, but to send both items in the next day. And to wait the day out in fear.
At pick-up time, I stood outside my car with bated breath, a cold sweat beading my brow. My son sauntered up, waving as he crossed the street. He came closer, he looked happy.
We settled into the car and he told me about his science teacher and about his orchestra lesson.
“How was your lunch?” I asked. I had sent in his favorite Spinach Risotto.
“Great,” he said. “I love that risotto. And it was hot.”
“How did the lunch bag work out?”
I could feel his incredulous eyes on the back of head as I drove.
“Fine – why wouldn’t it?”
Actually, I had no idea. And neither had he. Up till now, he still doesn’t.
Every day, my son has been happily taking in his Thermos, his lunch bag and his favorite foods, and every day, I have been just a little more relaxed about that. Others have started to come out of the woodwork, too: One friend bought her daughter a Bento Box. Another one says her son had it with sandwiches after two days and is back with soup and pasta for lunch.
I am not sure if these children are taking their Bento Boxes and Thermoses in lunch bags, or whether theirs were relegated to the “outgrown” pile at the end of elementary school. I’m not sure if anyone has said anything to my son about his lunch bag, or if they have, whether he has managed to take it in his stride and realize that at the end of the day, lunch bags are totally inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
I’d be proud of him if that were the case, but mostly, I’m just happy that my son is happy and that I can send him in the good, healthy and hot food he loves to eat for lunch.