RITE OF PASSAGE: Lunch boxes and milk tokens
The other night, Cathy and I went out to visit the jewelers at the mall. I don’t usually hang out at jewelry stores, but I needed to have my wedding ring resized.
Over the years, I don’t know whether my fingers have swollen or my ring has gotten smaller. At this moment, I am leaning toward the theory that my wedding ring is shrinking. Anyway, I needed to get it resized. Arriving at the mall, we found ourselves wading through a sea of mothers with children in tow. I had forgotten: this is the time of the year when all the stores have back-to-school sales.
Seeing the crowds brought back fond memories of the days when our children were younger. One of the things I missed when my sons became teenagers was going with them to buy school supplies. Helping your son pick out his first lunchbox is one of those activities that makes a man feel like . . . a man. Dads, you know the feeling. It’s the same one you get when you buy your son his first power tool.
Yes, I have stood in stores beside my children, trying to help them discern which is the most manly lunch box . . . the Spiderman or the Fantastic Four. Now, I always voted for the Fantastic Four. I used to read their comics when I was a boy. Still, my sons wanted the Spiderman, so that’s what we brought home. It is hard to turn down your children when they get that look in their eyes. Parents, every one of you knows that look. In an instant, a child who has it can project a laser beam of the most intense sadness straight out of their pupils and into your heart. It is always accompanied by a turned-down, quivering lower lip. I don’t know how or where my sons learned that look, but they both became very effective in using it.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember having a lunch box when I was in elementary school. Every day, I took my lunch to school wrapped in a newspaper. Every day, I ate the same thing: a fried egg sandwich with ketchup, a bag of chips and a small glass bottle of chocolate milk. In those days, everyone drank milk. You had to bring “milk money” to buy a “milk token” to get your milk. If you bought a white token, you got white milk. If you bought a red token, you got chocolate milk-but everyone drank milk.
I never thought anything about having my lunch wrapped in newspaper until one day my third grade teacher pulled me aside and asked, “Why do you eat an egg sandwich every day, and why do you have it wrapped in newspaper?” Being in third grade and still greatly intimidated by my teacher, I just blurted out, “We are too poor to afford anything else.” This wasn’t exactly true, but I was at an age where I had never pondered or even thought about the “whys” of life. I just did what I did.
You see, my mother was doing something special for me when she sent me off to school with my sandwich wrapped in a newspaper. It wasn’t just any old piece of newspaper. Mom wrapped my sandwich in that most important section . . . the comics. She knew that if I had the comics lying on the table beside me as I ate my lunch, I would read them. She was always doing whatever she could to encourage us boys to read. I am living proof that it . . . worked.
The next day, when lunchtime came, my teacher pulled me aside and presented me with a meal ticket. She wanted me to have at least one good meal that school year. Of course, when I returned home later that day with my egg sandwich, I had to explain to my parents what had happened. You can imagine how embarrassed they were that the teacher thought we were poor. Before long, it was all straightened out . . . and from that day on, my lunch was always packed in a brown paper sack.
Each year of school brings new and different challenges. One day, your child will be confronted with the “whys” of life. Later come the “wheres,” “whens,” “that’s whats” and “whos.” Mom and dad, remember: to a child, a problem is a problem. A little understanding can go a long way toward making things just a little easier. So if you send your child off to school with an egg sandwich wrapped in a newspaper, will you please tell the teacher he likes it that way?