I held my purple ticket so tightly that it conformed to the heart line of my palm. We lined up at the classroom door, and then marched down the hall, single file, alphabetically by last name (or in boy-girl-boy-girl order if there had been any acting up that necessitated a squelching of horseplay), to the cafeteria. All of the different classroom lunch lines were tributaries to the main cafeteria river-line, and the confluences were where I saw my other, luckier friends − ones who weren’t in Mrs. Pukey’s class. The savory aroma would jog my appetite, and I would begin to salivate. I tried to make idle chitchat with Corey Simpson and Christine Flatt while we were queuing up, but I was too distracted by the tremors in my belly. I’d had my eye on the lunch calendar all week, and it was spaghetti day. It was finally here! Sure, I got spaghetti all the time at home, but this was school spaghetti: rich and meaty, with noodles so tender that they fell apart into bite-sized clumps when served brusquely with a stainless steel scoop. It came complete with carrot “coins” topped by runny, dill-flecked ranch dressing and a slice of chewy garlic bread. Sometimes the coins were cracked at the edges, all the way to the carrot’s circular heartwood, but these imperfections only further endeared them to me. I gingerly nibbled the outer ring off my coins like a rabbit (I could feel my eyesight improving with every bite), and savored the tender centers.

School lunches have been the bane of a kid’s existence throughout history. I’d hazard that for some kids, it was the worst thing about school. I figured kids only ate them when their moms were too busy to make a thoughtful and well-balanced sack lunch. They ate them because they were relegated to it. I didn’t have a choice, but I didn’t mind. I actually loved all of the school’s hot lunches.

At their worst, school lunches were still a lot better than my dad’s shrugged attempts at feeding us. When summer vacation dictated that our care be left in the hands of my shirking father, he’d make sandwiches of cold hot dogs sliced lengthwise, slathered in ketchup on white bread, or similarly disgusting sandwiches of peanut butter and mayonnaise (this attempt at a prank backfired – the PB&M was actually one we liked). School lunches were at least somewhat balanced, and at their best, were satiating comfort foods. Mainstream chickenwiches were a favorite, and more exotic-sounding fare like turkey à la king had me swooning in visions of ermine-bedecked monarchs, lavishly supping upon the shredded turkey suspended in thin, beige gravy ladled over a perfect sphere of instant mashed potatoes.

At lunchtime, the cafeteria was a din of outdoor voices. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, it was the gymnasium where I learned to jump double Dutch through clacking plastic ropes. For three days every two years, it was where I got distracted from standardized testing and spent several minutes copying a recipe from a story problem about baking, instead of solving the simple fraction equation. One time an overweight disabled kid fell off the bench and everything shook, went quiet, and then erupted with cruel laughter (including my own, though I was ashamed of it). The cafeteria was where I started to catch first glimpses of how different my classmates were from myself.

At first, I was completely oblivious that other kids judged me based on the fact that I ate school lunch, or that mine had been bought by their parents’ tax dollars. And even though I liked the cafeteria food, I was a little jealous of kids whose moms took the care to pack them lunches, even if it was weird food. For instance, Tarah Spellman’s mom bought special razor-thin bread from the German deli. She always seemed so smug, with her papercut-inducing PB&J, or her leftover chicken legs (“the veins are my favorite part!” she’d say, sucking the gross connective tissue off the bone). She even bragged about eating blubber while living in Juneau. Coupled with the fact that she came very close to beating my score on a spelling test that one time and then had the gall to congratulate me, I found her completely insufferable. Needless to say, this made our assigned pairing as Safety Patrol guards almost too much for me to bear. I spent most of the time blocking out her chipper squawking about how worms come out to the sidewalk during rain because they’re drowning, and mentally mocking her Gumpian pigeon-toed gait. But truth be told, I’d have done anything to get one of her mom’s fancy-bread sandwiches.