The bell for lunch rings and, like hounds being released from the gates, students bolt out of classrooms, across halls, and down stairs. They tear across the cafeteria, dodging tables and scrambling over chairs, and suddenly friend becomes foe as those few coveted spots in the front of the line are fought over and snatched up by the strongest of us. Tails between their legs, the runts of our pack slink to the end of the line and snap at each other petulantly as they protect their little patches of turf.
I take my place in the near middle of the line and for a moment I growl with impatience, but I quickly give up tapping my foot and settle in for a long wait; those around me mimic my actions and shift their books into more comfortable positions in the crooks of their arms.
A woman with tired eyes and takes her place behind the counter, preparing to ladle out mashed potatoes onto countless impatient plates, and give change to countless ungrateful hands. As she wipes freshly washed hands on her worn white smock something about her catches my attention. I have never noticed her before.
She looks so sad.
The line moves forwards and those in front of me lick their lips in anticipation. Tray after tray is placed in front of the lady, and with robotic motions she spoons out gobs of god-knows-what. I study her. I am no longer ravenous with hunger: my mind is too occupied to notice the growling insistency in my stomach, and while I wait in line I contemplate her weary face. There are worry lines around her eyes, and her mouth droops in the corners. I notice that her hair is rich in colour, without a hint of grey, and I wonder what had wrinkled her face so, since it had clearly not been done by time. The boy directly in front of me slams his tray in front of her and then pulls it away again, hardly noticing how the food that is now on his plate got there. She sighs and dips the ladle into the steaming pot in front of her, not even raising her eyes as she lifts the ladle up to my plate.
“Thank you,” I say, “I hope you have a nice day, ma’am.”
Her eyes raise, and a small smile temporarily erases the lines around her eyes and mouth. It isn’t much, but both of us feel a little better already. I smile back and slide my tray down the line, thinking of the lunch lady.
This I believe: a little kindness goes a long way.
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