And then the bell rang to dismiss everyone for B Lunch, smack in the middle of 4th period. 28 minutes of either standing in a cafeteria line to buy something that could be wolfed down in the time remaining after purchase, or of warming up something in a microwave… and wolfing it down in the time remaining after warming up.
Mr. Webb was now to the point where he’d eat soup straight out of a can, just to save time. Travel in Russia had taught him that there were times when food was fuel, nothing more, and that it wasn’t necessary to have a culinary delight at every meal. As long as he had a spot of something sweet to chase the rough lunch, that would be all that would matter. If dessert was to be had, it wasn’t necessary to have the most flavorful or palatable lunch. Time was of the essence in the high school lunch game.
When he did microwave something, he preferred simplicity. None of this, “put a slit in the film above the pasta and cook on high for three minutes, then remove the film and cook on high for an additional minute and a half”. How about just cut the film and cook four minutes? Or better still, get something that heats up in a minute? That’s more like it. Who’s got time for putting slits in the film, anyway?
Eating in the teachers’ lounge was totally out of the question. First off, it was a three-minute walk to the lounge. That meant a trip to the lounge would leave a guy with just 22 minutes for lunch… and a line at the microwave, behind every teacher whose classroom was closer to the lounge. Minutes would burn as other teachers dutifully put slits in their films.
Worse, though, was the poison in the air. True, dealing with idiots always requires a certain amount of venting in order to cope with the ordeal. But the purpose of the venting was to ascertain in your peers a hope that not all humanity was doomed, that there was at least one other person that had decent sense and at least rudimentary problem-solving skills: in the lounge, there were those that vented because they were, at heart, complainers. They didn’t want to see things get better. They just wanted to wallow in the mire of self-pity and enjoy the sickening chemical releases in the brain that went along with such activities. They were teaching because of some deep masochistic streak in their core. They would always have something to complain about.
Being around those kinds of teachers was a vampiric experience. Lunch would be a net drain on the soul, after being in a room with those guys for 22 minutes, in addition to the grind of standing in a line just as frustrating as the one the kids had to endure.
A Lunch came early in the day, but there was always plenty to be had in A Lunch. The cafeteria lines were well-stocked and if someone had put goodies in the teachers’ lounge, there were plenty to be had. B Lunch was all right. It came at the right time of day for lunch and there were still some decent scraps to be had after the A Lunch crowd had had its fill. C Lunch was often an exercise in compromise and being philosophical. Many was the day that the pizza or burger line ran out in the cafeteria by C Lunch and no teachers’ lounge treat survived past B Lunch, not even the nasty stuff. If you wanted to eat well in C Lunch, you had to bring your own food.
Or, you could have it brought to you. Although the office had stopped accepting bags of fast food dropped off by parents in the middle of the day, kids in the know could still have a friend hold open an exit while they ran to the parking lot to get a sack of burgers or tacos from mom. There wasn’t really enough time to get out to a lunch place and get back in time, unless one had both a car and the luxury of not having a class scheduled during third period. It was most unusual to have a gap in the middle of the day, but not impossible for the seniors signed up for just the right classes.
There was also the boon of a lenient 4th period teacher. If someone mentioned a trip to the egg roll factory from Bistro V, lenience could be had for two or three egg rolls in Mr. Webb’s room. Nicky Tran knew how to bargain her way through the system last year: “The egg rolls are four for a dollar, and they’re the best in town.”
Mr. Webb had but one question: “Are they Vietnamese?”
“Of course. I wouldn’t even bother to ask if they weren’t.”
Ladies and gentlemen, Vietnamese egg rolls are the best in the world. One does not pass up on an opportunity to savour the delights. Mr. Webb let other kids chip in their dollars, and Nicky would take the hit on tax and Mr. Webb’s share. The trip would take maybe five minutes more than what everyone had allotted for lunch, so all Nicky needed was to be able to leave a little early and for someone to be ready to let her in when she showed up with the hot, steaming, delicious delights from cooks that had once known the streets of old Saigon.
Oh, it was worth it, all right. The second half of fourth period always went well when it was cushioned with an actual decent lunch that could be eaten somewhat leisurely. It was a basic human dignity denied to everyone else in the building without knowledge of or access to the amazing egg rolls of Bistro V, but Mr. Webb saw the need to carve out an exception to the rules to make way for something that was good for his students.
And though there were times when Nicky Tran abused the privilege, she was never arrogant about it. And though there were times when students got a little rebellious, they never threatened blackmail over the egg roll express. It was too important, too transcendent an institution to be petty about. It cemented the loyalty of the class, as they combined against the inhumanity of a damnable 28-minute lunch.
There was always the chance that Mr. Webb would be caught and found out in this scheme, but he had a card in his hand that he was ready to play if it led to anything more than a “don’t do that again.” State law required all teachers to have a 30-minute, duty-free lunch. Not 28 minutes. 30. As in two more than the high school allowed. One headline would follow another: “Teacher Fired in Egg Roll Incident”, then “Principal Sued Over Lack of Lunchtime”. Mr. Webb’s legal experiences in the EDCISD had taught him to never sue the district, always sue the individual. Always.
There were other campuses with smaller enrollments that had 45-minute, or even hour-long lunches. Teller was just too big and its cafeteria too small to accommodate such basic decencies. The full-size fridge and two microwaves in Mr. Webb’s room were not just for his own use: they were for everyone. Lunch demanded humanization when it was only 28 minutes long.
Which was why, as some students filed in to watch the Bollywood, Mr. Webb finished off his can of soup. More time for the kids to use the microwaves, that way, and that meant that much more kindness and mercy in their lives.
“What movie are we starting with this year?” A regular from the last two years popped her head into the room.
“Kal Ho Naa Ho.”
“Oh my gosh, I love that one!” Before you could say, “Naina kaash mein tumhe bataa sakta”, she and three friends had already moved into the front seats, ready to cry their eyes out.