It's 8:00 AM. I have about ten minutes to get my coat off and set things up in the library before I head to the cafeteria to help herd 600 grade-schoolers through breakfast in half an hour. In this building if you are a para like I am you are assigned to breakfast duty. One of the assistant principals is always there and a few teachers rotate in and out of duty on occasion. From what I can tell, the teachers assigned are the ones new to the building because there aren't many folks who would volunteer for this. I myself was less than enthusiastic about this assignment. Six hundred kids with leaky milk cartons, dribbling cereal, and spilling juice cups....kinda puts me off my own breakfast.
I arrive in the cafeteria to see children streaming through the front doors of the school and already in line for food. The para with the greatest seniority, Miss S, is at the head of the line with her cup of coffee and making sure there everyone gets something. Big Mama stands by the doors open to the street making sure children get into line for breakfast, older kids to the right, younger ones to the left. Miss M and Miss C are already doting on the littlest ones at the tables while the assistant principal stands at attention surveying the growing crowd for any signs of trouble. I greet each one as I pass them on my way to where I begin walking my path back and forth among the rows of tables.
Big Mama sees me and comes over for our morning hug. She was the one who seemed to reserve judgement on me the longest. She wasn't going to bother with me if I proved to be unworthy of her time. She does not suffer fools gladly. Little by little we got to know each other and though I liked her quickly I wasn't sure where I stood with her until she looked at me and said, "You cool. You my boo, girl!" We share the hug and a greeting now and them move on to keep the kids flowing.
Tiny Miss M catches my eye as we bump between tables. She gives everyone the sunniest hello. She is all about the kids though so no lingering greetings. Just a "Good morning, how are you?...I'm fine...Good, good," then she is bending down to tie a shoelace, or hand out a spoon, or open a milk carton.
Miss C stays on the periphery. She doesn't talk much to the other paras or the kids. She seems terribly tired of it all. She collects the leftover food that has been untouched. It's supposed to go in the trash and we all hate the waste. The other paras don't care for her. I say hello to her every morning, ask her how she is. Occasionally she offers me some leftovers because she hates to see it wasted plus she says she tries to be nice to people who are nice to her.
By now Miss S is done at the head of the line and moves over to one end of the cafeteria where the notorious party tables are. She stays close to make sure complete chaos doesn't take over. She is wiping up spills and making sure kids throw away wrappers and trays. Sometimes she makes them get the broom to clean up a bowl of cereal they tipped over.
Across the cafeteria I hear the assistant principal and Big Mama shouting to dawdlers, "You playing? You're done! Throw it away and get in line!" Kids don't dare challenge either one of them. They aren't denying anyone food but when you have that many kids to feed in such a short amount of time it can't be a lingering social hour. The kids need to clear up and move on to the gym to be able to socialize before classes start. More kids need the seats so they can have breakfast.
Into this scene I have been added. How I am seen I am not entirely sure but I try to be a smiling, happy presence for the kids but not one who gets walked on my them. I'm not putting up with nonsense and I think the kids know that. At the same time I think they know they'll get a smile out of me quicker than a shout unless they are out of control.
Each para seems to have her own little group of students who seek her out. I feel a tug on my shirt from one of mine who need a spoon. Another one leaves line long enough to run over for a hug. One set of siblings fresh from Puerto Rico winks and waves to call me over so they can talk to me in Spanish. Although three of the other paras are fluent in Spanish these kids think it's hilarious to try to get me to understand all three of them at once in a cafeteria full of hundreds of chattering kids. It's our game. Some of my keenest bibliophiles call to me to ask when their class comes to library or to tell me they love their books or remembered to bring back an overdue one.
Since I am only at this school half the time and, when I am, I live alone in the library, I wasn't sure if I was regarded as part of the team or just an extra. Breakfast duty, as dirty as it can be, has given me a chance to roll up my sleeves, show I am willing to work with others, and allow me to get to know the other paras a little.