The smell of pasta sauce hit me before I walked through the bulletproof glass doors. On my first day I searched the room for an empty spot. Most of the tables were full of students ranging from young girls with baby faces, to near men who had to shave before school. My eyes landed on a group of friendly looking kids who had classes with me. Tentatively I walked over and asked if I could sit down. “Of course,” exclaimed a cheery girl with vibrant red hair and a freckle covered nose. My curls bounced as I sat my teal backpack on the floor. This might just be okay, I began to think,
Our conversations would continue through the lunch period and carried onto our afternoon classes with texts. Over the course of the week, our table began to fill up with groups of people who looked just as nervous as I had been. We would invite the kids sitting alone in the corner to join us. From our spot in the cafeteria we would scout out the cutest boys and gossip about our friends. It became much easier once I knew I had a permanent spot at the table. Everyday I would make my way to the front of the room and join a long line of ravenous students. People would host conversations with others inline in hopes of making new friends, but I have always been shy, never one to initiate a conversation. I would watch as others spoke with ease saying “ I love you shirt,” and “What class do you have next?” Slowly, I would creep up to what seemed like an endless array of food. There were sandwiches and cheese sticks mixed with crackers and chocolate milk. The aromas wafted through the service queue and off of each other's breath.
By the time I would reach the counter, my order had been practiced multiple times to avoid mistakes, Deep Breaths. Chicken nuggets and curly fries, I thought, chicken nuggets and curly fries. By some miracle, I managed through the sentence with no mistakes which almost made me order a brownie as well. However, I did not need to push my luck so I would have to be satisfied without the chocolaty goodness. When the lunch lady handed me a red tray with my less than nutritious selection, I smiled as kindly as I could without exposing my retainer that was trying to straighten my teeth. Following the person ahead of me, I made my way to the cashier. There was a selection of candies and gummies that made my sweet tooth ache, but I only had six dollars. Maybe tomorrow, I told myself. The cashier would plug in what food I had ordered and asked for my ID. I fumbled with the lanyard around my neck and instinctively placed my thumb on the picture. The lighting had made my streaky fake tan look more orange and the lack of air conditioning had produced beads of sweat on my forehead. My under eyes were dark due to a lack of sleep the night before. To add to the mess, my hair had frizzed on top of my head so that it looked as though I had a swarm of mosquitos flying above. The young woman did not seem to notice my horrendous photograph and simply scanned the code. I mumbled thanks and made my way back to my seat.
It would continue this way throughout the first few weeks of school as I grew more comfortable with myself in the new environment. I remember it was a warm, drizzly day when I felt an urge to do something outlandish for my personality. As I made my way to purchase my food my heart leapt in my chest. Looking back I am nearly positive everyone heard it. The petite women reached out to grab my student card, but before she reached it I asked her, “I’m sorry, but,” inhale, exhale, “what’s your name?” Her deep brown eyes looked up at mine, giving a piercing look that sent chills throughout my body. Had I said the wrong thing? Then, I noticed a sparkle behind her eyes and her rosy lips lifted into a smile revealing a crooked grin.
It was a sight I will never be able to forget, the way she lit up at my sentence. She radiated warmth from her harsh exterior and replied with a sweet voice like that of a child, “Charisma, what’s yours?” she sang. I knew in that instant that I had certainly done a kind thing. Everyday Charisma would serve hundreds of kids rushing to get back to their table, their friends, their safe place. Nobody ventured out to speak to the kind souls working the cafeteria. The way Charisma smiled showed me just how underappreciated she was. Her rough exterior made me wonder what she had endured that morphed her into the woman she is today. I wonder how many people asked how she was, and then listened.
After that day, Charisma and I would have small conversations when I would buy my food and it became nearly natural to smile and greet her. We would exchange pleasantries and ask about each other's days and such. If I would have known how much it would brighten her day, I just might have introduced myself earlier. Other students will watch us curiously and question our friendship. It is not common for a girl like me to be chatting with a lunch lady, but now I feel comfortable talking with her. That may seem like a small action, but this was a breakthrough for me.
On one of the following days, I was getting lunch with my friend as we walked away, she told me, “you are so nice to the lunch ladies. Like, what do you even talk about?” I smiled just as big as Charisma when I heard that.