The aromatic smell of basil infused pasta sauce and oily fried chicken floated through the halls as I approached the cafeteria. When I walked through the bulletproof doors, I scanned the busy room for an open seat. The tables were full of a mix of preppy teenage girls and boys who should have shaved the night before. I walked over to a group of girls who had swam in my lane the previous day. Our wavy hair reeked of chlorine, but our freckles protruded through the foundation, adding personality to our small faces. Throughout the lunch period, we chatted about the most endearing boys and gossiped about how horrible our teachers were, assigning homework on the first day.
The conversations carry into our afternoon classes through texts and goofy pictures. Over the course of the week, our table began to fill up with people who looked just as nervous as I had been, sporting a quivering lip or curling their hair with trembling fingers. We would invite the kids sitting alone in the corner to join us, which they greatly appreciated. Lunch 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 in line 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 your 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 chanted, 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 return to my seat 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 surrounding my teeth. Following the person ahead of me, I made my way to the cashier. There was a selection of candies 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 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. Mumbling thanks, I 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 walked to the counter 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 me, giving a piercing look that sent chills throughout my body. Had I misspoken? 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. The dark lady radiated warmth from her harsh exterior and replied with a sweet voice like that of a child, “Charisma, what’s yours?” she sang. Instantly, I knew that I had certainly made an amiable gesture. Everyday Charisma would serve hundreds of kids rushing back to their table, their friends, their safe place. No student ventured out to speak to the kind souls working the cafeteria. The way Charisma smiled, showed just how underappreciated she was. Her rough exterior made me wonder what she had endured that morphed her into the woman she is today. 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 soon it became nearly natural to smile and greet her. We would exchange pleasantries and ask about each other's day and such. Now I wonder why I had not said anything earlier. If I would have known how much it would brighten her day, I just might have introduced myself earlier. Now other students will watch us curiously and question our friendship. It is not common for a girl such as myself to be chatting with a lunch lady, but 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 kind to the lunch ladies. Like, what do you even talk about?” When I heard that, I smiled just as big as Charisma.