In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says that, if you’re not sure what to write, you can start with school lunches.

And so today I am remembering the sound of crinkling brown bags, and the insecurity of youth. Lunch was a litmus test. Would you fit in? Were you acceptable?

I remember being harangued in elementary school having whole-grain bread on my sandwiches when white bread was all the rage.

One girl would say, “Ew, what are those weird things in your bread? Are they bugs?!” She was referring to sunflower seeds, but it was pointless to explain. She was going to make fun of me, and I was going to writhe in humiliation.


My school lunches — and my family — were ‘unusual’. When I started packing lunch, I brought what I ate at home: a salad, with an apple and whole-grain crackers and real cheese and turkey pepperoni. It was food that made me happy, and also self-conscious.

It wasn’t a safe bet like a sandwich, or the cafeteria’s hamburger and fries. It was different, and therefore suspect. (Nowadays, my lunches would seem even ‘weirder’ and healthier too.)

So even though I ate with friends, I kept my food inside its brown bag. I would assemble bite-size mouthfuls ‘under cover’, then quickly pop them into my mouth, as though people couldn’t judge me if they didn’t see the food. (Yes, this was almost as neurotic as having an outfit calendar.)

It sounds silly now, but those of you who remember middle school and high school with any kind of honesty can understand. Socially speaking, it was all about judgment. Did you measure up, or were you too ‘weird’ to be accepted?

But I grew tired of being so timid, and one day, I took my lunch out of the brown bag for all to see.


After that, an interesting thing happened. Another girl who sat at our table started bringing … salad, whole grain crackers, cheese, and turkey pepperoni. I was all astonishment. The lunch I’d feared was ‘uncool’ was actually being copied. Not just accepted, but imitated.

The veil had lifted. In that moment, I realized how arbitrary and ridiculous it all was. We feared other people’s criticism and tried to be ‘normal’, but in reality, everyone was longing for acceptance. The people we were trying to impress were trying to impress us.

So what if we just gave ourselves permission to be who we were?


Laughing together

Sharing wild laughter, the best ‘currency’ there is

If you’re struggling with how others perceive your choices, remember school lunches and take heart. If you feel self-conscious about, say, admitting that you love hanging out with your friends with special needs, listening to Fleetwood Mac, and re-reading Jane Eyre for the thousandth time, know that you’re not alone.

Beautiful things happen when you stop trying to ‘get it right’ and start being yourself. A weight lifts as you release the burden of trying to please everyone. You’re liberated. You get to laugh, and take yourself less seriously. And you free up others to do the same.

As is said in Almost Famous, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.” We can’t connect with one another while we’re trying to be what we’re not.

But when we meet each other as we are? Magic can happen.


What was in your school lunches? Join the conversation in the comments!

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  1. mary February 12, 2013 at 12:52 AM - Reply

    OK I’m going to take a risk here…revealing my school lunches will also reveal my age…Mom would pack it with my NAME and sometimes a FLOWER or other art hand drawn on the bag (geez). I almost always had PB & J, chips, and a nickel and a penny for CHOCOLATE milk. But the coolest was “space sticks” (during the moon launches there was this rush on “astronaut food”, like Tang orange juice. Mom has dementia now…and even though my friends would tease me, I loved those little pictures…cuz I knew she loved making them and loved me 🙂

  2. Donna February 12, 2013 at 2:08 AM - Reply

    School lunches! Elementary and Jr High I was mocked and picked on…who brought eggplant parmesan on Italian bread to school? By the time I ate it at lunch, it was soggy and dripping down my arm, but so delicious! The price to pay was everyone migrating to the other end of the table- eating their thin white bread with bologna sandwiches. So vivid in my memory is the uncomfortable feeling of being left out. I now aspire to the attitude of Star Girl- I have to be true to who and what I am!
    Thanks for that post affirming the necessity to be ourselves!

    • Caroline McGraw February 12, 2013 at 3:07 PM - Reply

      I love it (and especially the Stargirl reference)! Thank you for sharing, Mom. 🙂

    • Caroline McGraw February 12, 2013 at 3:10 PM - Reply

      I can totally picture your lunches, Mary (especially the doodles)! Thank you sharing that wonderful, loving memory.

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