My First Job Ever and The Grumpy Cafeteria Lady

Dear Reader: You may know I am writing stories, based on questions my family chose from the questions on the StoryWorth site.*One of them, “What was your most favorite job ever?” sparked a series of stories related to the different jobs I have had. This story takes me back to my first job in the cafeteria lunch room and a grumpy cafeteria lady.

My first Job ever and The Grumpy Cateteria Lady 

T   welve-year-old-me

In seventh grade, my parents suggest I work in the cafeteria in exchange for a free hot lunch every day. I talk my new friend, Roberta, into working with me. She moved here the end of last year and it will be fun, I tell her.

The job is easy enough. The kids drop off their trays of dirty dishes and utensils at the window. One of us rinses the plates, scraping leftover food into the garbage disposal. The other one puts them into the dishwasher, then removes and stacks them for use the next day. My favorite part is dumping things down the garbage disposal. We’ve never had one.

For some reason, which I can’t figure out, the head cafeteria lady, who hired me, doesn’t seem to like me. She is a tall, large-boned woman, with an over-powering presence who frowns a lot and hardly ever smiles. She accuses me of things I do, don’t do, or how I go about doing them. I try the best I know how, but there’s no pleasing her. At first, my parents encourage me to keep trying, but this grumpy cafeteria lady finds something to complain about almost every day. Frustration and hurt build inside my sensitive twelve-year-old heart.

One day, after yet another complaint, which again, I do not understand, Daddy has had it with her. “Come on,” he says. “We are going over to her house and get this thing straightened out once and for all.” I can tell there’s no talking him out of it. He won’t yell or make a scene. He believes in facing things head on and that it is best done in person. He will stick up for me. And if we find there is something I can do better, we’ll figure it out together.

On the two-minute car ride to her house, I curl up in the corner of the back seat, wishing I could disappear. Soon we are walking up the sidewalk to her house, with me feeling like I am watching myself. I can’t believe we are doing this and I wish we weren’t. Daddy knocks firmly on the door and to my great relief, she doesn’t answer. The relief only lasts, however, until we get back home, and he has another plan; this one involves me talking to her myself.

The next day I gather up my courage and approach her before I start scraping plates. Standing tall, following the script Daddy gave me, I say “It seems like you don’t want me to work here. If that is true, I do not need the job.”

The strangest thing happens. She gets an alarmed look on her face. Stammering, as if she is searching for the right words, she says, “No … No … Uh, it’s OK. You can keep working here.”

Is she kidding? This is it? I turn around and start cleaning dirty dishes and trays, wondering what made her have such a sudden change of heart. I have no more problems with her, finish out the year and work there during eighth grade as well. I continue to get my free daily hot lunch.

 Reflections:

Two things come to mind as I reflect on this story. One, my parents didn’t leave it to me to figure it out. Although it was scary, talking to her the next day was empowering. I knew would be OK if she “fired” me because I believed I had done the best I could. If she had something specific for me to work on, I was willing to try.

I never thought too much about her not answering the door that day, assuming, she wasn’t home. As I write all these years later, a new possibility makes me smile. I suspect she saw Daddy striding up the sidewalk with me, took one peek out her window from behind the curtains and chose not to answer the door.

Over the years, I saw my dad be willing to own his stuff if there was stuff to own. If not, he didn’t mind standing up for himself, and in this case, for his girl. Over the years, I continued to see my dad face problems head on. I respected him for his firm stand on matters of right and wrong. He also knew when it was time to work together to find a middle ground.

I recall other times when I stood up for myself over the ensuing years. It didn’t always change things, but I felt better about me. I continued that growth in group work at my counseling center over the years. It has been challenging work and oh, so helpful.

Secondly, I also wonder how my parents felt about the possibility of losing the free hot lunch for me every day. I know it would have helped financially, but not important enough for me to stay in an unhealthy situation.  

You may wonder if I minded working in the cafeteria at lunch. While I got to eat with my friends during the first lunch hour, I didn’t get to go outside the rest of lunch until we had completed our work for the next day. It was the reason I wanted my friend to work with me.

Notice the “cat-eye” glasses – The styles you love now, will go out of date and your kids will probably make fun of them when they look at pictures of you growing up.  If you live long enough, your the styles will come back around, and your kids will adopt them as new. But you won’t like them anymore:)

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Do you remember your first job ever? It might be a fun story to tell your story to your family – write it down for them. I am throughly enjoying my “Shut Up and Write” online writing groups.  I have developed a whole new community  during Covid, “meeting” people  from all over the world.  Just for fun I have kept a list of the countries I have connected with online – fifteen so far! Want to write with me? If you want to know more, shoot me an email or leave a message here.  (The groups are free, by the way.)

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* I have had no personal experience or connection with “Story Worth” other than drawing from their list of questions as I have shared above.

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