The Hot-Lunch Table

Anne Cavanaugh Sawan

How beautiful a day can be when kindness touches it!

~George Elliston

I grew up in a large family of twelve siblings. We weren’t poor by most standards, but things were definitely stretched for us. My parents never shared their financial worries, choosing instead to let us have a carefree childhood. But despite their discretion, I knew, as children often do, that there were times they went without and that certain things my friends had wouldn’t be available to me.

Back in those days, hot lunch was a luxury for the wealthier kids, and hot-lunch buyers sat separately from the students who brought cold lunch. My siblings and I brought lunch from home every day: thick slices of homemade bread hiding one scant slice of bologna, three oatmeal cookies, and a small apple. We would look on longingly as the rich kids proudly sat down with their steaming plates of fried chicken or fish sticks and potato puffs, cartons of cold milk, chilled peaches and a slice of cake.

I never said anything, but my first grade teacher, Mrs. Caruso, must have seen the yearning in my eyes. One day she quietly pressed a note into my hand and whispered, “Give this to your mother.”

I skipped home and gave my mom the note. She read it and smiled. “Well, Mrs. Caruso said because of all your hard work, she wants to buy your lunch tomorrow.” The next day, I proudly carried my tray of chicken fricassee across the cafeteria and took my seat at the hot-lunch table. Honestly, the food wasn’t as great as I had imagined, but I was pleased to be there and felt honored to be a part of the group.

One rainy day, Mrs. Caruso asked me to stay after school. My stomach instantly dropped to the floor. Surely, I must be in trouble! Did she know I hadn’t finished my math sheet? Did she see me teasing Billy on the playground?

After the other students had left, Mrs. Caruso said she was going to finish her work and then drive me home. It was raining, and she knew I had a long walk. We pulled up to my house and she got out, depositing a few bags on the porch. “Tell your mom I had a few extra things she might want,” she said. Then she drove away. Inside the bags were clothes, toys, and books.

That summer, Mrs. Caruso invited us all to her home. She gave us lemonade and sugar cookies, and we marveled at the fancy koi pond in her back yard.

I don’t know why Mrs. Caruso took a shine to my family. Maybe she also grew up in a family that struggled. Maybe she knew what it was like to feel just a little less than everyone else. Somehow, even with her quiet charity, she never made me feel ashamed. She just made me feel loved and important. Thanks to her, I learned that I had just as much right as anyone to sit at the hot-lunch table.

I don’t remember what Mrs. Caruso looked like anymore, but I sure do remember how she made me feel. I’ve never lost that feeling — of being important to someone and being protected by her. After all these years, I’m still grateful to that wonderful teacher.