I’m writing this on the night before the last day of school, having packed Ava’s final lunch: One container of ham and cheese slices, crackers, a cup of pineapple, a grape Capri Sun, a spoon, and two napkins. And one memory of what she used to do with food, before she got caught.
Kindergarten was a rough experience for Ava because she hadn’t attended preschool. She was completely shell-shocked by the thunderous pounding of feet in the hallway going to classrooms and going to buses, and she sat in a stupor during lunchtime as kids laughed with each other, chewing and spewing food as they talked.
A few weeks into the semester, I noticed that nothing was coming back in Ava’s lunchbag — no evidence of what she did or didn’t eat. I assumed she had found her appetite and was going through a growth spurt because she raided the pantry from 3:00-on. But one afternoon, her teacher motioned for me to get out of the car so she could speak to me.
“For the past few weeks, our custodian has been finding a smashed peanut butter sandwich on the floor after the first lunch period,” she began. “We couldn’t figure out who it was, so we had someone walk around today to see who might be doing this over and over again. It was your daughter.”
My eyes widened. Not my child. My child would never do that.
“We didn’t say anything to her because we knew you would.”
My eyes narrowed. You can count on that.
“What in the world would make you throw food on the floor for weeks on end?” I demanded when we got home.
Tears welled in her eyes and her lip began to quiver. No response.
“You left a mess for someone else to deal with. Why would you do such a thing?” I continued.
Sniffling. Rubbing of eyes.
“Don’t you see how disrespectful this is?”
Sobbing. Head in her hands.
“We aren’t leaving this kitchen until I know what’s wrong.”
She looked up with a tear-stained, swollen face.
Aha. Of course. So it’s my fault.
After 15 minutes of interrogation (minus waterboarding – we weren’t there yet), she confessed that she hated sandwiches because they were mushy, but she didn’t want to waste food. She also didn’t want to bring home a full lunch bag because I would have been mad that she didn’t eat. Still. My. Fault.
However, my little schemer figured that if something happened to her lunch, she wouldn’t have to eat it. So, she’d open her baggie, nibble on the ends, place it in her lap, nudge it onto the floor, and then step on it as she got up to leave the table. Whoops! I dropped my sandwich and it’s ruined. I can’t eat it now.
I was upset that she felt she had to hide her food and her feelings. I was concerned that she was afraid of teachers and staff…but even worse…her own mother. Was I that mean? That harsh? That scary?
Even though I felt terrible, I still had to punish her for causing such a production at school. I grabbed the bread and the container of Peter Pan, slathering it between the layers. Then, I dropped it to the floor and stepped on it. “Now clean it up,” I said calmly.
Inside, my heart broke. I was the reason we were in this situation to begin with. I felt awful – and completely regretful because peanut butter had filled the grooves of our hardwood floor.
She hopped off the stool and peeled the sandwich back, leaving a stamped print of dough and crunchy paste. She ripped off a paper towel and scooped away the mess, tossing the wad in the trash. The thought of someone on their hands and knees cleaning up my child’s deliberate mess – whatever her reason – bothered me. But I think she got the point. The next day, she apologized to the custodian for her behavior and he lovingly patted her blonde head.
That night, I scraped peanut butter out of the floor with toothpicks; my own hard labor for giving my child the impression she couldn’t come to me with her problems – for fear she might hurt my feelings.
In retrospect, we both learned an important lesson from Peter Pan on that day. We won’t find out what’s really good for us until we’ve gone a little nuts.