The Mysteries of High School Lunch Culture, as Seen through the Eyes of a Drifter
November 1st, 2019
We’ve all felt that feeling: anticipation, longing, boredom, hunger, and desperation all rolled together into one edge-of-your seat sensation. I’m sure many of you, like myself, have felt exactly this way about thirty seconds before the lunch bell rings.
In high school, lunch can mean a lot of things. If you’re the person who has way too many commitments but refuses to give any up (guilty as charged!), you’re probably rushing off to a club or grabbing your laptop and finding a quiet place to work on your latest project. Maybe lunch is your social hour, and you’re walking off to the courtyard or a nearby café, surrounded by a horde of chatty friends. Maybe you choose to do all your homework during lunch, and you’re curled up in a remote side hallway with a few silent, like-minded companions. Maybe lunch is your naptime, or an hour reserved for Netflix.
Across the board, though, what you do at lunch probably defines what kind of person you are. It decides what kinds of people you spend time with, what you value, and how socially adept you are. This is true at my high school. Or, at the very least, it seems to be.
Since elementary school, I’ve longed for the stability of one group of six or so friends who I can rely on to eat lunch with every single day, without fail. There would be no choice involved after that lunch bell rings, no internal battle or pros-and-cons-list; the only factor I would have to take into consideration would be whether it’s nice enough to sit outside. That core group would represent exactly the types of people I was exposed to every single day, and, though those people might have some internal squabbles, they would set a standard of stability and shape my life.
There are people at my school who do have just that. They find their group, find an empty classroom or a section of the foyer (a communal lunch-eating area), watch YouTube videos, and split food from the Halal cart. Maybe they close off their exclusive circle in the courtyard, reveling in the safety of remaining in their own bubble (and using it as a shield). But I’m not one of those people. I, along with a few friends, call myself a “drifter.” Every day is different; the friend groups I spend time with intersect barely, if at all, because of the different areas of life in which I meet people (think activism clubs vs. track, both of which I am incredibly passionate about, but neither of which have much in common with the other). For me, the lunch bell doesn’t mean relaxing. It means figuring out which circle I will fit myself into for the day, and who I will inadvertently end up ignoring as well.
I’m probably making this issue seem more dramatic than it is (it is, of course, practically the definition of a first-world problem). But my status as a “drifter” is one of the main stressors in my life, even though sometimes I love finding new combinations of individuals to spend time with every day.
One of the main things I’ve learned as a drifter are that the dynamics of different friend groups and relationships are endlessly, intricately compelling. High school lunchrooms—or courtyards, cafés, or any other communal lunchtime area—do not have divisions as cut-and-dry as they are portrayed in Mean Girls-esque media. Hierarchies exist within every grouping of individuals, and though you think you may know everything about a person by looking at their circle from the outside, you will always discover something new—and often surprising—about that same person from the inside.
Imagine that you are a scientist. You’ve never met anyone at your high school before, and you have every technology ever created at your fingertips. Find the place where the most people are gathered, carrying out that time-honored tradition of eating and socializing together, and then zoom out. Draw out each group; what distinguishes them from each other? How do the sizes of the groups vary, and how does each person interact with the others? Who is the center of an interaction? Start to draw some similarities between the groups. What makes a person compelling? How are social smarts—and instincts—separated from more tangible “intelligence”? These questions will never fail to keep me wondering, waiting to find out if the closely relevant but entirely inaccessible mystery of lunch culture will ever be solved.