September is back to school month, and that makes memories come flooding back annually for those of us who did indeed attend an actual school. I am of a generation that did not yet know of the now all too frighteningly common concept of home schooling, so forgive me if I frown upon that idea without having personally experienced it. I think kids need to mingle with their peers.
Home life comes with its own unique set of politics and dysfunction, and mine happened to be off the charts. I was raised by my grandparents, which in my day was not nearly as common as it is today. It wasn’t common in my circle at all, as I was the only kid I knew who had it going on.
There’s an extra layer of difficulty in that situation on multiple levels. First, they were on to all the tricks my father and uncle pulled during their childhoods so that made them suspicious of me before I even did anything. They had seen it all before, and I was guilty until proven innocent.
Secondly, they were of the generation before the one of all the parents of kids my age, so they looked down on all the parents of my friends as inexperienced, naïve and ungrateful spoiled brats for not having lived through The Great Depression. That was their generation’s common bond.
I learned quickly that since they were forced to suffer their way through The Great Depression against their will, I would have to join them throughout my entire childhood and relive it all over again vicariously on a daily basis. They weren’t about to waste penny one on anything frivolous, kid friendly or fun, so I knew early I would be in for an uphill battle with nobody in my corner.
This is where my school lunch connection kicks in. For whatever reason, Silver Spring School in Milwaukee did not have a school lunch program when it first opened. I think I was in fourth or fifth grade when they tore down the old school and built a new one, and we were all excited to be in a spanking new facility. It looked and smelled new, but they still had some bugs to work out.
Until the cafeteria was finished, we all had to bring our lunch to school. This is where I learned all about social intercourse and status, as in who the cool kids were and who was destined for the unwanted ugly fate of perpetual mock-a-tude. I soon became the king of everything out of style.
Parents can be painfully unaware of styles and trends of their children, but grandparents are on a completely different planet. They have no clue what cool is, nor do they care. They think all of their generation’s references are still fresh, and they make no effort whatsoever to get current.
From day one, I begged them for a lunch box. All the cool kids had lunchboxes, and they were just as cool. For boys, the highly desirables included Batman, Spiderman, G.I. Joe, Scooby Doo, Dukes of Hazzard, Green Bay Packers and maybe Charlie Brown. Everything else was mocked.
For girls as I recall, it was Barbie, Raggedy Ann, Josie and the Pussycats and it was also fine to have a Scooby Doo or Charlie Brown. I didn’t pay much attention to the girls then, and they have long since returned that favor – but that’s another tale for another time. Back to lamenting lunch.
Grandma and Gramps wouldn’t hear of buying me a lunch box, as they said I didn’t need one. I guess nobody really needs one, but what’s wrong with being in the in-crowd for a change? I only wanted to be like the other kids, but they made it seem like I was asking to revoke my citizenship.
What really welds the pain and embarrassment permanently into the deepest and most sensitive inner core fiber of my being is how they vehemently refused to purchase lunch bags. They could not comprehend why any sane human would part with perfectly good cash money for paper bags in which to haul a kid’s lunch to school. It was like the stock market was crashing all over again.
I figured out what the actual cost per bag was and it came out to a whopping three whole cents. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought I asked for a new Cadillac and a bag of gold doubloons.
“THREE CENTS A BAG?” Grandma yelped. “We are NOT the J.P. Morgans.”
I had no idea who she was talking about. The only person I knew with that name was a panelist on The Gong Show.
“There is NO need to spend three cents each for a lunch bag. I’ll use the bags we get for free at the grocery store instead.”
Hey great! Now there’s a prudent solution. Pay absolutely zero mind that those enormous bags are only about fifty to one hundred times bigger than any grade school kid would ever happen to need at any time except for maybe a young Andre The Giant. You saved three cents. Yahoo!
Just drop my little peanut butter sandwich in that bag, and I’ll wait for the echo. Then plop my tangerine in after that. And don’t forget my bag of plain, no name potato chips. God forbid I may enjoy some barbecue flavor chips or maybe even some snack with a brand name like Doritos or Fritos or Cheetos. Anything with an ‘itos’ on the end of it would have been a minor miracle.
Then, why don’t you take that gigantic paper bag and roll it over about six hundred times, and I’ll drag it to the playground like Christ carrying the cross? Then I’ll get to school and have to be mocked for the rest of my days. This was a fate I was not willing to accept so I pushed back. For the first time I ever remembered, Grandma and Gramps agreed to something I really wanted.
Unfortunately, grandparents live in their own world. They didn’t take time to ask what kind of a lunch box I might want. They went to a store of their own volition, and I would bet dollars to donuts it had the word “Mart” somewhere in the title. They probably had a coupon they clipped out of the newspaper, and I’m sure there was some kind of closeout “everything must go” sale.
There was no fanfare whatsoever, nor was there any gift wrap. They came home one day and my icy German grandmother personally presented me with what I had whined about for so long.
“You wanted a lunch box,” she said matter of factly. “Well, here is your lunch box. It’s the last one you will ever get, so quit bothering us and live your life.”
I was overjoyed for all of about five seconds until the picture on the lunch box gave me a swift kick directly in the groin of my heart.
I am the only child I have ever met – and I’ve met a lot of children and former children in my day – that had to suffer through my formative years with a…and it still makes my snot curdle… Winnie the Pooh lunch box. I couldn’t have done any worse except for maybe if there had been a Hitler thermos. I knew I would hate it, but I also knew there was no turning back. This was it.
The kids at my school could not have been any more cruel. My new nickname was of course a combination of “Pooh,” “Mr. Pooh” and “Permanently Ostracized Leper.”
“You wanted a lunchbox.” Grandma said sternly. “And you’re going to use it every day.”
I’m surprised she didn’t make me take it to church and pack me a lunch for Sunday school too.
That lunch box was the source of torture for the rest of the school year. I remember taking it as soon as summer vacation came and bashing it with my Louisville Slugger baseball bat. After that I rode over it with my bike. Then I stomped on it with both feet. Then I threw it in the street and let the garbage truck run over it. When I was finally done, it was a twisted piece of useless metal.
That damn lunch box was only one of many torturous memories of my childhood, and it comes back to haunt me every year around this time when I see the “Back to School” ads everywhere.
To make it worse, I peeked at Ebay to see what Winnie The Pooh lunch boxes were going for. I saw one for $275 and another for $325. In retrospect I guess I was home schooled after all.
Dobie Maxwell is a stand up comedian and writer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. To see him on stage at his next hell-gig, visit dobiemaxwell.com