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Mrs. McWilliams: The Ultimate Cafeteria Monitor

Wilson School's teacher always found a way to spice up lunch time.

Welcome "back" to Remember When? So far, it's been some trip through our past lives in The Caldwells—we've rode our bikes all over to play video games, we've walked home from school and we've even gone down the trails. Not bad, for a bunch of time travelers, right?

I was going to take a dip this week into the town pools, and will but only do so in part. This time around, I want to revisit our favorite part of elementary school days—in addition to gym and recess—lunch time!

Back in my time, school lunches hadn't yet super-evolved into non-stop health campaigns; The gym doubled as the cafeteria (this was the deal for all the elementary schools in The Caldwells—I'm pretty sure. Devoted lunchrooms were more a junior high and high school thing). They weren't adorned with food pyramids, reminders to eat more dark vegetables and pop stars with milk mustaches.

Most lunches in elementary school in my time were carried in metal lunch boxes adorned with Kiss, Star Wars, the Six Million Dollar Man, Scooby Doo, The Superfriends, NFL teams and more—all with matching thermoses.

This was actually the end of the most collectible and golden age of the 'boxes, and a few years later, the metal was phased out for plastic. In addition to being caught from time to time by Gargamel, the Smurfs were also trapped in sort of a school food transporting limbo—lunch boxes in their likeness were issued in both rust-prone metal and landfill-friendly polymers.

Many simply opted to just haul their sandwiches and Fritos, Twinkies, or Cheetos in a brown bag—and get their beverage at school. It was whole milk, too—percentage-based cow juice wasn't yet invented—in cute little half-pints of regular or chocolate. Skim milk was around, but usually only issued upon a parent giving the school nurse a doctor's note. For every red or brown carton, you'd see one or two blue ones thrown in.

You might be thinking of bottled water—where was that? Answer: nowhere to be found. In the late '70s and early '80s, water came from fountains, period. Though Elvis Presley was quite fond of the stuff, spring water was nowhere near the mainstream (pun intended). By 1985, folks started keeping a one-gallon jug in their refrigerators, but it certainly wasn't packed in small servings in kids' lunches, hauled along to sports practice or consumed in cars That was more of a late '80s thing.

Then there was "hot" lunch. These prepared, paid-for lunches hit Wilson School around 1980, and it was a big deal. Some signed on right away, some parents winced and others just kept on bringing their own. Although word was that the food was pretty bad (it was the technology as well as the ingredients), it was an immediate hit as evidenced by its popularity today. After requesting it, my mom signed me up and we received our allotment of raffle-style tickets that would yield the holder a meal.

In Wilson School, a shiny metallic console was set up on the stage. It had a counter and an area to house the food to keep it "hot." To get your lunch, after your table was called, you would enter, stage right. You'd get your food and exit, stage left. 

The program was primitive—there were styrofoam trays and tater tots often complemented the burgers, hot dogs and pizza. That was it, as far as I can remember. How about you? I loved the hot dogs—not the actual food item, but the wrapper. It was a silver foil on the outside (maybe that's why the bread was hard and hot dog rubbery) and emblazoned with a side-covering "hot dog" logo. It was cool and I pretended it was space food.

No matter what we had to eat at lunch time, we at Wilson School were all united by one thing, one presence, one force: Mrs. McWilliams. God rest her soul, Mrs. McWilliams was the measuring stick that all lunch "aides" (that seems to be the more popular term nowadays) should be measured up against. The bottom line was she meant business, and if she judged yee to be standing in the way of her mission of complete lunchroom domination, you were dealt with in swift, S.W.A.T. fashion.

The Definitive Look of Lunchroom Authority

Mrs. McWilliams was an estimated 6 feet of pure lunch lady power, her general mood "mad." She wore blue and gray long ankle-length skirts like women did in World War II posters, who were shown putting rivets in planes with a "bring those boys home" word bubble above them.

They were also pulled high up above her hips, very much like Fred Mertz's pants in I Love Lucy. Plain short-sleeved white blouses were also standard issue. She walked with a purpose, with arms bent and moving as though helping her legs along by cutting though the air. She always—always—chewed gum, which in school was telling: she was not only the law, but above it.

She wore glasses that were undoubtedly issued by prescription in the 1950s: squared-off at the top, rounded at the bottom. Her gray, medium-length hair was only on her head, and never in front of her eyes.

In one concession to then-current fashion, she sometimes wore a short scarf around her neck. Also around her neck was the ultimate accessory for her profession of enforcing lunchroom order: a whistle. It was a piercing one, too, and was blown frequently, almost always being used before commands, and after, to punctuate them. She almost worked in whistle language, with her barked words an afterthought.

A few times a week, ice cream sandwiches were sold during lunch. Mrs. McWilliams fulfilled her duty and helped sell them, but did not seem happy doing it; after all, she was bringing joy to the very people she was otherwise oppressing.

In fact, as if to counter the sour notes being put out by his No. 1 lunch lady, the principal himself, Mr. Hendrickson, would emerge from his office and help sell the frozen treats, He would sing "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream" over and over as we would rush to him with our quarters. Sometimes, you wouldn't make it, and would have to buy your ice cream from her,  with no song, no joy.

Young Ronnie Pushes The Limits, Finds The Wall

As a young, budding button-pusher (are you sensing a common theme in these columns?), I naturally wanted to test Mrs. McWilliams' mettle. So did my buddies—and test it, we did. While eating, we'd never stay in our seats. We'd start to go outside before our table was called. The basic bad-boy stuff.

There were about six of us on the job of misbehaving, and we'd tend to scatter and cause our mayhem all over the lunchroom and the playground, which was also in Mrs. McWilliams' jurisdiction.

And when there was inclement weather? Forget about it—we couldn't fan out, and our being together made our perceived wrong doings more concentrated—we were like a pack of wolves, yelling, running, picking on kids.

It would all be short-lived; we soon enough would hear the whistle, and then a trademark shout: "Get against the wall!" 

She'd punish us in one fell swoop; she was the bowling ball, we were the pins. She was fast and on target. She was the enemy, but you really have to admire her unwavering commitment. Mrs. McWilliams was as tough as nails, and really in her element. On days when she would really go on a roll, there would be more students against the wall than freely milling about.

So Much for Summer Break

As a student, summertime meant freedom. As a elementary educator, I'm still in touch with that feeling of barely making it to June, and then being off on a hot-weather tear for a couple of months. 

Summertime in The Caldwells meant going to the pool—either Westville or Cedar Street. I took swim lessons in 1979 at Cedar Street, but Westville was closer to home, so that was my place to go. I'd go with my mom in earlier years, but soon enough that felt really uncool.

Being born in October, but not too late, meant I was always the youngest in my class. Most kids in my grade had their birthdays early in the year. What did this mean? To get into the pool without a parent, one would have to officially be double digits—10 years old.

In the summer of 1980, I was 9 years old. What does that mean? Instead of having a brown badge, I had a yellow one. I was miffed. My school pals could go into the pool, and I could not. 

In true rule-breaker fashion, I found a solution: after my friends went in, one would come up to the fence near where we parked our bikes, and would slip me their badge, so I could get in by myself.

It worked like a charm. With my towel around my neck, and tube socks almost up to it, I went in the main gate. I made it about 10 feet before an eerily familiar voice boomed from under a yellow sun table umbrella. 

"You're not 10 years old! I've seen you here before with your mother!"

I looked over. I know that voice. The voice that had yelled at me during lunch for the last 10 months! It was Mrs. McWilliams.  

It was about 100 degrees outside, but a chill still went up my spine. I was also frozen, unable to move.

"Now, whose badge is that?" 

In the barrage, I was unable to do anything but tell the truth: It was my friend's brown badge; he was over there. She was nonplussed, and told me that she would give it to him, and banished me to a proverbial wall, motioning me to leave. The pool looked liked a mirage as I walked to my bike.

When I saw her afterward at the pool with my mom, I was shocked when she acted very polite. In the following summers, I was free of her; I was now in junior high, and over 10 years old to boot—an official brown badge.

McWilliams Mysteries

To this day, I'm baffled and impressed with the single-mindedness of this woman. Did she ever unwind? What did the teachers at the time think of her? Did she ever go on special assignment to other schools in the district, if their lunch periods needed straightening out? Was it a codependency thing—did she need kids to misbehave? Was she married? I think I remember a grandkid or something being around The Caldwells. If anyone has any information on Mrs. McWilliams, I'd like to know ... or see a TV special devoted to her.

Links

There's a Wikipedia entry for "lunch lady." It's interesting that the definition pertains more to food preparation, and what the English (as in London) equivalent is:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lunch_lady

Wikipedia has an interesting entry on "school lunch"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_meal

*This Remember When? is dedicated to the lunch lady of all lunch ladies, Mrs. McWilliams!

Denise Condit-Romano February 14, 2010 at 09:11 PM
GREAT article!!!!!!! I remember Mrs. McWilliams very well and think of her from time to time. Your article was right on the money and a fond women she was that left us with a long lasting impression. Well done, enjoyed reading your post!
Ron Albanese February 15, 2010 at 02:34 AM
Thanks, Denise! Here's another message I just received, from someone who wished to remain anonymous: "I very much enjoyed reading your most recent contribution to the Caldwells Patch. Mrs McWilliams was Chris McWilliams' grandmother. Not sure if you remember Chris or not, but he was a little crazy back then. As for Mrs McWilliams, she died years ago. I also remember Mr Hendrickson getting in a legal bind too. I think his retirement was forced. I particularly liked the reference to the lunch boxes. I think I had ALL the popular ones. I wish today I still did because I would ebay them. Keep up the good work. I miss the old days. =(" - does anyone one have more information about Mr. Hendrickson?

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