My Days As a Dinner Lady by CAROL TYNE JOHNSTON

I LEAD a double life. I drop in and out of each of those lives as I choose and if they weren’t 12,000 miles apart I would do it much more frequently.
  Right now I’m writing this from Wellington, New Zealand but I’ve only just returned from almost four months back ‘home’ in my beloved Northumberland where I went to play best ‘man’ at my younger brother’s wedding and to spend a little time helping sort out my mam and dad’s growing health requirements.
  It was great to be back, even though it meant sleeping night after night on a Z-bed in their hallway and trying to get in the shower before dad, who takes at least a full hour in there!
  While home I needed to find some work to keep me solvent. I’m a mature, UK-trained primary school teacher with 20 years experience of creative teaching in NZ schools; surely, I thought, that would set me apart from the rest and offer me life’s ‘oysters’, the privileges I felt the world owed me?
  Not so. After many weeks approaching recruitment agencies, submitting applications, waiting for police checks on my character to be made and awaiting references from colleagues in NZ (many of whom were in the final few weeks of 2015 and busy report writing) I was eventually offered two days teaching and five days working as. . . a dinner lady.
  What an eye-opener dinner duty was! Working in an exclusive Newcastle private school, the first few days of wet weather meant we spent most lunchtimes inside. As a veteran teacher, managing the youngsters’ behaviour was a breeze: I have a myriad of endlessly entertaining party tricks up my sleeve, using nothing more than scrap paper and well-practiced origami techniques.
  I was pleasantly surprised that most of the children were polite, and especially interested in my New Zealand ‘otherlife’, although all they knew of it was the All Blacks’ ‘Haka’ which I was asked (and declined) to perform many times. I actually felt a bit of a ‘Haka snob’ trying to explain the war dance’s spiritual.
  My colleagues, all of them dinner ladies extraordinaire, were delightful. One of them, about the same age as me with gorgeous hair (think Jerry Hall in modelling years) was going through a traumatic time nursing a puppy that had been attacked by a vicious mongrel the day before, and I found myself offering sympathy and support to a complete stranger.
  Another dinner lady (‘the Boss’) happily taught me the intricacies of cutting up sausages for the astonishingly small Year Ones. Such little people faced with such a huge range of dinner options: gluten free, nut or dairy free, vegetarian, sandwich alternatives . . . the choices seemed endless, a far cry from mince, pebble-dashed mashed potatoes and cabbage boiled within an inch of its life I remember eating at school in the Sixties and Seventies.
  My dinner ladies back then, Mrs Adamson and Mrs Hogg, were formidable enough to strike the fear of God into you if you so much as even THOUGHT about leaving anything on your plate! But in this posh private school, despite the choice, beautiful surroundings and food served by a uniformed chef (not to mention the opportunity to learn from an origami grandmaster afterwards!) what remains most clear in my memory was the wasted food .
  I couldn’t believe my eyes. Entire platefuls of perfectly cooked, delicious food, all binned. “I don’t eat crusts, I don’t like them” pouted one six-year-old after one bite of a sandwich.
  “I don’t eat vegetables, they’re revolting!” said another, a wee girl who managed to eat her way around her delicately breadcrumbed fish fingers, leaving the fish perched precariously on the side of her plate. I hoped the ‘slop buckets’ were going to a set of happy, free range pigs somewhere on the edge of the Town Moor!
  And such puddings! In my days the rule was no pudding unless we’d eaten every last morsel of dinner; these kids were actually offered a choice (and even seconds!) of chocolate pud with pink custard, apple crumble and cream and even (to my astonishment) something that looked remarkably like tiramisu!
  There was, of course, always a large pile of fruit left over each day which none of the children had touched. Extravagant but understandable, given these were the children of the north-east’s most wealthy families.
  What was harder to come to terms with was the way I, the dinner lady, was ignored and snubbed by their teachers, all of whom also came to the hall for their meals of fresh salads and ‘lean cut proteins’. Mostly twenty years younger than me, they had no idea who I was, where I came from nor showed any interest in my experience as a teacher.
  When they returned to their peaceful classrooms after lunch to find a flock of flying cranes made from paper from the recycling box and an entire class of happy kids decorating them with intricate ‘zentangle’ patterns, it mattered not.
  They didn’t bother to say something like “Thanks, see you later”. Not that I was expecting thanks, but it would have been nice to have even been seen.
  On my last day I put on my jacket, walked along a neat path through perfectly-cut lawns and waited at the seven-foot-high fence for the electronic gate to open to allow me out and thought: “Well, that’s that. Thank you Mrs Adamson and Mrs Hogg for helping me become the grateful woman I am today. I am a better person for you both.”
  And I pocketed my twenty-six quid and moved on.


*Carol Tyne Johnston is a Geordie-born teacher who lives and works in New Zealand. Her heart, however, resides on Tyneside.


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