When I was in sixth grade, my family was eligible for free school lunches. I attended a small country school, without much class diversity, mostly farmers, some without indoor toilets in their homes. Even so, when I gave my lunch ticket to the student appointed to collect them, I noticed and she noticed that there were black X’s on them made with a marker. “Oh, you’re on welfare,” she said, and she told me who else in our class was.
At the time, I was only irked and embarrassed, not grossly humiliated or shamed. But I kept the incident in mind. The next year, seventh graders from all the little elementary schools were bused into town to attend a big, fancy junior high which had a choir, a band, an orchestra, a swimming pool. Everyone went there, kids whose dads worked in the paper mill and kids whose dad owned the paper mill. Clothes, haircuts, brands, overheard conversations all indicated a social class of which I knew nothing. Proud and desperate to compete, to pass as middle class, I refused free lunches and ate a bread and jelly sandwich wrapped in waxed paper every day instead of milk and a nutritious meal (lunches, still cooked in the cafeteria at that time, always featured vegetables, and could lay some claim to nutrition).
In high school, where status was even more important and I knew even more about social class, I usually skipped lunch altogether. At three o’clock, before my bus came, I’d spend some babysitting money on an ice cream sandwich or box of candy from the vending machine.
Recently, when I visited a high school, I heard a parent say, not with distaste or critique, just as a statement of fact, “Practically no one eats in the cafeteria except the free lunch kids,” and I felt a pain in my gut.
It’s so easy to help in the wrong way, to stigmatize, set apart, and humiliate people who are already struggling. I once had a student in a wheelchair who remembered the days when the disabled kids in California were sent to special schools before a new law required their integration. “I felt I was being punished,” she said. All the nutrition in the world, all the special facilities do not make up for the sense of segregation and labeling.
A well-meaning college financial aid office offered all EOPS (Educational Opportunity Program, in other words, economically disadvantaged) students a free backpack full of school supplies. Fall quarter arrived and in came the students. All took the supplies out of the backpack and left it in the office. Why? It had “EOPS” embroidered on the back.
This year when I received all the forms for my daughter’s high school, one was the free lunch form, and on it, I saw a sign of progress: “California Education Code Section 49557(a): Children participating in the National School Lunch Program will not be overtly identified by the use of special tokens, special tickets, special serving lines, separate entrances, separate dining areas or by any other means.” Some wise people put thought into that, and I was grateful. But clearly in a world where everything else is unequal, it is very difficult for public institutions to shield their most vulnerable students from shame and a sense of being second-class.