When I picked up my son from his first day of school, I couldn’t wait to find out about first grade. I was sure he would say the same thing he said in kindergarten: “My brain is full.” Instead, I heard about Maxine. Mean Maxine. With his hands gesturing wildly like he was guiding planes on a runway, my son said that his entire class was afraid of Maxine.
What kind of school would let a monster like Maxine work there?
Two weeks later I volunteered for cafeteria duty and met Mean Maxine. I was expecting a six-foot-seven-inch Amazon woman with a booming voice and flesh-ripping claws, wearing a leather jacket covered with spikes. Instead, I met a woman wearing a white apron, sensible shoes, and a smile as wide as she was tall…no more than four feet. The thought of her striking fear throughout an all-boys school was as plausible (and hilarious) as the thought of a kitten scaring a crocodile.
I liked Maxine the moment I met her, and not just because the gravy she was stirring was as lumpy as mine. She held the key to making boys listen to her and do what she asked, all without yelling. Anyone who can do that deserves respect and possibly a bronze statue in front of the school. There was so much this leader of the lunchroom could teach me and I was eager to learn. I even pictured us standing side by side in the cafeteria line wearing matching aprons that read: Hell no!
Throughout the years I volunteered in the cafeteria, I watched Maxine in action. She was firm, but kind. She didn’t yell, but instead used The Look. Without saying a word and merely glancing at a grade-schooler, she could get the little guy, knees shaking, to put his utensils, plate, cup and napkin in the right bin in seconds. No threats. No words. No messing around.
During my last year as a volunteer I noticed that the younger boys were terrified of Maxine in grade school, but the older students, who by then knew this lunch lady was a pussycat, not a deadly tiger, waved hello to her like she was a rock star…a rock star wearing a hair net. Instead of judging this cook by her cover, the older guys had figured out she was tough on the younger students to earn their respect immediately, to teach them good manners, and to inject a little fear in them.
I stopped volunteering in the cafeteria by the time my son was in high school, so I rarely saw Maxine. When I asked my son about her he said that she died a few months after the school honored her for 40 years of service. Sadly, even a badass like Maxine couldn’t beat cancer.
A few months before my son graduated from high school, a friend asked if I would cover her cafeteria shift. I thought it would be fun to volunteer one last time and my burnout from years prior had worn off, so I said yes. It was strange working in the cafeteria without Maxine keeping the younger boys in line and the moms on task, especially the ones who did more talking than scooping.
While I took a short break from the lunch line to look for my son in the cafeteria, I saw a first-grader getting ready to smoothly slide everything on his tray into the trashcan. He scanned the cafeteria like a spy on a deadly mission and then our eyes met. As I crossed my arms I looked at him, then down at his tray, and then back at him. He quickly tossed his napkin in the trashcan and walked over to the kitchen window to put his plate and cup in one container and his utensils in another. He sheepishly looked back at me and I nodded.
After I finished my shift and walked through the bustling kitchen to throw my gravy-stained apron in the hamper, I realized Maxine had impacted everyone who knew her. Not only had she taught the students at the school that their first impression of someone isn’t always right, she showed me by example how to be kind, but firm, when setting boundaries with my own children. She also taught me to talk calmly to my sons instead of yell at them like an over-caffeinated guest on Jerry Springer.
As I walked to my car I thought about Maxine, then about the first-grader who next time would think twice about what to do with his tray, and then about how sad it was that my son was graduating in a month.
I would have made the perfect Mean Lisa.