A Peaceful Place for Lunch

This is the first in a series of “re-visioned” posts that first appeared on the Teaching Tolerance Blog. Posting them here gives me an opportunity to add photos and/or additional thoughts.


The year I taught art in the dysfunctional chaos of an overcrowded urban middle school with weak administrators, practically everyone in the school—both students and teachers—needed a “safe place.”

Left mostly on our own to enforce discipline in our classrooms, we teachers quickly discovered that detentions were somewhat more effective than many of the other remedies. If students were unable to come to before- or after-school detentions—or were already “booked” with other teachers—some teachers scheduled lunchtime detentions.
Middle school lunchrooms can be crowded.
This one’s in Denver, CO.
I had cherished my quiet lunches, alone in my art room for 20 fleeting minutes. However, I finally tried a “lunch detention” with a seventh-grade student I’ll call Marco. Normally a bright, good-humored kid, he and another student had begun arguing, tripping and throwing things at each other in my class. The other boy skipped school the day he was due for detention, so I escorted only Marco from the deafeningly anarchic lunchroom to the art room for his scheduled detention.
During our lunch together, we talked about the problems he’d been having with his classmate. I gleaned some helpful insights as he explained his side of the story. Marco apologized for his part in the disruptions and we agreed on a way to handle the situation better next time. Then we chatted about odds and ends until it was time for Marco to take his tray back to the cafeteria.
“Ms. G.,” he asked, “Is there any way I could have ‘lunch detention’ again sometime?”
“I enjoyed it, too,” I said. “Want to come back tomorrow?”
“Can I bring a friend?” he asked. 
The Art Room Lunch Group met in this classroom.
The Art Room Lunch Group, as we began to call ourselves, met every day after that. Eventually, I was granting daily “lunch in the art room” permission to between five and eight students. Marco and his friend became regulars, as did a small group of quiet Muslim girls, and a few other individuals. Not really by design, the group included at least one person from each of the racial and ethnic groups in the school.
The students who came for lunch told me many times how much they loved the chance to get away from the relentless noise and rowdiness that filled each school day. It’s a time free of neighborhood rivalries and contests of escalating machismo that kept classroom life in a state of constant tension. In our space, students could relax and build new friendships. They even developed their own code of conduct, and enforced it by “disinviting” any who caused trouble.
Working together, we turned our lunch time into a little island of peace in a difficult and hostile environment.
PHOTO CREDITS: The photo of the middle school lunchroom in Denver is by Tim Rasmussen, in The Denver Post. I took the photo of my middle school classroom, all “spiffed up” for Open House.

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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