Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch  

Posted by Brock Booher

“Miss Rector is an Old Maid,” wrote my sister on her homework assignment. Miss Rector was the Sixth-Grade Teacher and the Principal of the small country school we attended. She had cat-eye glasses, wore her auburn-gray hair in a 1950’s style bun hairdo, and always wore a dress with matching shoes. You could hear her heels clicking against the tile floor as she roamed the hallways looking for errant students. She lived down the road from the school with her two sisters, and just like my sister said, none of them ever married. She ruled the school with an iron fist, and always got her way, until she went toe-to-toe with my mother over school lunches.

Prospect Hill Elementary served the northern part of Simpson County and enrolled about one hundred and twenty students in six classrooms. It was a brick two-story building with a large auditorium and a cafeteria in the basement. The playground had the usual equipment of the day, but also included a softball field and a large open field with some bushes you could hide or play in. After a good rain we sometimes found arrowheads near the fence. For a country boy, it seemed like an oasis of excitement among all the farms.

Miss Rector insisted that all of her students buy lunch at the school cafeteria. To help keep the program afloat, she made sure that everyone got paperwork to enroll in the free lunch program, and looking back, I guess that most of us probably qualified. My mother took one look at the paperwork and promptly ignored it. I was the fourth one to go to school, and so, in order to save money on lunches, we started taking our lunch. That didn’t set too well with Miss Rector, and she was never timid about her position. I was in second grade when the school lunch scuttlebutt transformed from skirmish to all out war.

My mother was very creative when it came to preparing school lunches. She would bake bread in old tin cans so that the slices would be round like hamburger buns and send us with hamburgers cooked the night before. She boiled eggs from our chickens and added them to tuna for tuna-salad sandwiches. She bought pimento cheese by the bucketful. She would whip up a batch of cookies before school in the morning and stuff them into plastic sandwich bags while they were still hot. By lunchtime they had usually morphed into one gigantic cookie blob, but they were still just as tasty. We picked fresh fruit from the orchard down by Granny’s house, and eventually we bought fancy thermoses for homemade soup. I thought our lunches were great, but according to Miss Rector, they were substandard and not suitable for student consumption.

Miss Rector fired the first shot across the bow when she sent home the paperwork for free lunches again. My mother responded by sending back a note, “We can provide for our own.” Not giving up so easily, Miss Rector singled us out and badmouthed our homemade lunches in front of other students, telling everyone that they “stunk up the place.” Undeterred but busy with young kids at home, my mother kept up the attack with brown paper bags full of tuna salad sandwiches. Miss Rector began inspecting our lunches and enticing us with hot meals as we munched on cold pimento cheese. Like any good revolutionary, my mother plucked along trying to win the daily battles. Like any entrenched power, Miss Rector used her position of authority to intimidate and coerce. It was the classic struggle between an unstoppable force and an immovable object.

At last, Miss Rector made a tactical mistake. She sequestered us at a table by ourselves and wouldn’t let us eat with the other students. That converted us from pawns in the battle, to zealous missionaries of the cause. We hunkered down against the persecution, and began to tout our freedom to choose among the other students. One day, another student with a shiny new lunchbox joined us at our table. Then a few days later, another brownbag warrior joined our cause. Soon we had an entire revolutionary army of lunchtime guerrillas fighting beside us at our own special table in the basement of Prospect Hill. Like any good revolution, we won by winning the hearts and minds of the populace and wearing down the better-equipped establishment until she no longer had the stomach for the fight.

I’m sure Miss Rector meant well. She gave her heart and soul to the school, and in addition to being the Principal, she also taught sixth grade. I’m sure she struggled to keep that small country school afloat financially, and that the school lunch revenue was a crucial part of her budget. She was a no-nonsense administrator with a knack for producing good students without many resources. She made a career of making Prospect Hill a successful school. But this time, she picked the wrong fight.

Ironically, my mother’s father was a teacher and principal of a small country school as well. My mother saw firsthand all the challenges that came to someone in Miss Rector’s position. She knew of the battles fought with parents, unruly students, and governments that underfunded and overexpected. She and Miss Rector were more alike than they were different, except on one issue – My mother would have nothing to do with government handouts or free lunch paperwork.

In a letter to Miss Rector, she explained that taking free lunches would set a bad example for us children. How could we learn to be responsible for ourselves when we were accepting help we didn’t truly need? She wanted to teach us that when somebody gets something for nothing, somebody else works for free. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

A few years after the school lunch wars, the county consolidated things. Prospect Hill Elementary was put on the chopping block. They closed it’s doors and gave Miss Rector an early retirement. Today the building is gone along with the playground equipment and the bushes we once played in. Last time I drove by there, it was a cornfield. I wondered if that corn ended up in someone’s school lunch?

I didn't use Miss Rector's real name, but this blog is not meant to disparage her just the same. I have searched for a picture of Prospect Hill School. Anyone with a picture is welcome to post it.