After twenty years my husband knows better than to ask me where I dine when I’m traveling solo. I eat take-out in my hotel room or in a vacant conference room. I do not eat in public places alone. I don’t even like spending time in coffee shops alone, though I can manage for brief periods as long as I know a friend will be joining me shortly. This phobia can probably be traced back to my sophomore year in high school. My closest friends ate during a different lunch period, and my only lunch buddy developed an eating disorder. When she fasted, my choices were fasting too or eating alone in a cafeteria packed with six hundred kids. For me, eating alone was the scarlet letter of social failure. Never again, I swore.
Last week I was facilitating the support group for parents of “diverse learners” at Sam’s school, and every parent save one admitted that his or her child eats in the hallway. Alone. First one parent hesitantly confessed, and then more and more people chimed in. I was astonished, because fewer than half the parents identify their children on the spectrum. Several children suffer from social anxiety, some from AD/HD, a couple from physical disabilities severe enough to discombobulate their peers, one from bipolar disorder . . . Every one of these children eats alone.
One parent wondered if we could gather the kids together; help them find each other. Good idea, yes? The parents all thought so, and I went home with plans to contact the assistant principal for help identifying a room.
The AP did not share my enthusiasm. What about the kids, she wondered? Perhaps they want the downtime to regroup. Perhaps they have nothing in common. Perhaps they are FINE. Fine had never occurred to me.
I asked Sam if she would prefer to continue eating in the hall, or if she would prefer to eat in a quiet room with a small group of kids. She prefers the hallway and her own silence.
I am not saying that all of the other students are content with this setup. Such an assertion would be presumptuous. I am saying, though, that we are presumptuous in assuming we have a problem. For some of these students, perhaps it is. For others, no. I have trouble imagining that anyone would choose to eat alone, publicly, but this is my issue. Maybe the same holds for some of the other parents. Before creating a solution, I am reminded once again, we need to ask the students if they want one.