I just had a school cafeteria experience

I wasn't going to write about this publicly, and texted a few people about it, but since they haven't responded, I'll write about it here, because walking around is not enough to process the school cafeteria experience that I just had.

I just started teaching somewhere where I probably know a few people...literally. And they're mere coworkers, not friends (unlike at Daley College, where I would say I work with people who[m] I consider work friends, some of whom I've hung out with outside school...but that's for another, shortly-forthcoming post).

So at this new place where I've taught and will teach again in the new year, I assumed going to the holiday event would be enjoyable. I don't know a ton of people, but I figured I'd meet new people or at least see one of the few I know. I walked into a large room with lots of people eating, standing in line, sitting at tables, and I looked around for one of those known people. Nada. I couldn't see them nor any of the people I'd briefly met since I started. So I got some food and looked for an opening at a table to join an already-established group. I approached a table with four chairs, two of which were occupied. I asked the pair if I could sit there, since I don't know anyone. They looked at me quizzically, then muttered an affirmative. I sheepishly sat down and a bright purple light was shining in my direction, and I dared not move the chair to an unlit spot at the table lest those folks thought I was usurping their cloistered coworker space, so I used that as an excuse to say goodbye, and they barely even nodded in acknowledgement.

I looked around the room and didn't see many available spaces, so I sat at an empty table, near someone else who was sitting alone at another table. Being the social person that I am, I thought of asking the person if I could join them, but they looked too engrossed in eating, and I suspected a repeat of what I'd already experienced across the room, so I sat at the empty table alone, at the corner, figuring that people would fill in the seats next to me. People came in and went, looking at me then walking away. As I was looking towards the entrance for the few people I knew, I noticed a few people came to my table, but sat at the opposite end. I figured I wouldn't get the group experience I was expecting (and not to be naive, but I figured since we all worked at the same place and it was a holiday gathering, that concept would spill over into casual interactions among the crowd), so I just ate and texted a few people about my plight. With no responses from the recipients, I finished eating my meal and walked towards the Big Boss of the place and told them (I'm not specifying gender) that I enjoy teaching there and answered their question about what I taught...thus the first conversation I'd had at the event. I didn't want to leave without a bottle of water, so as I was waiting for the bartender to give me one, I saw a person I'd met a while ago, and said hello. I thought we'd talk about the email they'd sent out that I'd responded to, but they quickly ducked behind a partition and instead of risking standing alone once again, I left.

As I was walking through downtown, I thought this is what people mean when they share their school cafeteria experiences: they sit alone, not part of a group, and no one attempts to befriend them or allows them to sit with them. Usually such people are shunned and they feel awful through those difficult years. My difficulty lasted less than an hour, and I feel better now that I've extricated myself away from there, but for those other people, their ostracism lingers.

And what's ironic about my cafeteria experience is that it took place at a school where some people probably grew up as outsiders. I figured since we're all adults, it would be no big deal to be with people I didn't know, but it ended up being an experience a number of them probably had but hadn't processed it enough to reach out to another solitary table-sitter.

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