I spent Friday noontime with a group of other parents working in our children’s school cafeteria wiping down tables and sweeping – a one-day volunteer gig to give the teachers and staff a reprieve. It’s a job everyone – parents and non-parents alike – should do at least once. The working with kids part is great: The little ones stop to engage you in discussion about their favorite vegetables (“pickles”) and want to know whose parents you are (“Tobey likes to dance!”). The older ones disregard you so totally that you can watch them like the semi-wild animals they are, observing the pecking order and finally hearing snippets of the conversations that no one reports at home. You also see the food waste. In our school of 300+ kids this culminates in two industrial sized garbage cans worth of plastic bags, granola bar wrappers, half-eaten apple, and mashed potatoes, in addition to a large bucket in which the kids pour their leftover milk – a pond of liquid chocolate.
But I got one other thing from Friday’s hourlong job – a reminder of how life’s discomforts, irritations, and pains begin and will eventually end. One little boy raised his hand and waited for someone to respond. Most kids had a ketchup packet that needed opening or a recalitrant banana peel, the fruit growing mushy under their increased pressure. This boy, though, had an apple in one hand and the other on his forehead, as though he had a migraine. He looked miserable. “I have a piece of apple stuck between my teeth,” he told me, Eyeore like. He opened his mouth and I peered in but couldn’t see the skin. Still, I knew the feeling.
“You’ll just have to wait for it to work its way out,” I told him. The look on his face was one not just of disappointment but of a tiny recognition. He seemed fleetingly to get that this kind of discomfort was not something a parent or teacher could erase. Rather, it was the tip of the iceberg of all sorts of little aches and pains, not to mention emotional bumps and bruises. “You’ll just have to wait for it to work its way out,” will be applied again and again for this kindergartner – as well as to my friend starting down the road of divorce, to my son whose team lost two games in the soccer tournament, to a friend whose business is flailing. That little invisible, wedged piece of apple is a starting place – a reminder that it all works its way through. It always changes. Every down has an up.
I don’t know who the apple kid was – he didn’t ask me any questions or offer me anything beside his quandary – but I thank him for the reminder that discomforts of all sizes have a life cycle. All you can do is keeping taking a bite and enjoy the sweet ones.