Mark LaFlamme and Auburn Middle School kitchen manager Cindy Baril dish out hot dogs and chicken wings to hungry middle school kids.

For a few unsettling moments, I was afraid the girl with the wide brown eyes was going to start a revolt.

She was halfway through the lunch line when she stopped abruptly. Her eyes went big and she gripped her tray so tight, it shook.

I braced for a mutiny — a “Lord of the Flies”-style uprising with a few hundred hungry teenagers on one side and just us nine lunch ladies to hold down the fort.

But the wide-eyed girl wasn’t planning revolution, she was only interested in amending her lunch order.

“Please,” she implored us. “May I put my pizza back so I can have some of the chicken wings, instead?”

As it turned out, the chicken wings were freebies that day at the Auburn Middle School. As crazy as it sounds, one could have wings with their pizza for lunch and no additional cost would be incurred.

And with that happy news, peace was restored to the lunch line. I had survived the first wave of kids.

Bing, Bang, Boom!

I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly. A surly group of old ladies with smoker’s coughs and chronic snarls, perhaps. An unhappy lot of bitter crones, angrily stirring grotesque stews while complaining about lazy husbands and ungrateful kids.

In the AMS kitchen, the eight friendly ladies on the lunch staff are about as far from those old stereotypes as they could get. With something like 160 years of experience between them, these are women who don’t just serve the kids day in and day out, they do it with songs on their lips.

“We all enjoy coming to work,” says Cindy Baril, kitchen manager who alone has 31 years at AMS. “We just click. I think that’s why everything goes so smoothly.”

“It’s a great job,” says Carol Bilodeau, another member of the 31-year club. “We have a great time together. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love it.”

Within five minutes of my arrival at the AMS kitchen to be a lunch lady for the day — as uneasy as any new kid in a strange school —  I deduced that my fears and preconceptions were far off the mark.

In the AMS kitchen, an hour before lunch, there’s jaunty music playing in the background. There’s clanging and banging, and chopping and slicing, but there’s also an almost non-stop stream of laughter. Not the perfunctory kind of laughter, either. These ladies are cracking each other up.

Which isn’t to say they aren’t focused. The workers buzz too and fro so quickly and so efficiently, I’ve given up all ideas of trying to pitch in. For the most part, I stay out of the way and watch them work like the high-performance machine they are.

“We don’t have to talk about anything,” Baril says. “Everybody just knows where they need to be.”

“Love it! Love it!” says Paula Michaud, an 18-year veteran of the kitchen. “At some schools, it moves at a much slower pace. Over here, it’s just bing, bang, boom! We’re rolling.”

And they ARE rolling. It’s not even 10 a.m., but everything has already been prepared for the first lunchtime wave, which will begin at 11:05. With all of that under control, most of the workers are either cleaning up or wrapping lunches to be delivered to four other schools, including East Auburn Community, which is on a field day.

With all the satellite schools factored in, between 700 and 800 meals will be served today, with great pains taken to provide gluten-free food or lactose-free milk to those kids who require it.

“That’s kind of new for us,” Cindy says.

Plus vegetables and fruits, which the students are required to have on their trays. The lunch ladies are as conscientious about these things as they are about making food that’s actually savory.

And why wouldn’t they care? Every one of the women working in the kitchen is a parent. Some of them have children or grandchildren in this very school. If the food isn’t good, they’re going to hear about it.

“The kids come up to us all the time and tell us we have the best food,” Cindy says. “They like the choices they get.”

I sincerely hope she’s right about that – by my watch, it’s less than an hour until lunchtime and I’m about to be thrown into the line to face the pubescent hordes of starving kids.

Whatever happened to square pizza?

Minutes before the first tsunami of kids rumbles to the cafeteria, the lunch ladies are in action. They’re taking food out of coolers and ovens and arranging it strategically at the food bar.

In the kitchen, Krystyna Urban, yet another 31-year-veteran, is fretting over the chicken wings.

“I meant to put ginger in there,” she grumbles. “Oh, well. They’ll still be good.”

The pizza is not the bland squares I remember from back in the day at Waterville Junior High. This is Big Daddy pizza, popular with both students and staff. It’s offered, not once a week, like we had it back in those hard times, but three or four times weekly.

What’s more, there are also hot dogs on today’s menu, a collision of awesome choices that would have bowled me over as a kid. Hot dogs or pizza? Better still, hot dogs AND pizza? Plus bonus chicken wings?

Also news to me: Kids these days are allowed to “super-size” their meals. But it’s not a predictable business, the ladies tell me. A kid who ordered a salad yesterday might come in today with a roaring, super-sized appetite.

Urban is mulling this very thing as she sets out the pizza slices and wings.

“We don’t know how many kids are going to want them,” she muses, “so I have to guess. We’ll have to wait and see what they go for. I could end up with 10 extra super-sized meals. You just don’t know.”

Dear God! I thought, as Cindy handed me a hairnet. If the kids come in a super-size mood and the food runs low, there will be carnage! Bedlam! After all the years of chasing criminals around in downtown Lewiston, I might die in a junior high cafeteria.

The worry is needless. With their done-it-all, seen-it-all experience, the lunch ladies at AMS are prepared for anything.

“We always have a Plan B,” Cindy assures me. “Always.”

And with that, it was lunch time. I swear, I could feel the walls rumbling as the first wave of kids marched toward the kitchen to feed. Big kids and small kids. Cool kids and smart kids. Loud kids and quiet kids. Kids of all shapes, sizes and temperaments, and every one of them hungry.

“For kids this age,” kitchen worker Sue Canuel observes, “it’s such a transition period.”

True that. Standing amid them, I behold fresh-faced children who look like they were barely old enough to cross the street by themselves, and next to them, bigger, harder faces that already require shaving. These kinds of juxtapositions are all over the place, but the one constant is the appetites.

Once it forms at the food bar, the line moves fast. There’s not a lot of preamble. The kids seem to struggle with the whole pizza vs. hot dog conundrum, but they don’t dawdle.

Cindy has me working the chicken wings station, which was fine by me — since I was the guy offering the free, bonus grub, maybe the kids would go easy on me.

Weirdly, they did.

“Would you like some chicken?” I asked the first boy to appear on the other side of the food bar.

“Yes,” he said. “Teriyaki, please.”

I used the tongs to hand them over.

“Thank you,” the boy said, and moved along.

Next, an athletic girl in a tank top appeared, eyeing the chicken with laser intensity. She was silently counting calories, perhaps, or just marveling over the wonder of having wings with pizza.

“Hot wings,” she said. “Please.”

I tonged them over.

“Thank you,” the girl said, and was on her way.

I leaned over and whispered to Cindy.

“Please?” I said. “Thank you? Is something wrong with these children?”

It’s not that I expected kids of this age to be grunting, burping, impolite savages. Mostly I had anticipated indifference with maybe a side order of slapstick.

“We do have a few wise guys,” Cindy said. “For the most part, though, they’re very well behaved.”

I saw some weird things in the lunch line — a kid who weighed about 80 pounds going off to eat four hot dogs, for instance — but I think what amazed me the most was how polite the students were. Let’s face it: Early teens is not the most polite age. Bodies are growing; boundaries are being tested; hormones are flying like riled hornets. Yet in the midst of all that, four out of five kids at AMS said “please” and “thank you” like it had become a way of life.

Had there been no exception at all to this, I would have worried that there was something in the water at AMS. But no. This was, after all, hot dog day, and the first wiener joke was uttered just five minutes in. It was delivered by a slight, bespectacled lad and thank God for him — if hot dog day had passed without a single crudity, I would have lost faith in that young generation.

The permanent record

Some things about the school lunch scene were very familiar. Friends who insist on eating the same meals, for instance. Boys goggling at girls and girls pretending not to care. The banter, the rivalries, the flirtations. All of that appeared to be the same as it was years ago when I was on the other side of the lunch line.

But along with gluten-free meals and mandatory vegetables, other things stood out. The payment system, for instance: These days, kids don’t pay for their chow with cash rolled up in handkerchiefs or stashed in their sneakers.

It’s a cashless system, automated through a computer into which the kids simply enter their PIN numbers. The cost of their meal is deducted from their lunch fund and everything they have on their tray is logged.

“The parents can keep track that way of what their kids are eating,” says Cindy.

At the end of the day, the lunch totals are printed out and added to the permanent record. The computer tracks how much of each food item was consumed and how much was spent by each individual kid.

“I used to have to write all this up by hand,” says Cindy.

Cleanup is still cleanup, with soaps suds swishing and pots and pans clanging. But there’s a bit of automation there, too, thanks to a conveyor-fed steam machine that brings in grimy pans and trays on one end and shoots them out sparkling and steaming on the other.

The kitchen staff cleans with the same smooth efficiency as they prepare the meals. In a way, with all those years of experience and with all the chemistry between them, they are automated, too.

Paula Rouillard, director of the Auburn School Department nutrition program, stands back, smiling, and watches them work. Like me, she stays out of their way, perhaps fearful of getting swept up in that tornado of efficiency. She uses familiar terms to describe the staff and their work in the kitchen. It’s organized chaos, Rouillard says. A well-oiled machine.

“Their commitment to our students,” Rouillard says, “goes above and beyond.”

Within minutes of the last student filing out of the cafeteria, the lunch ladies are pretty much done with their day. Cleanup is finished and all is set to go for the following day. It’s barely noon and the crew is on the way out, having provided nearly a thousand meals to city kids.

Me, I’m out of there, too. Back in the real world, I feel like a better and wiser man for having rolled with the lunch ladies, if only for a few hours. And apparently others see it, too, because wherever I go, people seem to be looking at me with wonder.

Respect? Admiration? Awe?

Not so much.

Turns out I had forgotten to remove the hairnet.

Mark LaFlamme and Auburn Middle School kitchen manager Cindy Baril wait eagerly for the next wave of students to come get lunch.

Everything I needed to know I learned at the lunch table

At Auburn Middle School, if one really wants to understand the nature of the lunch staff, one must dine with them.

Before the school cafeteria fills with hungry kids, the lunch ladies crowd around a single table to eat hasty meals. For an outsider, it’s like sitting in for chow with the cast of “Orange is the New Black,” only without the sordid criminal histories.

Most of the eight women are already laughing before they are all the way in their chairs. This is usually the way it goes.

“There are days when we leave the table just crying, we’re laughing so hard,” says kitchen manager Cindy Baril.

Today, as usual, Paula Michaud has said something to crack them up before lunch has even started.

“Tell the Hannaford story!” one of the ladies demands.

Paula, a small, energetic woman, offers a show of deference, but then relents and tells a story about how she thought the “no candy in this line” sign at Hannaford meant she wasn’t allowed to pay for candy there — with a store full of people watching, Michaud had refused to go into that line even as the clerk beckoned her.

“And there was no rock for me to hide under,” Paula says.

The lunch ladies crack up, even though they’ve heard this story many times over. And after that, Paula launches into a tale about the time she went to Roy’s Hamburgers for dinner only to be mistakenly offered a job.

“I ordered a cheeseburger and fries and sat down,” Paula explains. “Then the manager came out and said, ‘Follow me, please.’ I said, ‘Oh, OK,’ so I followed him into the kitchen.”

Uproarious laughter around trays of pizza, salad and chicken wings.

That story was followed by another about Paula’s misadventures working in the Walmart craft department, where she didn’t know how to measure things and had no idea what a dowel was.

Shrieks of laughter. Table pounding. Dean of Students Kevin Shaw wanders by, shakes his head a little and keeps moving. It’s as raucous in the school cafeteria now as it will be when there are 100 junior high kids packing the tables.

“Oh, this is nothing,” Paula says. “You should see us some days.”

They won’t lie to you, these lunch ladies. They may be occasionally crude at their lunch table and they’re not above a bit of gossip now and then.

Let’s face it: The school lunch department is a field dominated by women, although that is not to say that it’s impossible for a man to fit in. There was a fellow who worked the lunch program at Park Avenue Elementary a few years ago who was very well liked.

“He was really good,” AMS lunch lady Carol Bilodeau says. “Great, actually.”

A grizzled ex-con who came to work at AMS 20 years ago, though? Not so much. He was creepy, the women say, and his hygiene was not the best.

“It was awful,” Bilodeau says. “He didn’t make us feel comfortable. He really shouldn’t have been here.”

She and Cindy laugh heartily at some private memory.

“He wasn’t here for long,” Bilodeau says.

With 160 years of experience, the lunch staff at AMS have so many stories, it would be impossible for them to tell even a fraction of them in the short span of their lunch break.

In spite of the merriment, the staff doesn’t dawdle over their lunch. They finish quickly, swiftly clean up and return to the kitchen to await the mad rush of hungry students. Their break is over and now the lunch ladies are all business again.

Mostly business, anyway — laughter continues to echo from all corners of the kitchen even with the work underway.

Chicken wings were a very popular dish at the Auburn Middle School when writer Mark LaFlamme helped out for the day.

Chicken wings were a very popular dish at the Auburn Middle School when writer Mark LaFlamme helped out for the day.

Many thank-you notes are hung on the wall of the cafeteria from students to the “lunch ladies” at the Auburn Middle School, including one singing the praises of the chocolate pudding.

Mark LaFlamme sports a hairnet for his shift at the Auburn Middle School cafeteria.

Mark LaFlamme sports a hairnet for his shift at the Auburn Middle School cafeteria.

Grapes and oranges are available for students to supplement their lunches at the Auburn Middle School.

Grapes and oranges are available for students to supplement their lunches at the Auburn Middle School.

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