Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A High School Cafeteria's Complicated Dynamic

There's at least one cafeteria scene in most YA books, which makes sense because many of the more complicated teen social intricacies call the high school cafeteria home. I think it's important for YA writers to remember how important this scene is to teen life - and to remember the complicated dynamic involved. 

I had almost forgotten what the high school cafeteria was like until the other day when I ate in my workplace's cafeteria. (I usually work nights so it's quite different during the day.) At my work, every single employee - from the Big Man to the janitor - eats in the cafeteria. I sat watching them one day and realized how many similarities there are to the high school scene.

One department is made up of mostly good-looking females - these are definitely like the nice popular girls in HS. They have perfect hair and pretty shoes and (almost) everyone wishes they could sit at their table. If someone who "doesn't belong" sits there, they may toss out a polite question or two but then an awkward silence falls over the table until lunch is over.

Then there are the higher-up level managers, like the boys who run the school - except these guys literally run things. They can dress how they want, talk to whomever they want, say what they want. Because what they do defines what is cool for everyone else.

And the mean girls? They're definitely there. Like the ones who cheated off of you in biology but refused to acknowledge your presence outside of the classroom, these chicks will bat their eyelashes and ask for a favor - but in the lunch room? You may as well be one of the uncomfortable chairs.

These are the ones that hurt the most: The ones who used to work/hang out with you; you've joked with them and spent a lot of time together. Then they "moved up." Now they give you a guilty half-smile or nod while they pass right by your table to go sit with one of the groups mentioned above.

And then there's me. The new girl. Again. Sitting alone in the corner. Hoping someone will show some interest, invite me to sit at their table or even ditch their usual group to sit with me.

But they don't.

(And here's the difference between now and High School: I understand why.) Because they're afraid. What if he invites me to sit with his friends and I'm really weird and he'll forever be known as the one who invited that weird girl to sit with them? What if I turn out to be way cooler than her (pssh!) and I become the queen bee of the group?

So when writing about this complicated dynamic, it's important to remember to think about everyone's motivations - even if you don't spell them out for the reader. 

What "table" did you belong to in high school?


  1. This is a great post, Sarah. I totally have a cafeteria showdown in Sweet Evil, haha!
    Looking back, at my school the cafeteria mostly divided into races. Sad, I know. It's weird because everyone got along, but when it came to lunch time there was that natural segregation, and it could also have been classified by neighborhoods/Socioeconomic Status. And within the races were groups: athletes, partiers, "smart" kids, mean kids, etc.
    I sat with the other cheerleaders, and the baseball players. (Yes, I was a cheerleader! And I take offense to all the slutty/bitchy stereotypes, LOL) Even among cheerleaders there's a breakdown of smart girls, sweet girls, mean girls, party girls, etc. There's no escaping the drama, is there?

  2. well, it depends on which school I'm talking about (I went to two HSs), but in my 2nd high school I crossed the boundaries. I was captain of the volleyball and basketball team, but I was also Valedictorian and 1st chair clarinet. I was probably most at home with the 'nerds' but the popular kids invited me to their parties. The only group that never accepted me were the popular Filipina girls (in addition to the regular cliques, we had Filipino Popular and Filipino Nerd). Yeah, I was all over the place but it was a DoD school in Guam so it wasn't exactly normal to start with.

  3. I actually experienced this much for myself at an off-site work meeting a few months back, but I think at work there is also an element of comfort (at least for me). When you're with a group 9-5, they have a scope of understanding for your job, your challenges, and you have greater freedom to speak openly about your feelings and thoughts. I have 3-4 co-workers who I can really talk to, so if I sit with others I have to keep it polite and professional always, and sometimes its just not what I need...

    ...though it still feels exclusive, especially to this girl who alternated between the chess and drama club tables in HS, even though I was a part of neither.

  4. At my schools in Australia we don't have cafeteria's like in the US. We have tuckshops where you can buy food, though mainly you bring your own. We eat outside.

    But the theory still applies, where you get to eat and who you got to eat with still went a long way in labeling kids at school.

  5. I doubt you would call me one of the cool kids in high school- unless you were friends with me, I KNOW I was seen as awkward and quiet (and maybe smart; depended on the class and year). But I sat at the same table for most of high school and there was a revolving door of people that sat around me, and not just because of relationships forming and breaking up. I like to think it was the 'fun' table :P

  6. This is, thank God, something I never had to deal with. At my high school, we did have a cafeteria and some people ate in there, but we were allowed to sit anywhere on campus. So there was pretty much wide spaces between any given group.

    We had the ROTC people who sat by... well, the ROTC room. We had a hill by the main office where the Mormon group sat. (I'm serious. And I never really got why.) Some people ate in the cafeteria, some of the really shy/introverted people would eat by themselves in a classroom.

    I never really had a 'set' group of friends, LOL. So I kind of migrated from one group to another depending on who I felt like hanging around with.

  7. Great post. There were definitely designated tables in the cafeteria at my high school. And everyone was either scared to break those dynamics and become an outcast, or they honestly just didn't care about anyone outside of their 'group.' Which is so sad lol.

  8. Great post! Thankfully, I've been homeschooled since third grade so I don't have to worry about that. xD

  9. Interesting post. Now that I have my own kids, I "get" to see these dynamics on a daily basis. For the younger ones, the playground is where the social hierarchy is most evident.

    I graduated from high school with a class of only 89 kids, so we pretty much sat wherever and with whomever. But if pressed, I was a cross between a nerd and pom girl -- a lethal combo ;)

  10. Open campus. We spent lunch time driving 80 miles an hour to Taco Bell so we could make it in time for 5th period. Until we all had fifth period Chemistry. Then we just skipped...

  11. Oh my first high school was entirely different. There were 50 people, first of all. That's for the school, not for my class. So cliques were weird. And everybody had known each other since the womb. And most people went home for lunch, but you still saw this kind of dynamic in front of the school before the bell rang...