Thursday, February 03, 2005

We've Come a Long Way, Baby

The other day I was talking with a couple of the kids that I tutor, and the subject of lunch money came up. At least, when I was in K-12, we would have called it "lunch money." Each week we were given lunch money with which we would buy our lunch ticket. Evidently, things are a lot more sophisticated now. Not that kids aren't still given lunch money, but instead of buying a lunch ticket, they give their money to whomever (lunchroom teacher? cafeteria worker? It wasn't clear to me) and then the money is deposited into individual student accounts. To purchase lunch, the student enters his PIN and the amount of his purchase is deducted from his account. I suppose that in some respects it's more convenient than lunch tickets (nothing to lose, and other kids can't horse around and take it from you), but somehow I have trouble imagining a 1st grader actually remembering his PIN from one lunch to the next. A 1st grader is hardly likely to remember to tie his shoes or zip his fly, let alone recall a four-digit number, or however long it might happen to be.

Okay, time for a little trip down memory lane. (Those of you too young to remember, please quietly shake your heads in disbelief if you must, or at least keep your snickers to yourself.)

When I was in grade school, we had the responsibility to purchase a milk ticket (which were blue) or hot lunch ticket (which were pink) at the beginning of the week. It seems to me that milk was 2 or 3 cents per carton (a half-pint), which translated to 10 - 15 cents per week. (I haven't the foggiest idea how much a hot lunch cost; I always brought my own lunch because I had heard rumors that if you bought hot lunch, the lunchroom teacher* would make you eat at least three bites of everything on your plate, and there was no way I was going to survive having to sample spinach or something equally unappetizing.) When it was lunch time, you'd wait in line for your milk (or hot lunch, if you were brave) and the teacher would punch a hole on the appropriate day as you picked up your carton. Initially, in 1st grade I brought my own milk in a thermos along with my lunch; after being unlucky enough to drop my thermos and have the glass tube shatter, I opted for the convenience of buying milk at school.

In high school, we had graduated to a ticketless system; i.e., everything was strictly cash. By now I had outgrown my fear of school hot lunches, so I broadened my menu to include hamburgers, hot dogs, spaghetti, soft pretzels, and pizza. I drew the line, however, at pizza bread; it just seemed like an ersatz replacement for the real deal.

By the time I got to university, the system was far enough behind that we were still using the meal ticket system. Of course, there were other signs & symbols of antiquity: rotary phones in the dorms, punch cards and arena scheduling, students who were lucky enough to bring a computer to school used a TV monitor instead of a CRT - PC's were essentially non-existent and were called "microcomputers" at any rate, connecting to the school computer involved dialing up on the phone and slamming the receiver down into the rubber cups on the modem once you heard the high-pitched computer tone, email was limited to sending to other students who had an account with the university's computer department. Oh, and Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were in...

Ancient stuff? Actually, not that long ago...

*Rumor or not, this seemed plausible to me, because the lunchroom teacher happened to be my 1st grade teacher as well, so I not only knew of her reputation, I had seen it with my own eyes. Not that I was a recipient of her disciplinary ministrations, but I had witnessed it plenty of times with my classmates. I remember one kid who had transgressed in some way; my 1st grade teacher grabbed him by his earlobe and hauled him off to administer justice. Harsh? Maybe, but I can tell you that we didn't have metal detectors in schools, nor did we ever worry about school shootings or other crazy stuff. If only they could clone Mrs. Gable and install her as a 1st grade teacher across the nation, I bet there'd be far less violence happening in the schools, and reading scores would rise...

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