Update from the front

March 01,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

It's been months, I think, since I posted an update about Operation Bento Box. Remember that? I had high hopes for the bento box changing our lives, by changing L.'s eating habits at school. Perhaps those compartments, with their comforting lines and pleasing box-shaped compartments, would be the answer to years of struggles with school-eating, or lack thereof. L. stopped eating lunch at school in first grade. We had some spurts of lunch eating here and there in second grade, then were back to nothing at all through that bad year, the dark days of third grade. At the start of this school year we got him back to eating one small doughnut, which he dutifully consumed for a few weeks, before it started making its way back home again. "Why didn't you eat your doughnut?" I'd ask, my heart sinking at the sight of the unappetizing (by then) brown circle resting at the bottom of one bento box container. He would shrug, make up some excuse. Screw up his face in disgust at the memory of the doughnut. Something had clearly happened to make it fall out of disfavor with him forever. We moved from the doughnut to one mini raisin bagel, but then that, too, started returning home again. The bagel was speedily replaced by two halves of cinnamon waffles and, in a rush of optimism, I began including a second item, a fruit rope. Progress, you can say, has been made--even if it's a strange sort of progress. But it's all in how you define it. Not long ago I ran into one of L.'s teachers in the hallway. "L. doesn't seem to be eating lunch anymore," she told me. I frowned, because his bento box has been coming back empty every day. What was happening with the waffles? As it turned out, L. wasn't bringing any lunchbox into the cafeteria, but merely sitting there, with his friends, while they ate their lunches. On the way home from school that day I asked L. about the missing waffles. "Mrs. N. says you're not eating your lunch," I said, as casually as I could. "What?" He answered crossly. "I'm eating lunch!" "But you're not bringing it into the cafeteria," I said. "I'm eating lunch," he repeated. The next day I found his teacher, and asked her about the bento box/waffle situation. She told me that he is, in fact, eating his lunch while standing at the cubbies on the way to lunch. Apparently he crams the waffles and the fruit rope into his mouth as fast as he can, and then places the bento box back into his cubby--because, he told me, the bento box, as it turns out, has worked too well: it's too nice--too special--to even bring into the cafeteria in the first place. "We can clean it every day," I told him. "We can run it through the hot dishwasher." But in his world, the lines between school and home, and what he values, must be clearly delineated, always, no matter how illogical and tiresome it all becomes--to him, and to us. A few months ago, if someone had given me a crystal ball to look into so I could predict the success of failure of Operation Bento Box, I would have pronounced it all a dismal failure. I might have felt deflated and sad and frustrated that he wasn't carrying his lunch box into the cafeteria, to eat with his friends. Two years ago I might have refused to even accept that eating his food by his cubbies was an acceptable answer to our lunch time problems. But now I see only success. Even if my vision of what I had hoped for when we started up Operation Bento Box doesn't mesh with the image of my son standing by his cubby, eating his way through his waffles and fruit rope as quickly as he can, we have made progress. Small steps, that in our glorious-mind-boggling-frustrating-breath-taking-alternative-universe-type-of-world are big. Huge. He's eating lunch.