My Life in Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches


I am 7. My mother, standing in the dim-morning light that’s streaming in from the kitchen window, smears the last blob of peanut butter on my sandwich as I walk in. She slaps the two pieces of bread together, haphazardly shoves the smooshed sandwich in the Ziploc bag & crams it into the paper sack on which she’s written my name in her beautiful Palmer-method penmanship.

I am 8 and it’s a school day. My sister and I get half an hour to eat our cereal on our TV trays in the living room before having to get dressed, brush our teeth, comb our hair and walk to the bus stop. My mom comes in and turns on “The Bozo Show” and tells us our sack lunches are on the cabinet. She busies around us, cleaning up the living room, telling us what’s on the agenda for the day, and stopping to watch a few silly moments of Bozo and Cookie the clown play “The Bucket Game” with one of the kids from the audience.

After going through our morning routine, my sister and I grab our book bags and shove our lunch sacks inside. We say goodbye to our mom who is cleaning up the kitchen, and she smiles and jokingly tells us, “Have a rotten day!” We step out into the gray, cool morning and as we walk to the bus stop, I already feel a longing for home. Shirley, our bus driver, greets each of us as we climb into the foreboding yellow bus and make our way into the vinyl green seats that are too big for us. We catch a glimpse of her looking in the mirror to make sure we’re all seated, and if someone isn’t, she’ll yell, “Sit down back there!” before closing the door. The bus shakes and lurches to a slow start, and then we all lean and slide into each other as she turns the corners.

I am 9 and sitting in the school’s cafeteria. I open my sack lunch and find a mashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich sealed in the plastic Ziploc bag. Broken chips in another Ziploc are crammed near it, a bruised apple and some leftover Halloween candy are inside as well. The kids sitting around me have a similar lunch and we trade bruised apples for browning bananas, Laffy Taffy for an Oreo or two.

In Miss Mathis’s homeroom, I create a code language with my friend Lindsey so we can write mean things about Miss Mathis and her mole. I get caught “doodling” and as my punishment, I am sent to the back of the classroom to sit in a desk with a divider around it so I can’t see the board or anyone else for the remainder of the day. I fall asleep in the classroom and Miss Mathis doesn’t wake me up until the end of the school day. Shirley and her big yellow bus have come and gone and my mother is standing in the office waiting for me. In the car, I search my book bag for my code sheet and write down how nasty Miss Mathis is and that I hope her mole rots off her face.

I am 10 and I make the transition to the junior high school, leaving my kid sister behind at the small elementary school that was our safe haven. I search for a seat in the bigger cafeteria avoiding the bully and her friends, and plop down next to some other nerds who are doing the same thing. We open our sack lunches, and this time we don’t make any trades. Instead we start destroying each other’s myths about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and brag about how tight our braces are on our teeth and which girl’s breasts are developing too quickly for her gangly body.

photo 3My teacher, Mr. Walkup, is a god and I want to start working hard at school. I diagram sentences with precision and draw my human eye for science class and complete it with red arteries and blue veins in hope that Mr. Walkup will give me the praise and attention I’m craving. He treats all kids kindly and fairly and sits me next to the smelly, fat boy who farts all the time. I stay after class and ask to be moved, and he tells me that I have a big heart and knows that I will be kind and not make fun of this boy. I silently pledge my allegiance to Mr. W and leave the room feeling like I am a chosen one. Even when Tattle-Tale Tracy narks on me and two other kids for shooting spit wads on the way to recess, I know I’m not in that big of a trouble when I see Mr. Walkup stifling a laugh as he sends me and Cry-Baby Kevin to the principal’s office.

I am 12 and I’ve just started my period while at school. I am too embarrassed to tell anyone, and am also in a bit of denial as well. Just the year before my mother bought me my first training bra and I cried in the mirror as I looked at my “over the shoulder boulder holder” fitting snugly around my chest. Today, a friend next to me at lunch says something or someone smells like dried milk. I know it’s me and I know it’s my period, but I eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chug my chocolate milk and add in my two cents about the smell. We say that whoever it is really needs to take a shower and buy some deodorant. Tears start to well up in my eyes, and I shove the last of my Lays potato chips in my mouth and mumble that I’m going to go and throw away my lunch. I dart into the bathroom and layer my underwear with new toilet paper, hoping that will get rid of the smell. I dry my tears and go back to my group’s table, and Jenny is still moaning about the smell. I mention that maybe someone spilled milk last lunch period and we should move to another table.

Thankfully, the bell rings and it’s time to go back to class. I lie to my teacher and tell him I have a headache and feel dizzy. I get to lie down in the nurse’s office until my grandpa comes and picks me up. When I’m in his car, I tell him what happened. He takes me home, gives me some aspirin, gets out the heating pad, and tells me my mom probably has something in the bathroom for girl stuff. He turns on a Cubs game and smiles at me when I come back in the living room. He asks me if I want pancakes or something to eat. I kiss him on the cheek and start to cry. He makes me pancakes.

I’m 14 and in the 9th grade. It’s not cool any more to bring a sack lunch, so I stand in line with my friends to get a hot lunch of pizza, corn, applesauce and chocolate milk. I stare out at the tables and see the cute boys in their lettermen jackets. I hope one of them will notice me, even though I still have braces and my elbows and knees jut out from my arms and legs like a bony bird that is learning to 4

I walk past some of the thugs buying Mentos from the candy machine and scan the small cafeteria, knowing that whom I sit with determines my lot in life for the next 4 years. I choose the band geeks and the girls on the flag squad. It’s true what they say about band kids being horny toads and I spend the next four years listening to who they make out with at band camp and how Amber and Derreck are “doing it” all the time, even when her parents are home.

I still am a virgin and my first kiss is elusive. I come close to letting Brett kiss me at the Hardee’s by the high school, but I get scared because I know he has a girlfriend and I don’t want to be “played”. Plus, I’m still dreaming about one of last year’s upper classmen in his letterman’s jacket and hoping to God he’ll notice me when he is back home from college. Until then, I develop crushes on boys I work with at the local Rural King – a farmer supply store. The boys’ way of showing their crushes is by chasing us girls around the store with cattle prods or showing off who can hold their entire tongues on the deer licks the longest.

photo 2Mrs. Stevenson, my freshman English teacher, is also my next-door neighbor. I see her out in her tank top and shorts in the summer time, weeding her flowerbeds or talking to other neighbors. It’s strange to see her being so normal and I can’t completely erase the image of this classy lady standing in front of our class, wearing her sophisticated dresses, holding her sharpened pencil and reading so eloquently from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet or telling us how to pronounce the word “err” to sound like “her” when using the Shakesperean phrase “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” Can I forgive her this human informality in the summertime when she is on her knees pulling weeds or laughing at my mother’s jokes as they stand on the sidewalk talking to one another?

photo 1Mr. Hawkins, my junior and senior English teacher, is my hero and mentor. He bounces up and down on the balls of his feet the more excited he gets reading Thoreau’s and Emerson’s words. No question or statement is too dumb or off-the-wall in his class regarding literature, as long as you can back up your ideas from the text we’re reading. King Arthur’s court comes alive when reading L’Morte d’Arthur and tears well up as we listen to him read the last few paragraphs of Of Mice & Men. Tom Joad, in Grapes of Wrath, is our hero too and we silently sing his ballad like Springsteen does and we swear that we’ll never treat a poor human being with disrespect or contempt again. We marvel at the theatrics as he stands on a desk and acts out a scene from a Greek tragedy. We read out loud willingly, write poetry excitedly, read quietly and discuss emphatically.

I’m in college now, and I’ve declared my major in English with a minor in Spanish. Composition class is right before my lunch break. I flirt with Jim, the football player who talks me into reading (and sometimes writing) his short paragraphs for our daily journals. We then say our goodbyes and I walk towards my dorm in hopes that one day Jim will ask me out on a date. Inside the once modern 1960s style cafeteria, I search for my friends. I see them gathered around a table and I wave at them as I pick up my tray. Gone are the days of sack lunches and smooshed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I am no longer bringing a sack lunch nor am I eating as many Ramen noodles as is rumored a college student does. Instead, I substitute my homemade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the dorm’s hot lunches of hamburgers, turkey, roast beef or tuna fish salad sandwiches.   Yet, I always have a side of chips and a Coca-Cola or a Dr. Pepper to wash it all down. Comfort food for this naïve college student is necessary to help me ride out the storm of confusion and chaos when it comes to boys, friends, roommates, frat parties, beer and music choice that will determine how well I have faired in the college experience.

Boyfriends have come in and out of my life and broken my heart or I theirs. I struggle to figure out who I am without that “special someone” I’ve been searching for all my adult life. I decide that I should begin that search so I take on the world and travel. In Mexico I eat taquitos dipped in salsa verde and drink a Coca-Cola while sitting in a small family restaurant with my host parents. In Spain, I eat a bocadillo with a bag of Lay’s potato chips and drink a Fanta orange soda while sitting at a tapas bar with friends I just met. In Italy, I eat a pizza all by myself and wash it down with Coca-Cola while the waiter claps and says “Bravisima!” as I finish my last bite. In Ireland, I eat a chicken sandwich, a bag of Lay’s potato chips and a Sprite while sitting at a picnic table by the ocean. I come home to my empty house and read a book as I sit at my small kitchen table eating a toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chips, a piece of fruit, sipping my water and thinking of the next place I’ll travel and what adventures I’ll find there.

My career is in full swing. I’m on the other side of the desk now, and have my own classroom in which I teach composition and literature. I stand at the front of my classroom, slightly knock-kneed and a little nervous knowing that what I say and what I do and what I wear matter. I stay up late and wake up early to work on lesson plans, read essays, and analyze texts.   My back aches from standing everyday. My shoulders are tight from working on a computer at intervals. My eyes refocus a little more slowly now when I look up from the computer to the LCD screen and back at my students. I’ve already called a parent about her son’s misbehavior, taken away two cell phones, written up three dress code referrals and reprimanded a student for his foul language to a girl. I look at the clock and I have five more hours to go. Maybe I’ll get lucky today at some point to passionately discuss The Great Gatsby as Mr. Hawkins once did with us. The bell rings, sounding my lunch break. In the English office, my colleagues and I tell funny, frustrating, sad or stupid stories about our students, the administration, parents and sometimes each other. I open up my fancy lunch bag and pull out a smashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chips, a piece of fruit and my water. I smile and look down and realize that all my life, in some way, shape or form, I’ve brought a piece of home with me.imgres-1