While I have fond childhood memories of the school canteen, I’ve come to realise that it is not so much fun being on the other side of the counter.
My mum always did canteen. Once a month, there she’d be, dispensing sausage rolls with tomato sauce, Vegemite crusts (2c), and bags of mixed lollies (20c) in which there were always too many jellybeans and not enough cobbers.
Of course, this was in the days before the healthy canteen policy. Before the sight of a blue ice block in the freezer would cause earnest debate and before a canteen mum had to know as much about ‘traffic lights’ as she did about buttering sandwiches.
I used to love seeing mum at canteen. I’d stand at the back of the line, waving madly, and then waving madly again, just in case she missed me the first time. I’d be feeling important because I’d have a couple of friends with me, also grinning like loons. We’d step to the front of the line, no money in hand, secure in the knowledge that she’d shout us a Sunnyboy each or a packet of chips to share.
And yet, I’m not a ‘canteen lady’ myself. No heady rush of preparing for the recess onslaught, no indrawn breath as the lunchtime bell goes and the hordes begin to descend.
When my oldest son, now eight, first started school, I signed up for everything. Reading, P&C, cross country marshall, sausage sizzle sizzler. I dug gardens, manned book stalls, sold raffle tickets, gift-wrapped baskets, put up posters, supervised excursions and even helped to dismantle the fete.
I tried a bit of everything, even canteen (once), and soon discovered that I was good at reading, P&C and manning bookstalls. For everything else, I was just making up the numbers. So I looked further into my skill set and worked out where I was most useful. Now I write grant applications and promotional stories for the local paper, run a lunchtime writing group, do the reading and continue to man the bookstall (mostly so I can have first choice of books).
You’ll notice there’s no mention of canteen there. I have a guilty secret – I’m just not that into it. All those eager faces, jostling for position. Buttering endless sandwiches. Breaking the Kindy kid’s heart by telling him his 10c won’t buy him what he wants.
It was a lot more fun when I was on the other side of the counter.
Am I depriving my children of the same thrill my mum gave me? Probably. But I think the key to getting involved at school is to play to your strengths. You don’t want to be the one who does everything (I think I suffered burnout after that first year), but neither do you want to be the one who leaves everything to that mythical creature ‘someone else’.
Strike a balance. Do what you’re good at. That’s my excuse anyway.