I did two years as a lunch lady at my kids' school, partly for the reason you mention! We live off my husband's income, and the money barely made a difference, but I felt like I needed to do more than be home all day while my kids were at school.
Two years were all I could take, but I did get some good stories. Nobody works or parties harder than lunch ladies!
As you might imagine, I did not enjoy being a child. I hated being told what to do (still do). I hated having to get up early (still do.) I was relentlessly competitive and the first B I ever got made me mad (yup, still mad!)
And of course, I got in trouble for talking out of turn a LOT. And for being bossy (which was what they called girls who demonstrated leadership skills back in the day.)
I made more than a few trips to the principal's office for a scolding.
But sometimes, after those scoldings, when the whole day seemed bleak, I'd come out of the office into the hall by the school lunchroom. There, I'd be enfolded in the most delicious smell. The lunch ladies were baking chocolate chip cookies. Knowing there would be a warm cookie at lunch perked me right up. Those lunch ladies un-bleakened the day more than once.
I was not thinking about lunch ladies or chocolate chip cookies several nights ago on my subway ride home. The New York subway is full of buskers; some are terrific, and some plain awful. The most awful of the awful are the guys who beat on overturned plastic buckets with drumsticks. They might be talented drummers but on the subway platform the noise is LOUD, off-key, and dead ugly.
These drummers are so common at the Union Square station at night, I take pains to connect to the L-train at another station to avoid standing on the same platform with them for four minutes.
So, when a man got on the Brooklyn bound L at Union Square and announced himself as a drummer, I cringed inwardly. I turned up my coat collar, sank into my seat and thought seriously about getting off at the next stop to wait for the following train. But I was tired. And hungry. And the car was really crowded so moving at all was a bit of a trick.
And then all deities, foreign and domestic, smiled down on us.
This drummer was not a bucket beater. He announced himself as an ethno-musicologist, then asked a lady sitting near him if she knew what that was. She gave an inaudible answer so he explained the word to us, and how he came to be one.
And then he struck the drum he had. It had a warm, rich, living sound. The drum was made of skins and wood, carefully crafted to make a beautiful sound. It was akin to a plastic bucket as a goldfish is to a shark.
And then he played, and by played I mean he made that drum sing. And he added the vocal line.
It was almost magical how the mood of the car changed. How MY mood changed. Suddenly we were the audience to a glorious moment of living art.
It only lasted four minutes; the drummer got off at the first stop in Brooklyn. My fellow audience members plied him with currency. I reached in my pocket for what I thought was a dollar bill, turned out it was a ten. I gave it to him anyway. He was worth every nickel.
There is no great insight here; no inspirational message to keep you motivated. Nothing to print out and tape on your computer to get you through dark nights of plot holes and recalcitrant characters.
It's just that the lunch ladies and the L-train drummer were each doing their job. I'm sure every lady in the cafeteria kitchen would rather have been at home, baking cookies for her own kids; I'm certain the drummer had loftier performance dreams than being a busker for dollar bills on an L-train full of wet, surly Brooklynites.
But the work they did, even if they didn't know or care, turned out to be important to someone they'll never know about.
Sometimes when I'm doing the routine things in my day to day life, I need to remember that.