If a mother asks her son what the best part of his school day was and he responds, “Lunch,” she is apt to be a little frustrated. She had hoped her son would tell her about an amazing breakthrough he made in Geometry, or a rousing conversation in British Literature—this is all the more true if she sends her child to an expensive private school that often talks of wonder and delight and leisure. Apparently, the wonders and delights of Dickens, Shakespeare and Pythagoras pale in comparison to that of the common ham sandwich.
Her frustration may not be warranted, though, because “Lunch” is actually a somewhat ambiguous response to the question, “What was the best part of school?” I might even say it’s more a riddle than a straight answer.
Allow me to suggest a few possible meanings.
First. I should get the obvious out of the way. The boy who claims lunch was the best part of school may be giving a Bart Simpson answer meant to communicate scorn and boredom with his very competent teachers and their very interesting lessons. Absolutely inexcusable, to be sure.
Second. “Lunch” means the teachers were actually quite dull today. They are dull every day and—now that you mention it—every lesson they teach is obvious, dumb, and redundant. The private school the boy attends is quite awful, he has picked up on this, and is now subtly cluing his mother on to the fact that he needs a better place to matriculate. Like I said, this is a possible interpretation, but not a likely one.
Third. One kind of learning takes place in the classroom, another kind takes place outside the classroom. “I pay the schoolmaster, but ‘tis the schoolboys who educate my son,” as Emerson once put it. Our peers teach us what is normal. They teach us how to be noticed and how to go unnoticed. We learn “how we do things” from our peers. They teach us the acceptable range for speaking, emoting, and confessing. They teach us the rules. Our peers also teach us how to distinguish ourselves. At lunch, a student learns what will earn him the respect of his own kind. He listens to how other students talk and then observes how the table responds. The things we learn at the lunch table are valuable, necessary, and an essential part of making it in the world. The payoff for lunch table learning is immediate, whereas geometry will only pay off later, which means the lunch table was the best part of school today. (NOTE: much of this is true of the teachers who sit together, as well)
Fourth. The word “best” is a little ambiguous. “Best” can mean “most good” or “most productive,” but it can also mean “most pleasant,” and this is how many high school students take the word, which means lunch is obviously the best part of the day. Class is work, but lunch is leisure, and leisure is far more pleasant than work. Lunch may be the best part of a student’s day because the teachers are strict, rigorous, and put students through their paces during class, which is entirely fitting. The student who says lunch was the best part of the day isn’t necessarily griping. How many happy fathers would say the best part of their week was the time they spent in the office? None, and this doesn’t mean they’re ungrateful for their jobs, or that they find their work unsatisfying. Likewise, going to class is work and students shouldn’t be held to standards that even sane, pious Christian adults would disdain.
Fifth. “Lunch” may mean that you need to ask the question again later. I love the classroom, I absolutely love to teach, but when the day is over, I’m mentally spent and need a little while to consider all that I’ve heard, thought, and seen since first period. I suspect many students are the same way, which means you’re more likely to hear that lunch was the best part of the day if you’re asking on the car ride home from school. “Lunch” means, “I don’t know. Give me a second to collect my thoughts.” It’s an easy, lazy answer because lunch is the first thing that comes to mind. Lunch is different. Everything else that happens at school is class. The fact “lunch” is an easy answer doesn’t mean it’s a truthful one, though, and a child may need a few hours to consider the school day before rendering a fair judgement about it. So wait until dinner to ask about the day.
While I have presented all five of these possibilities separately, I tend to think two or three (or four) of them are usually mingled together when a student claims lunch was the best part of their day. There is one more, though it may sting a little to consider. “What was the best part of your day?” is a very easy question to ask. It does not require the one asking to know anything at all of the person being asked. In fact, you could start a conversation with a complete stranger with such a question. It may be that children who claim lunch was the best part of their day are testing their parents to see whether they care enough to probe—or if they know enough to probe with something more specific. “Lunch” is a way of saying, “Do you know what we’re reading in English right now? Do you know that I hate Civics class? Do you know who my friends are? Do you know who I don’t get along with? And if you do, why do you not ask about those people? Why do you not ask something a little more particular every now and again? Why are you only interested in the highlights?”
Don’t get me wrong. “What was the best part of school?” may be a very productive question in your household. If so, carry on. But if you hear that lunch is the best part of the day, save your frustration and start digging.