Cornies: Lunch box contains first currency

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For a young child entering elementary school, the world suddenly becomes a complicated place.

The play-based safety and comforts of home give way to a set curriculum. Reading, printing, arithmetic and art become subjects to master. The constant presence of classmates invites formation of our earliest social skills. And, perhaps for the first time, we get some sense of our place in the world, relative to others in our community.

Or so it seemed at Ridge elementary school in Leamington in the late 1950s.

I don’t know why it was called Ridge, other than it was set on the short escarpment that primordial geological forces had scraped into the earth between Point Pelee and Kingsville.

But the school sat at another point of differentiation, too. To its north were farms — greenhouses, vegetable farms, tobacco farms, mixed farms — that yielded pupils who walked or bicycled south and crossed Highway 3 to get to school. I was one of them.

To its south were other farm clusters, but also the upscale subdivisions that bordered Lake Erie. Doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals had homes there.

Their sons and daughters were raised differently than we had been. We did chores; they got allowances. We played pick-up hockey on frozen ponds; they played in leagues at the Leamington arena. They spent part of each summer at camps with funny sounding names; we idled the summer away among creeks and backyard tents. Their fathers curled; our only notion of that word had to do with what our moms did to their hair on Saturday nights before church the next morning.

We were families with very different backgrounds, habits and lifestyles. And nowhere were our various upbringings on clearer display than during lunch.

When the lunch bell rang, we’d take our lunches out of the cubbies at the back of the classroom and return to our desks. During especially glorious spring or fall days, we could eat outside. But no matter where we ate, the first point of differentiation among us was plain for all to see: the lunch boxes.

They came in different shapes, colours and conditions. Most were tin with a single clasp holding everything together. A premature bump against that clasp would send your lunch flying across the floor and provide everyone else with a little mealtime entertainment.

Some lunch boxes were shiny and new, featuring an argyle print or cartoon character on the outside; others were hand-me-downs with scraped sides and traces of rust in the inside corners. Some had a dome top that held a vacuum bottle; others were the rectangular type in which a Thermos would displace valuable cargo space. Disposable paper sacks were considered a foolish extravagance.

As lunch began, some of us traded our green Jersey Dairy tokens, available for purchase on Mondays, for a pint of milk in a glass bottle.

But even then, content was king. Most of us had a sandwich, a piece of fruit, maybe a cookie. Store-bought white bread was a sign of sophistication; homemade bread sliced by hand was, ironically, second-rate.

Even the packaging mattered. Kids who had their tuna, salmon or peanut butter sandwiches wrapped in neatly folded waxed paper were the upper crust, so to speak. Plastic wrap was middle-class; paper was for the proletariat.

My friend Ricky sometimes brought a Thermos filled with hot water from which he pulled a string tied to a wiener. With the accompanying bun, he made his own hotdog on the spot. Ruth usually brought saltine crackers and a Thermos containing soup.

Sandy insisted that his mother cut off the crusts of his sandwiches, which she did. Janet never ate her potato chips without first opening her sandwich and layering the chips between bread slices like an additional condiment. Michelle peeled her orange, then nimbly took each slice and turned it inside out. It tasted better that way, she said. I tried it. She was right.

The contents of our lunch boxes were not only the earliest indicators of our places in the world, they provided our first lessons in commerce. As important as what you had in your lunchbox was what you had that was tradable. As early as Grade 1, there was a bustling internal classroom economy in which everything from sandwiches to chips to fruit to sweets had its price. On the grade-school trading floor, carrot sticks were pennies; Hostess Twinkies were gold bullion.

Our lunch boxes showed us the way the world worked; they distributed us into social circles; they gave us the first real currencies of our young lives.

Our parents may or may not have realized that they were doing more than packing lunch; they were packing identity. And sometimes that extra Twinkie became a child’s best friend.

Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist.  

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