incredibly detailed but nonetheless vague scrambled memories stemming from silent lunch [life-writing, 2]

do you know about silent lunch? did you have silent lunch???

silent lunch. a punitive measure i’ve not even thought to remember in decades. something so stupid (or traumatic?), i’d apparently erased it from both my experience and my brain. 

but then a student mentioned it and it was like WOW. and now i’ve spent the last week asking everyone i know if they know about silent lunch and it’s like WOW.

what a bunch of boisterous troublemakers we must’ve been, to have had to be silenced, all us little kids.

(fashion is a journey, yo [1988?])


elementary school is such a strange time.

the brain is still forming, the memories are wired in weird. 

and yet, somehow, the maybe not-so-great coping mechanisms are already firmly in place.

(october 1988)

a friend and i were talking about this the other day– the sandwiching of time in a kid-mind.

how things that maybe only lasted a day or a week loom so fucking large when you’re a kid, they feel like they must’ve lasted a whole year at least.


for example, some representative of her majesty’s government came to visit my american school at some point in the mid-80s. i can only assume this was because it was called balmoral.

and so the adults painted a castle on the cafeteria wall and, every morning, we kids sang “god save the queen” after the “star spangled banner” and the pledge.

there is no way this could have lasted more than two weeks, i’m nearly certain. and yet i’m equally certain that we sang “god save the queen” every single day for the rest of elementary school.


there is evidence to suggest that i was, let us say, perhaps not the calmest child?


be real though: you want to be friends with that kid, right?

odds are high that kid is, at least once, going to make you really, really laugh.


that kid did well in school, mostly, which maybe isn’t a surprise given how much time i’ve spent in school subsequently. but it wasn’t all fashionz and jazz handz.

most of what i remember of kindergarten is that they didn’t have enough classroom space and so my class was literally on the stage. (how bizarre my elementary school experience is upon reflection!)

the stage being in the cafeteria, memories of nap time involve the rhythm of lunch chatter and the dinging of dropped forks flowing beneath the lullabyes (lullabies?!) on the boom box.

then as now i needed TOTAL SILENCE to sleep, so i didn’t sleep much. mostly i lay there, in the dark, listening to the cacophony, counting sheep as my teacher’d told me, waiting for the lights to come back on.


(apparently didn’t understand the concept of having other people sign one’s yearbook and, instead, i signed my own 🤷‍♀️
also, fwiw, my love of that yellow sweatshirt with aerobecising bears was TOTAL and enduring.)

kindergarten was lovely.

first grade was a nightmare unparalleled until my first year of college. 


it does not even involve going out on a limb to say that my teacher hated me with the fire of a thousand suns. 

early in the year, she told me to stop asking so many questions, saying it was more important for the boys to learn. 

at least once, if not twice, she took me to the office to call my grandmother, instructing me to tell burvil to tell me to behave. 

(that is how i came to be in the principal’s office of balmoral elementary school contemplating that picture of christa macauliffe.)


at the end of the year, when a classmate flicked me in the eyeball, that teacher accused me of doing it to myself (as though self-harm wouldn’t have also been worrying) and forbid me from seeing the school nurse or calling my mom. 

of that afternoon, i remember weeping in the bathroom at school.

(this was my first school, it was open classroom style, and i’ve bizarrely vivid memories of the building layout– all of which could be entirely wrong. but i recall it was the bathroom in the middle, left of the building and the ceilings were impossibly high, like 19 feet. though probably it’s just that i felt terribly small, standing there at the sink, unjustly accused.)

i remember being whisked off to the eye doctor the minute burvil heard what’d happened, meeting my mom there, the darkness of the doctor’s office and his breath on my face as he stared deep into my eyeball through his lenses.


if the exclamation point i started putting at the end of my name is any indication, my spirit was not broken.


but it wasn’t a pleasant year.


i’m guessing my memories of silent lunch are from this year, but they could also be from 6th and 7th grade– when i engaged in bizarre acts of bus seat destruction for which i, along with a few of my friends and my primary nemesis, were all reprimanded.

but i think then we were made to clean the bus seats. i don’t think silent lunch was in middle school. 

i think i was this kid when i had silent lunch:


there’s a general consensus among the people i’ve polled that silent lunch was something that happens/ed in elementary school.

in middle school, they just gave you detention.


the thing about silent lunch was that you had to sit there, for the whole of lunch, at the silent lunch table, along with all the other kids similarly punished.

your very presence at the silent lunch table marked you as punished. 

i don’t remember much about this. but what i do remember, what came flooding back upon the mention of the concept of “silent lunch,” was the shame of being at that table. of being separated out as someone who talked too much. someone who deserved to be silenced. 

i was a six year old girl and already i was too loud. already i’d said too much.


my report card from that year is…. interesting.

she does need to practice self control…

still talking a bit too much…

she needs to improve in self control.

please talk to her…

her behavior is much better!

benign enough sounding maybe, but that shit sticks.



later, in college, i’d tell the boy sitting next to me the answers to the prof’s questions.

because i knew them. because i knew the prof knew i knew them. and because it was easier to tell him than to open my mouth and project and say the answers aloud. 



(undated, early 00s?)


it’s maybe a stretch to say i became a writer because of this one teacher who told me to shut up in first grade. (from the list of musts above, the effects of the white evangelical christianity, purity culture, feminist backlash stew in which we were all submerged are evident.)

but also, i did find, very early, that– just as reading was a way out of all the restrictions– writing was a place one could be loud. a place to break rules. a place where i had control and could say whatever i wanted, however i wanted, could be whoever i wanted. a place to feel. a place where feeling was allowed.

a german i dated once a long while ago remarked on the contrast between how quiet and measured i appeared in conversation versus how confident in emails, on the page. he said it was like two different people.

good god, can you imagine all the effort that went into being that other person? i did it for years, and still i cannot.

it’s not like that anymore (or at least not nearly to the same degree), but the split that existed is not inconsequential. a reaction to perceived violence (for to silence someone constitutes a sort of violence), a survival tactic.

it got me through school. it likely, also, severely hindered the quality of my education and learning, but it got me through.


still, vividly i recall the physical sensations– the warming of my face, the shaking of my hands– when, as a 32-year-old doctoral student, i asked my first question of a speaker at a workshop.

well aware that it was one of the first times in my life i could remember voluntarily speaking in an educational context. (i do that every freaking day now, so lol #progress. but also NOTE: it would have been a complete impossibility even just 8 years ago.)


back at balmoral, i was lucky the following year to have a teacher who adored me and whom i adored in return. a teacher who was patient and supportive and kind.

25 more carolines!!!! 🙂

and i was lucky in the years after to have had a high number of amazing teachers– particularly english teachers, without whom i would not be doing what i do.

they encouraged me to read everything and write everything and pursue whatever i wanted to do in the work i did for them.

they were teachers who loved teaching. my first grade teacher, alas, did not. and the long legacy of that has, i suspect, been pretty profound.


i’ve critiqued the posthumous discourse around jackie, the emphasis on her silence and establishment of her as a “silent goddess.”

that was a bunch of bullshit, and i’ve called it out. but there’s a teeny part of me that, in contemplating silent lunch now, wonders if, amongst all of the things that drew me into her story then, one of the details was that she was, ostensibly silent.

and yet still she had all that power, still she got out of musty old newport and did all that she did. 

i’m intrigued by how silence is wielded punitively by those in power.

jackie– whilst also having power– is however also in some ways kept in her place, culturally, by being portrayed as silent… her unruliness controlled as a result.

but silence can be a useful communicative tool for the silenced.

in my writing on kim kardashian, i return to her social media silence, the gaps, the things left out and unsaid. silence as trauma response, silence as artistic act, silence as language failure.

in my writing on melania trump, i repeatedly returned to the reality that what was characterized as her silence was actually a collective media failure to take seriously what she said.

it seems quite obvious that the silences i’m examining sit at the intersection of gender and race.


silent lunch likely also sat at the intersection of gender and race.

i went to elementary school in memphis, at a time when measures of desegregation were still actively in place. 

my family moved across town specifically so that i could attend this school rather than be bussed to another from our old home in midtown. this meant that i was conveniently located to the school whereas other students had to be bussed in.

when i tell my students there was busing at my elementary school, they’re always astounded. probably both because they didn’t realize such experiences were so near to us in time nor that i am so old as to have had them.


i’ve recently been astounded to discover that silent lunch is an educational experience i still share with my students.

because this is apparently a thing that’s still done?!

(you get the one warning and then BUCKLE UP!)


one of the words of the day last week was “lacuna.” as i told my students about it, we noted that it reminded us of “tuna” and i made a point of saying you’re probably never going to use this in normal conversation.

then, like five minutes later, i was talking to a student about gaps and realized oh, lacuna would be appropriate here.  

every word has its moment, i suppose. as does silence. 

there are these gaps, in our memories, our histories, our lives, and our paragraphs. sometimes they get filled in. sometimes they go missing. sometimes the brain scratches them out.

when i was first beginning to actually pay attention to how to do what i now know to be Academic Writing, the teachers i had then (was this grad school, maybe?) were always telling us to look for the gaps, fill in the gaps, find the thing no one has previously found.

if that sounds hard, it’s actually harder in practice, because there really is nothing new under the sun. what there are is different ways of looking, ways of seeing and being.

wherever you go, there you are. but also…

no one else will ever see like you, feel like you, or be you.


they won’t let me title my book an alarming life. it’s going to be finding jackie. which, marketing-wise, makes sense. people, perhaps, not hoping to be further alarmed by what they read. people, also, loving to find things. (damn, if we’d called it freeing jackie, it’d probably sell a bazillion copies, because people really, really love free.)

but the thing is: life is really fucking alarming, in the living. and that’s not a bad thing, just the truth.

i will never find jackie. i’ve been looking for years so i can say that with some authority. she is not there.

i will never find her just as i may never find all of myself nor fill in all the gaps that persist in my own life and experiences, much less hers.


i’ve gotten so bad at endings. i mean, i was never good at them, but it’s definitely gotten worse. to the extent that i’ve tended to just abstain.

but i’m intrigued by that early effort at editing in the diary entry.

i have no clue who fillup was.

i’m guessing his name was phillip, but i have no clue who he was.

did i ever tell him? odds seem high i did not.

did i love him? or was like really the more appropriate word?

did i go back and change the love to like to more accurately reflect the current situation or did i edit it because, even within the confines of my diary, i rejected my own feelings and struggled to be emotionally honest with childhood myself?

it’s weird, analyzing this now, in tripartite as an adult, as myself, and as a biographer.

because, honestly, the part of the quote that seems most true, the part of the quote that, reading it as a biographer, makes it seem most likely that the characterization of love was, in fact, accurate, isn’t the edit so much as that i said i would not tell him.

the edit is provocative and flashy.

that i said i wouldn’t tell him how i felt, that even as i expressed the feeling, i silenced myself– in life, if not writing– that is the biographically revealing thing.

that this dynamic was in place at the age of seven?

an alarming life indeed.

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