The second-period lunch bell just rang, and already Antonio Stimpson is through the door of the Grimsley High School cafeteria, where the air is warm and smells like corn no matter what's being served. He walks nonchalantly to a table and slings down his book bag and red Chicago Bulls cap to mark his place. He sits at the same round, wood-grain table, with the same guys, every day.
``We like to sit in the middle so we can't be seen,' says 16-year-old Antonio, who is bulky in his knee-length, fleece-lined denim jacket. ``Some people like to stare at you when you eat.'
He glances at the chalkboard menu.He can pick from grilled cheese, pork chopette, corn bread, vegetable soup, tossed salad, apricots and apples, but he opts for the same thing as most other students: pizza and french fries. He adds a square of chocolate cake with white icing. Gym class made him hungry.
Naturally, school officials are always encouraging students to pick Type A lunches, which despite the name doesn't mean they want students to get stressed out and have heart attacks. Rather, a Type A lunch means protein, bread, fruit, vegetable and milk. Teenager translation: cheese on pizza crust, french fried potatoes and chocolate milk.
Pork chopette? Get a clue. That's teacher food.
Antonio makes his way through the line to a white-frocked lady sitting at a computer terminal. These days, students give their lunch numbers to white-frocked ladies, who enter the codes for their food and wait for the prices to appear. In this case, the green numbers say $1.90. Antonio hands over cash and carries his recyclable Styrofoam tray back to the table, which now holds five or six book bags.
The owners appear in a few minutes, each with his own pizza and french fries. They sit down to eat with almost business-like attention to their food. When the mood strikes, they talk about familiar topics.
``Girls, sex and sports, you know, guy stuff,' says 16-year-old Brandon Marshall.
``We talk about how the Chicago Bears are going to win the Super Bowl,' says 15-year-old Kevin Griffin, eliciting groans of disagreement. He offers a more agreeable observation: ``We talk about the fights they had at school today.'
Fist fights and food fights, now those are good lunch topics.
Last year, there were a couple of food fights here. One guy lost his class ring throwing food. They traced him. Lots of others got away, though. Cafeteria worker Mary McKinney remembers that day.
``A hamburger just politely went zoop over my head,' says McKinney, one of the white-frocked ladies at the computers. ``I got up, that's what I did, 'cause I didn't know what was gonna go on.'
The thing about food fights is, they're not dependable. They tend to happen only at the end of the year. But girls - they're interesting and they come to the cafeteria every day.
``That's one reason we sit here, we can see all the ladies who go by,' Antonio says. ``You get a good view of all the doors in here.'
He leans over, points and whispers: ``See that one right there?' he says. ``That little light-skinned one right there? I like that.'
The other guys turn to look. The air shivers with hormones.
Lunchtime entertainment also includes crackin', as they say, on the guys at the next table. Brandon demonstrates.
``Hey, Juan! You're a jerk, man!' he yells to the next table. ``See?'
``Or we take a french fry and throw it over there and hit someone in the face,' Antonio says.
Every table in the cafeteria is a little different. Even the picnic tables outside have their own flavor. Couples go out there so they can be alone and sneak smooches. Inside, you find the singles, in groups, of course.
``Everyone has their clique, and this is our clique,' says 16-year-old Misty Grimes, who is surrounded by friends she sits with every day. ``If you sit at someone else's table' - her blond ponytail wags side to side - ``you'd better get up.'
Right now, this clique is getting down - to its food, sandwiches brought from home and the ever-popular pizza, which is also the subject of much scorn, along with the wait.
``This is what we have to eat,' says Grimes, holding her bright orange cheese pizza up for everyone to see. ``And this is what we have to put up with,' she adds, flipping her hand toward the lines.
They probably wouldn't be here at all, if it weren't for the opportunity to catch up on each other's lives. Socializing, everyone agrees, is a very important part of lunch.
``If we didn't have it, we'd probably go crazy,' Grimes says.
``It's the only time you see your friends,' says Kim Jezorek.
``The teacher says we have time to gossip between classes, but we don't,' Grimes says.
So, they use lunch to talk about boyfriends, homework, what they did with their boyfriends last weekend, teachers, what they would like to do with their boyfriends this weekend, tests, boyfriends they have never had but would like to, clothes, and why their boyfriends are either a) total jerks or b) the sweetest, most unbelievable, most romantic souls ever.
``I might tell, like, 'It was so fun. We rented a movie and went to my house and talked and he said something so sweet,' says Jennifer Jordan, who is trying to hide her blush with a napkin. Or maybe she doesn't want everyone to see a mouth full of peanut butter crackers. Never let it be said there are no manners at this table.
There's support, too. If someone wants to cross the room and flirt with a guy, Team Lunch stands by for moral and technical support.
``You use school as an excuse,' Jezorek explains.
``Like, 'Did you understand the homework last night? Could you explain it to me?' ' Jordan says.
`` 'And oh, by the way, what're you doing this weekend and are you in love with me?' ' Grimes says.
Everyone nods. Whatever else you say about the cafeteria, it's a decent place to flirt. Next year will be different.
Next year, the lunch bell will ring and everyone will jump in a car and go to Hardee's or Taco Bell or Wendy's or McDonald's or Burger King or anywhere else they want to go because they will be seniors, which is the ultimate goal if you're a junior.
``It's considered a privilege to go out to lunch while all the underclassmen have to stay behind and eat in the cafeteria,' senior Becky Arcure says. ``That's why the hype.'
Every day, Arcure and her friend Jamie Leonard meet in the student parking lot and decide where to go to lunch. Mostly, they pick Taco Bell on Battleground Avenue because they like the food and the prices. A couple times a week, they go home to eat sandwiches or leftovers.
Even if they didn't feel like leaving campus, they wouldn't dare stay.
``You'd lose cool points,' Leonard says.
At Taco Bell, where half the lunch crowd is students from Grimsley and Page high schools, they usually see someone they know. This day, they have run into a Grimsley group, including juniors who are risking in-school suspension for soft tacos.
The juniors at Taco Bell know that school officials sometimes drive by fast food restaurants and check identification stickers on cars, but they don't believe the heavys will come this far today.
``They're not very smart,' says one junior. ``They'll probably be down here tomorrow.'
``But we won't,' says another.