In 1971, the Athenian School was mainly a boarding school, with approximately 120 students. Meals for the high school students were handled by the cook, John, and a group of "kitchen ladies." Students worked as dishwashers in rotating crews of four, but we never helped prepare the meals that were served three times a day. The food was plentiful and although not always, meals were often good. John, who must have been close to 80 years old, lived in a trailer parked out by the loading dock. He made a particularly mean spaghetti.
John seemed to like the students, and would occasionally invite someone to visit him in his trailer. His relations with the teachers were visibly strained. One or two teachers made a determined effort to reach out to John, although he had little nice to say about any of them. The topic of his dislike of teachers came up at a dinner table one evening. Bunky Bakutis made an insightful observation: "You see it come up in literature a lot. The cook is told that a certain group of people are his peers, but he knows it's not true. They don’t treat him as an equal, and he resents it."
John was touchy in other ways. One of my roommates, who was fond of watching the patterns displayed on an oscilloscope he kept in the room, had the habit of taking loaves of bread from the kitchen so he could make sandwiches or grilled cheese whenever he liked. I asked him if it was really okay to take the bread. I shouldn’t have been surprised by his answer. Like many of my contemporaries, he came from a life of privilege and was unaccustomed to being told no.
"Of course it's okay to take bread! We pay --how much?--to go to school here. We should at least be able to take bread!"
I'd also heard that John didn't like students taking bread, because he was concerned it would make them less inclined to come to the dining hall and eat at meal time. But one day, my roommate's logic seemed more appealing than any concern of John's. I slipped behind a counter where the bread was kept and took a loaf. One of the kitchen ladies saw me and cautioned "You'd better ask John for the bread."
From across the kitchen, John had already taken notice. I held up the loaf and pointed to it, hoping he'd give me his blessing without discussion. Instead, John made his way over and demanded to know why I wanted the bread. We went back and forth, me reassuring him that I always came to meals, John expressing his doubts about my truthfulness. As much as I regretted taking the bread, I didn’t like the way John was questioning me. But suddenly he backed down, disgust in his voice.
"Oh, go ahead and take it." He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and walked away.
I never took bread again, though the encounter erased any affection I’d ever had for John. It was only today that I thought about him again, an old man who felt disrespected by the adults around him, and afraid students would stop coming to eat his meals. I thought about his dignity, his sense of worth, and what must have been struggles with advancing age and loneliness If it wasn't for the incident with the bread, I might not have remembered him. I'm glad I did.