Reporter's Notebook

Sitting Alone in the Cafeteria
Jim Young / Reuters
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Prompted by Laura McKenna’s piece about students who sit by themselves at lunch, readers share stories of childhood loneliness and discuss how to make school feel more welcoming for everyone.

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Making School ‘Humane’ for Everyone

We’ve received many thoughtful responses to my article “When Kids Sit Alone” and our request for personal stories from people who sat alone in the school lunchroom.

Harry Brighouse, a professor of education and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, contrasts the American system of unsupervised lunch periods with his secondary school in the U.K. He says it is up to adults to make schools more humane.

My first secondary school (public, U.K.) wasn’t particularly well led, to be honest. But, we had a 90-minute lunch break. Lunch was two sittings, with assigned seating. Each table had 8 places, most had one teacher, and all had a mix of boys of girls, and a mix of years (we were 12-18 year olds, and about half the kids left school at 16, so it skewed a little bit younger). The idea that you would leave vulnerable children to be rejected by their peers (or allow them to reject their peers) at lunch time was never considered.

What you describe—adults leaving children to bully, reject, ignore each other, IS already an adult intervention. Nobody goes to school unless adults make them, and nobody would choose to be at the school with the people who bully, reject and ignore them, if they had the choice. It’s up to adults to make that experience humane, or inhumane. In most American schools they choose to make it inhumane.

Echoing Harry’s positive description of lunchroom behavior in the U.K., another educator said that teachers and students eat together in France:

Last week, this photograph of a college football player sitting at a school cafeteria table with a middle-school student with autism went viral:

I understood that picture a little too well; my son sits alone in the cafeteria every day, too. While looking for some help for him last spring, I learned about “lunch-bunch” programs, where teachers or therapists provide organization, facilitate conversations, or simply offer a safe place for kids who can’t find a clique in the cafeteria. These programs have begun to crop up at public schools around the country and offer a lot of promise for kids who sit alone.

One reader, Mike Hugman, emailed me to thank me for the article I wrote on the subject. As a child, he also had a difficult time fitting in with his classmates. He pointed out that you don’t have to have autism to have these problems and agreed that schools could do more to help kids like himself.

Mike said that he “suffered in silence.” Perhaps it is time for less silence about silence. Tell us: Did you have a tough time in the lunchroom at school? Could (and should) schools step in to help kids like Bo, Mike, and my son?

Mike writes:

I was one of those kids who sat alone almost every day, and while I was not autistic, I was extremely shy and didn't know how to break out of my shell. The experience was extremely distressing, since I wanted nothing more than to make friends and fit in but I was completely clueless on how to do that, or who/how to ask for help.