Candid scenes in the cafeteria and classrooms of Newton South: AP Journalism students’ eyes and ears observe South

By Ben Seifer
Published: December 2008

The school cafeteria: dramatized in every Hollywood teen movie by blonde, busty, cheerleaders, big football players, little nerds and non-conforming Goths’€equally hated and loved, the melting pot of high school.

The bell goes off, and like water, students flood in from all directions. Different skin colors, body shapes, and accessories blend together to form a single entity. They flow into the cafeteria and then spread out to cover the entire surface of the room. This brief moment is the only time when the students appear to be mingling. Unlike water, the students have a preference to where they come to rest, causing noticeable divides in the cafeteria.

The biggest divide is caused by the structure of the cafeteria. There is a level where the kitchen, snack bar, and lines are, and then there is another level just five or so steps below with no lines and a much larger sitting area. The lower level is not nearly as loud as the upper level and has more available seats. On the other hand, the upper level is crowded and seems to be well past its sitting capacity.

As students, holding Styrofoam lunch trays, find tables, a divide occurs between the sexes in the lower level. In general, boys and girls sit separately or occasionally there will be one girl sitting at a table with only boys, but not the other way around. In the back corner, isolated from everyone else, there is one senior table; the students at this table are loud and are constantly making big and sometimes obscene gestures. All of them are significantly larger then the other students in the lower level. Many of them wear large dark jackets and their booming laughter can be heard from across the cafeteria.

Even though there are open tables, not one of the hundred and fifty or so students in the lower level sits alone.

The situation, just one small set of steps above, is noticeably different. The first thing you will see is that at one end of the cafeteria, there is long rectangular table where only teachers sit. The students who sit closest leave a row of empty tables as a buffer. Like below, there are empty tables, but not because there aren’t enough kids to fill them. Several tables are absolutely packed. There is a set of kids who actually have table space in front of them and then there are one, sometimes two, rings of students who pull chairs close to the table, eating their food on their laps.

In the upper level, kids sit alone. One boy in particular wears his headphones and eats his food, never bringing his gaze upward. A latecomer wanders in with a worried expression and looks relieved after locating a friend. Others walk straight to one of two round tables, located towards the back, where the “popular juniors sit. At this table there is an equal mix of boys and girls; swearing, laughter and provocative stories can be heard.

The cafeteria is a microcosm of the entire high school social structure. Everything is divided by some factor: Age, race, sex, popularity and so forth. As an unbiased observer, one cannot see any immediate negative effects to this system. Although separated, the majority of the students appear comfortable and are having a good time. One has to wonder though, what if the tables were rearranged or the students were forced to sit with others they do not usually sit with?

Newton South is a big public school; nearly two thousand kids, all with different backgrounds, beliefs, and interests. It’s easy to draw lines between groups of students and the cafeteria illustrates just how many divisions there really are. Maybe Hollywood wasn’t so far off after all.

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