The tables in our middle school cafeteria are long, thick-wood constructions, so firmly rooted to the floor that they appear as bulwarks, or levies against the tide, which in a sense they are.
Despite the thoroughness of cleanings, these tabletops stubbornly cling to a layer of sticky residue left by years of middle schoolers. A conglomerate substance, which could baffle the best of chemists. In immeasurable concoction of countless spilled milks, apples juices, grape juices, orange juices, pretzel salt crystals, and the crumbs from what were once animal crackers.
But it is the tops themselves, not the sticky veneers, that I find particularly intriguing. For carved into, and written over the tabletops of the cafeteria are years’ worth of middle school thoughts.
Wow! Carved small, perhaps with a pen tip. Bit, BE, TEAM in jagged strokes. Every, blitz, killah, Shakira, beba, Rock, Ash, king, talk, Ha, Hoo Ha.
Students seem to prefer inscribing their thoughts and feelings in words. But occasionally there are pictures. Square-eyed smiley faces, X’s, stars, crude arrows pointing in opposing directions, muffins, packmen.
On investigation I have found that swears are commonplace too. A cursing dictionary inked and scored and penned on wood. Fuck, fud, suck, I love me bitches, hoes, bitches, bitches and hoe, fuck, fuck, fuck mission, fuck love.
Love is everywhere on the tables of the 6th, 7th and 8th grade. M+K = 4EVER, M+M encased in a heart. Pink hearts, black sharpie hearts, hearts with arrows, scratched and faded hearts below newer hearts. Middle school romances are brief. D+A love, J+L =Love, Love in big bold bubble letters. I love, love, lov, luv.
Scrawled on every table are declarations. Michael was here, Chris was here, kim waz hea, Fred waz hea, Emily waz hea, she waz hea. It’s a canonical tag, one found across the world carved into trees and benches, spray-painted on walls and columns. They are tags full of presence and they are tags in conversation.
But in middle school, identities are in constant flux and such statements take on added dimensions. The Emily that carved her name, perhaps with a mechanical pencil or a house key, is not the same Emily who might sit at the same table two weeks later. In two weeks she might have dyed her hair, got her nose pierced. She might have gotten a girlfriend or dumped a boyfriend. She might have reconsidered her dream job from an FBI agent to a Hollywood actress. She might have taken up rapping or stepping or neither. She might hate her teachers, or, she might love them.
Within the transient trends of middle school, such tabletop graffiti becomes a salient marker chronicling an evolving identity. Emily waz hea. Right now, at this middle school table, a girl named Emily wanted to be remembered.