Cafeteria: it may be a harmless word to most people, but to me, its connotations are not quite positive, or even neutral. My realization of my thoughts about this word were never more apparent than when I visited my college’s cafeteria for the first time (in association with an assignment) recently. I had to think of words that have a strong connotation for me at the time, so naturally, the word “cafeteria” came to mind. In this post, I hope to explain why, and how my related thoughts have developed along with my realization of the stigma of solitude.
If you have the time to do so, look up “sitting alone at lunch” on Google Images.
Here, you will find miserable looking people, with the words and phrases “sad” and “outcast at school” as suggestions for other searches. As someone who was a lone luncher at my high school for quite some time, and still spends a lot of time alone, I would like to offer my perspective regarding this dreaded occurrence.
One may assume that my time sitting alone at lunch in high school took place during freshman year, as some students have trouble making new friends and feel uncomfortable during that time in their high school experience. Well, that was not the case for me. I only sat alone at lunch during my junior and senior years; second semester of junior year particularly had the highest concentration of these “loner” experiences. Clearly, I was a very social high schooler.
Now, I would actually say that I am a great acquaintance-maker, as I typically develop what I call “in-class friendships” in which I talk to people during class quite a bit, but outside of that specific setting, there is little to no interaction. These kinds of relationships surely translated to my lunchtime experiences in high school, as I often did not feel close enough to people to feel comfortable putting myself in close proximity to them outside of class. My uneasiness incarnated itself especially well during my junior year of high school. I was not close friends with anyone who had lunch at the same time as me during second semester, but I saw a couple of people I vaguely knew, and who seemed to be friends, sitting together. Therefore, after nervously walking around the cafeteria a few times, I built up the courage to ask if I could join them, because I felt the need to be around other people. I knew these people from separate classes and experiences, but I do not think they were each aware that I knew both of them, which definitely did not help us bond.
I had an incredibly awkward few weeks sitting with them, as they clearly were close friends, while I quietly sat next to them, not being able to contribute to their conversations in a compelling way at all.
One day in January, it seemed as though they were not going to show up to our usual table, so I decided to sit by myself in a different area. I do not think I had ever felt so self-conscious in my life until that point, and I felt so guilty. As I sat there with my headphones on, I could not stop thinking about how I was essentially a failure as a social being; how had I become a loner, just like one of the people in the aforementioned pictures?
Well, my friends, about ten minutes later, my tablemates happened to walk by me, ask what I was doing, and encourage me to sit with them at our normal spot. Busted. I did feel a bit relieved, though, as I was saved from my seemingly embarrassing solitude.
A couple of weeks later, they never showed up at our usual table. Of course, I assumed that they were both sick or getting help from teachers, and thought they would show up the next school day, but they did not. This trend continued for the rest of the semester, which honestly changed my opinion on sitting alone.
Once again, I felt quite uncomfortable sitting alone, especially since I was sitting at a very tall table; looking down upon well-adjusted students while the chair next to me was occupied by my perpetual “freshman backpack” was definitely humbling. After some time though, I grew to love sitting alone. I was able to work on homework, catch up on the happenings of the internet, eat lunch at my own pace, and not worry about how I could possibly try to seem engaged in conversations I had no relation to. As an introvert, learning to embrace time alone was quite liberating. No longer did I view myself as a failure or embarrassment (although my family did not seem happy about my solitude), but instead as a self-aware and self-sufficient student.
Many students know to ask a pupil they see sitting alone to join them, which is nice, but I am almost glad that I was not asked. By being alone, I was forced to become comfortable with myself and embrace what actually fulfills me and my personality.
Nevertheless, there was an acquaintance from my classes who joined me at my table when her friends did not show up. (See, some individuals can stand me!) Being the second choice is another concept that most people dread, but I embraced it.
During senior year of high school, I was faced with a similar situation in which an acquaintance I sat with started to not show up, and I had a somewhat similar journey (on a side note, I actually just realized how odd it is that both experiences involved the tall tables in our cafeteria). I sat alone a few times, and even awkwardly chose to not take up an offer to sit with others, which in hindsight seems a bit rude of me. Later on, though, I realized that I had another “in-class friend” I could sit with, which I did for the rest of the semester enjoyably.
From my experiences, I can conclude that I dreaded the stigma associated with sitting alone more than the actual experience of solitude. Once I recuperated from the “feel bad for me” and “I am such a loser” phase, I became more comfortable with myself, and found being alone to be more comfortable than forcing myself into situations I do not typically find to be pleasing.
I am not saying to be unsociable or to stop offering to engage with people who are alone, but instead that if you find yourself alone, do not feel as though you absolutely need to be with others, or that without doing so, you are a failure.
Now that I am in college, these high school situations seem a bit juvenile, but they really did affect me, as I still do not associate cafeterias with the best of times. When I have been on campus during lunchtime, I have always resorted to sitting alone in quiet areas, which is quite common at my college. Just as with my high school “loner” experiences, I have honestly enjoyed my rejuvenating time in solitude. Best of all, from my perspective, I can say that no one really cares if you are sitting alone in college. I do not mean that in an uncaring way; it is just that there is no need to feel self-conscious about it. Especially since I never sit in the cafeteria, which is filled with large tables and closely-placed chairs, I do not feel as obligated to be around people (or guilty about the absence of tablemates) as I did in the similar cafeteria in my high school.
Although I do reference these past experiences of mine somewhat often, I do not need sympathy. I almost see it as a badge of honor, which states in fine print, “I can stand being by myself.” Such reminiscing does still offer me a moment of self-pity, I will admit, but I typically utilize that moment in a sarcastic way, and we all know that I love sarcasm.
So however you eat meals, you do you; I will humbly stake out my own spot that is both somewhere quiet and not associated with the word “cafeteria.”
Have any of you learned to embrace time alone, even though it can be looked down upon in certain situations? Am I a failure as a social being and am just unwilling to accept it (I hope not)? Let me know.