My proudest high school moment wasn’t an academic or sporting achievement. I failed several classes and I was never part of a team.
No, my proudest achievement was a food fight. The biggest food fight in the history of my school.
I wonder how many of my friends knew that me and Jim started the whole thing?
There were a lot of small skirmishes leading up to it, of course. Low level food fights composed of a few small exchanges that took place over several weeks. Sort of like the North Koreans dumping a couple rockets over the DMZ. An arms race had begun, but instead of nukes we were all stockpiling ham sandwiches, Wagon Wheels and rotten bananas.
There were 3 main groups involved. Our table — the Breakfast Boys and the Hairspray Crew — was pinned down in the middle. The football guys — the Carlyle’s, Dodger, Marty Hoy and that bunch — were on one side, and the Bud Boys on the other. We were fighting a war on two fronts. Pinned down on both flanks in a conflict even the UN would stay away from, with only a few tables separating the lot of us.
All three groups had been called to the principal’s office the week before, for a meeting in one of the large conference rooms. They told us in no uncertain terms that they would kick the lot of us out if this food throwing business continued. We glared across the table at our adversaries, held back a giggle, and gave a few noncommittal shrugs. And the tension kept building.
And then one day the morning announcement said, “Please be on your best behaviour at lunch today. We have guests in the school.”
One side of the cafeteria had been closed off. The tables were set with linen, cutlery and small vases of flowers. And the principals of all the neighbouring schools, the mayors of nearby towns and School Board officials had been invited for the annual Christmas lunch.
I felt the crackling undercurrent of tension the moment I sat down. Conversations were low. Sentences were clipped. And everyone was sneaking glances from the corners of their eyes. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see a long trail of rats fleeing the building. A monumental strain was swelling the air, and something had to break.
I can’t remember if it was me or Jim who said, “Today would be a good day for a food fight…”
One of us said it. And the other tore off a piece of baloney sandwich and lobbed it at the Bud Boy’s table.
We waited. One second… Two seconds… And then a piece of food came back.
A few other morsels were thrown in each direction, each a second or two apart. And then the room filled with the thunder of chairs scraping cheap tile as everyone on that side of the cafeteria leaped to their feet.
I’m still amazed at the synchronicity of it all. It was like buffalo stampeding, or a volcano reaching the moment of eruption. The entire place seemed to go mad.
When everyone else jumped to their feet, I kicked back my chair and crouched behind the table. I threw an apple at a tight cluster of Bud Boys, aiming for head-level. And then I grabbed a piece of chocolate cake — I think from Tommy MacDonald — unwrapped it, carefully turned it icing side out, and threw it at the football guys.
Over by the cafeteria line, Jody McCaffrey filled a plate with ketchup and hurled it into the crowd. The school later tried to downplay the size of the fight, but that big streak of ketchup was still on the ceiling tiles at the end of the year.
I’d just yanked a plate of fries out from in front of some girl at a nearby table when I noticed the fight was dying down.
I remembered my cousin Pat telling me that when they had food fights at his school in Montreal, the staff just locked all the doors. They let it die out like a prison riot, and then made everyone clean up.
The guests across the room were on their feet. Some stumbling with the slack jaw of shell shock, and a few others laughing openly. And teachers were streaming in from both exits, trying to figure out what to do.
It struck me as a very good time to escape.
I put the fries back in front of that girl (she just stared at me like we’d all fallen out of the sky), hit the floor and crawled commando-style to a quiet corner of the room. I popped up in an area that hadn’t seen any fighting, tried to look surprised, and examined my shirt as I slipped out the exit displaying my best confused look.
And when the bell rang signifying the end of the lunch hour, we all trudged off to class and jiggled our legs in anticipation.
We waited all afternoon for the hammer to drop.
Me and Dodger from the football table were in the same class. Our teacher — we called him Beeje — was one of those rare great educators who always talked to us on the level, and who always told it as it is. He’s also one of the very few I still admire and respect. But that’s another story, and we don’t have time for it now.
“You boys are really in for it this time,” Beeje said. “You picked the wrong day to do something like that. They’re pissed.”
We sat in a huddle for the entire class, reviewing who did what and how it all played out. And we waited for the PA to crackle to life and start calling us down to the office one by one. But it never happened. The administration didn’t make a move for the rest of the day.
That was a Thursday. They started reeling us in on Friday. On each break between classes we heard about who got called down, and who was still missing.
The staff also cancelled the Christmas assembly — a popular event for both students and teachers — sparking a huge noon hour “sit in” by the front lobby. I think that was rather unfair, given that only a few of us were involved in the incident and we all owned up and took the punishment. But anyway…
In the end they gave us 5 day suspensions. In hindsight, not a great idea because the food fight happened on Thursday. We got the boot on Friday. And there was just one week of school left until Christmas vacation. So rather than 2 weeks off for the holidays, we got 3.
Believe it or not, I was never actually caught for any of this. I turned myself in. I trudged down to the office, hung my head at a penitent angle, and said, “I was involved, and I have to take responsibility for my actions.”
Simple. I didn’t want to be stuck at school alone all week. There were 15 or 20 of us on suspension. My friends got together each day and rented the town hockey rink. I’ve never played hockey so I stayed home and read books. And every night we hung out at the Sunoco station where several of us worked, and drank beer from styrofoam coffee cups.
I still remember the sour look on my mother’s face when I came home from school that Friday.
She scowled in her usual way and said, “Did you get kicked out again?”
I said, “Yeah, and this was a really good one!”
The story made the front page of my hometown newspaper, and page two in the neighbouring city. I clipped out both articles and stuck them to the refrigerator with magnets.
Now before you start thinking what a rotten little shit I was, there’s actually a lesson in all this. Hold on for a minute while I bring it full circle…
No one got hurt. No one was beaten up or bullied. And nothing was damaged. Sure, the school was pretty embarrassed, with those Board officials and mayors and all being present. Call it collateral damage.
But here’s the thing. Every single person who was there that day remembers the food fight, whether they participated in it or not. It even became a bit of a legend. A couple kids who entered that school several years after I left once asked me, “Where you there the year they had the big food fight?” My chest swelled out and I felt like a soldier who’d stormed the beaches of Normandy.
Everyone has some kind of story associated with the food fight. And everyone has some sort of memory to laugh about now that we’re all getting grey. I think that matters far more than pulling a few pranks or getting in a little hot water at home.
I suppose I think like that because stories have always been important to me. Even when I was in really big trouble as a kid, I could take a view of myself from above looking down on the scene. I could see the comedy of it in the third person.
Sure, I’d have to grind out a punishment or two, and I won’t pretend I enjoyed it. But each time I stood on the undecided brink of doing something really foolish, part of me knew I had to go through with it.
I didn’t want to be one of those people who always does what they’re told. Those “goody two shoes” who toe the line, who never break a rule, and who grow old without having any stories to tell.
Now I’m not suggesting you go to school or work tomorrow and start a food fight. Although it might not be a bad idea…
But I AM saying don’t take life too seriously. If you’re a teenager, don’t worry about the stupid shit they try to give you trouble for. None of it really matters very much, and you’ll sit back and laugh about it years later when you’re old and grey. Those are the things you’ll remember and cherish. Not that you got a gold star on your homework or had perfect attendance.
I actually wrote this blog because I saw my friend Dodger post something about the food fight on his Facebook page. It happened at least 22 years ago. But several old names and old faces chimed in. Some of those people are parents and teachers and office workers now. But we can all look at a post like that, share a laugh — though we’re all so far away — and remember how fun and carefree our lives were back then (even if a breakup did seem like the end of the world at the time).
And maybe — just maybe — we’ll try to get a little of that fun back again. Because life is too short. And stories are important.