Yesterday I had oatmeal for breakfast, and the waitress at the hotel restaurant brought me a small carton of milk along with some raisins, brown sugar, and blueberries.
Looking at the small milk carton immediately reminded me of my earliest days in the cafeteria in grade school. Sometimes Mom would pack my lunch, and sometimes if she was too busy I would eat a hot lunch at the school cafeteria. Either way, a staple of the lunch hour was paying two cents for a small carton of ice-cold whole milk. It tasted good with either a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Twinkie from a paper bag or a hot plate of Johnny Marzetti on a plastic school cafeteria tray.
The two-cent milk was an important rite of passage in two ways. It was my first real use of money and — equally important — my first real experience with being entrusted with money. Mom would give me two pennies and I would walk to school with that cold, hard cash burning a hole in my pocket, knowing that I couldn’t lose it or I wouldn’t be able to get my milk with lunch. In those first-grade days I didn’t have much of a conception of how the world worked, or how much things cost, but I knew that my milk at lunch cost two cents.
And, of course, the carton itself was a key test of young kid small motor skills. You had to manipulate the carton just right to achieve the optimal milk-drinking experience. The first step, of gently separating the container opening, was easy. It was the second step, which involved applying just the right amount of pressure so that the carton would pop open in one clean motion, that was the challenge. If you did’t get it on the first try, with each new effort the container would lose structural integrity and stay frustratingly closed, and you might have to use your fingernails to claw it open, leaving the milk drinking hole looking embarrassingly mushy and torn.
When I was presented with the small container of milk with my oatmeal yesterday, I felt my inner first-grader deep inside, focused on the task of opening the milk as cleanly and proficiently as the big kids did. Alas, I still don’t have the knack.