Anderson Elementary second-graders Leslie Ayala-Munoz, left, and Ariana Allen, center, have lunch with West High senior Alexis Chicanos, right, Friday at Anderson during a nationwide event called No One Eats Alone Day. (Feb. 10, 2017) Fernando Salazar The Wichita Eagle
Anderson Elementary second-graders Leslie Ayala-Munoz, left, and Ariana Allen, center, have lunch with West High senior Alexis Chicanos, right, Friday at Anderson during a nationwide event called No One Eats Alone Day. (Feb. 10, 2017) Fernando Salazar The Wichita Eagle

Suzanne Tobias

How some Wichita students made the school cafeteria a friendlier place

By Suzanne Perez Tobias

stobias@wichitaeagle.com

February 10, 2017 08:27 PM

UPDATED February 11, 2017 08:22 AM

No One Eats Alone

West High students took time to eat with Anderson Elementary students during a national event called No One Eats Alone Friday. (Video by Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle)

fsalazar@wichitaeagle.com

Every coming-of-age movie has at least one scene in a school cafeteria.

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Remember Janis Ian’s map to North Shore High School in “Mean Girls”?

“Where you sit in the cafeteria is crucial,” Janis tells Cady, the new girl.

“Because you’ve got everybody there: You’ve got your freshman ROTC guys, preps, JV jocks,” she explains. “Girls who eat their feelings, girls who don’t eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts.”

Cady ends up sitting with “the Plastics,” the school’s most popular and infamous clique, and the trajectory of the film – and her high school career – is firmly established.

The cafeteria is crucial.

It’s a breeding ground for angst, insecurity and classic teen drama. It can be a dream or a nightmare, and it all depends on where you sit.

“I don’t feel that everyone thinks it’s a big deal, but secretly it is, and we all know it,” says Kira Pullum, a senior at West High School in Wichita.

“It’s a great feeling to eat with someone, not just by yourself.”

On Friday in Wichita – at Anderson Elementary and a handful of other schools – Pullum and several classmates spent their lunch hours making sure no child ate alone.

As part of National No One Eats Alone Day, students across the country stood up against prejudice, cliques and social bullying by pledging to sit down with new friends at lunch.

Members of West High’s Leadership Advisory Council took the project a bit further, visiting nearby schools to spend time with kids who appreciated having a cool upperclassman as a lunchtime buddy.

“This is a good idea because we get to stop kids from making other people feel like outsiders,” said Salma Nunez, a West High senior.

“We just get to put them all together and learn that differences don’t matter.”

Anderson students Leslie Ayala-Munoz and Ariana Allen smiled at Alexis Chicalas, who was dressed in her West High cheerleading uniform, her hair pulled back with a giant gold bow.

“You guys are in second grade?” Chicalas asked.

Ariana nodded.

“What do you like to do? What’s your favorite subject?”

“Math,” Leslie whispered.

“Oh, I like math, too,” Chicalas said, smiling.

The girls talked about big brothers and little sisters, pets they had at home and ones they wished for, favorite colors and school art projects. They ate pizza and drank chocolate milk.

Because elementary students file into the cafeteria and take seats with their class, eating alone isn’t usually a problem, said Jamie Angell, a counselor at Anderson. But some children are more shy than others and benefit from having an older buddy take an interest in them, she said.

“When I got the e-mail (from West High), I told my principal, ‘We have to do this,’ ” Angell said. “It just gives them that extra attention they might not get in other places.”

Pullum and her high school classmates said they hope Friday’s event, along with fliers their group posted around West High’s cafeteria, will encourage people of all ages to be more welcoming and inclusive all the time.

“I do see people sitting alone at lunch,” said Sarah Owen, a West High student. “But I often see people going over there and sitting with them. That’s something that we would do.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias