Mixing it Up

The simple act of eating with students they didn’t know helped these kids and teens grow as people.

JIM WEST/ALAMY

It’s lunchtime at your school cafeteria. Where do you sit? If you’re like most kids, you eat with the same group every day. Your crowd of lunch friends probably formed as a result of a common bond, like with these students:

“I sit with kids from baseball and my old elementary school,” Jeremy Russo, 12, a sixth-grader at Northley Middle School in Aston, Pennsylvania, tells Choices.

“I try to sit with different people, but I usually sit with my friends, who are almost all Mexican,” says Itzel Rojas, a 16-year-old junior at Century High School in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Sharing a Meal

It’s comfortable to eat lunch with the same people every day. But wouldn’t it be nice to change things up once in a while—to sit somewhere totally random, with a brand-new group? That’s what happens on Mix It Up at Lunch Day. Jeremy, Itzel, and students in thousands of schools across the country participated in a national program last year. At one school, students were given lollipops, then told to sit at tables that matched the candy’s color. At another school, kids were sorted by the month in which they were born. The method doesn’t matter—as long as it shakes up the usual social order of the cafeteria.

The idea behind Mix It Up at Lunch Day, which is sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is that getting to know people who are different from you builds understanding and trust—and makes prejudice and exclusion less likely. Keith Payne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, studies prejudice. He says, “The more you interact with people who seem different from you, the more you’re likely to realize that they’re really not as different as they seem.”

And, as Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center points out, “The cafeteria is one of the most segregated places on any school campus.”

Some kids participate in Mix It Up at Lunch Day because it sounds fun. At Century High School, the most recent Mix It Up included incentives, like ice cream for everyone who participated and a performance by the school’s break-dance team. Other kids do it because their schools say they must.

Spreading Tolerance

Layla Aden, a 16-year-old sophomore at Century High, got involved “as a way to get the tolerance message across.” A Muslim who wears a headscarf, Layla experienced bias firsthand, like “kids whispering things in the hallway, but doing it loud enough that they knew I could hear.” She joined the student team that helped organize the Mix It Up at Lunch Day.

Century High School is ethnically mixed, and students are generally tolerant. “Luckily, at Century we all get along pretty well,” says Nicole Thompson, a senior who also helped organize the Mix It Up event. But occasional incidents do occur—such as when “terrorist” was scrawled on the bulletin board display that was meant to celebrate Middle Eastern cultures, according to Layla.

Does Mix It Up at Lunch Day cure discrimination? No, says Nicole, but it “reminds you that everyone is an individual with a story. Last year, I sat with a quiet Mormon girl, and she told me she played soccer. We had this great conversation. I love to play soccer and play for the school, but I never would have guessed that she played too.”

Lauren Taylor is the faculty adviser to the groups at Century High School that organized Mix It Up at Lunch Day. “We don’t expect people to make a new best friend, but it gets kids out of their comfort zone, then changes what their comfort zone is,” she says.

Finding a Friend

It’s true that you probably won’t make a new best friend at Mix It Up at Lunch Day—but you might! That’s what happened for Alexis Armour and Katelinn McInroy, two sixth ­graders at Northley Middle School.

“We weren’t friends because she went to a different elementary school,” Alexis says. “I didn’t know her at all. Then, on Mix It Up at Lunch Day, she sat across from me and we just started talking.”

One thing led to another, and the two girls were soon inseparable. “I met some of her friends and became [their] friends, and she met some of mine—and now we have different groups we can sit with at lunch!” Katelinn says.

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