Who can forget the old school canteen? The sound of the bell indicating the start of recess would have us scampering towards our school canteen—that ramshackle building that sold more than refreshments and snacks for hungry students, but also provided a casual place for lively discourses, from the trivial to the sublime, while partaking of cheap spaghetti, Chiz Curls and Sunkist in tetra-packs.
The concept of a canteen was nonexistent in my elementary years. Always, we ate our food in the classroom, bought from student vendors (recruited from the Home Economics classes) who went from room to room selling kakanins like kalame, palitaw and mochi. Otherwise, we would buy snack items from makeshift stalls around the perimeter of our school, to be eaten within the school grounds during our break time.
It was different when I set my foot in my new high school in the city—it had a separate structure for food and refreshments. Every 9:30 a.m., all hell broke loose in the mad dash to be first in line at the canteen—the sooner you were served, the more time you can indulge in eating and socializing.
Oh yes, it was in the canteen that various clicque were formed and friendships forged for a brief 15-20 minutes, and one’s station in the school could be gleaned from the composition of students in one table. Nerds and runts would occupy one table, and the more boisterous ones in another.
Our school canteen was managed by the family of one student, who happened to be a classmate, and it had the basic stuff we needed to satisfy our growing appetites. Manning the fort was the loquacious Mrs. Antonio, who exuded a Mother Earth-ly aura with her matronly girth. She could not keep still at her post, making sure everyone was served efficiently, promptly.
A typical morning merienda included such choices as spaghetti with ketchup-y sauce laced with hotdog slices (my favorite!), recado-less pancit guisado, watery sampelut, siopao, assorted sandwiches (cheese pimiento was a staple) , Chippy, Chiz Curlz –which we downed with softdrinks and orange juices in triangular cartoons—plus candies galore. The scene would be repeated come lunch time, and the canteen would be full to the rafters by noon.
I shied away from the canteen at this time, preferring to eat my packed lunch elsewhere with my best friend. Our secret break spot was at the rear of the school, under a thick canopy of bonggabilya leaves. Here, hidden by the thick foliage, we could enjoy our lunch, wrapped in banana leaves, away from the bullies whose nasty habit it was to mooch for ulam! There was not a week that I did not have porkchop or fried chicken for lunch, for some reason, I never had vegetables.
Since the break time was a full hour, students had more time to linger—perhaps to review Physics lessons, learn a few chords from the latest issue of Jingle Magazine, character assassinate a teacher, and for the more daring ones—sneak a few puffs of smoke.
A more serious transgression done to the canteen was the constant disappearance of plates and utensils. I remember Mrs. Antonio making a plea to our class, to please, please return the plastic yellow plates lest she gives up the canteen. I don’t know if the plates were returned, but the Antonios operated the canteen till we all finished high school.
The sound of the bell after an hour would indicate the end of lunch, and the start of the afternoon session, which would invariably lull students to sleep, including me. The saving race would be the 3:30 pm. bell, signalling our final trip to the canteen. I would buy only a few pieces of candy like Lipps and Vi-Va by this time, preferring to save my appetite for dinner.
I continued to be a canteen habitué in my university years, even if the big canteens there were impersonal and cold. There were no Mrs. Antonios to warm you up with a smile and a “good morning”, only uniformed attendants who served then swiped your tables cleaned, then moved on to the next . The menu was more sophisticated, with fancy entries like “flying saucer”, “club sandwich”, “sloppy joe sandwiches”. But where, oh where is my “putung babi” and “sampelut”?.
Then and now, school canteens continue to serve the same purpose for both idlers and socializers. For the latter, a canteen is a place to see and be seen, to display trophy friends, grab a bite--and attention. As for the bored and the lonely, here’s a friendly advice: ”If you have nothing to do, do it here—in your old school canteen!!”