The Dining Room Rules

It’s back-to-school time, which I’ll admit isn’t super exciting, seeing as most people are probably just going back to the same school they’ve been going to. But the good news is that every school is constantly trying to get better.

We’re learning. It’s a school.

For example, just last year, the mesivta I teach in switched from having the students stay in one classroom every period while the teachers moved around to having the teachers stay still and the students move around. Half the students are moving around anyway.

This system is definitely better, and for several reasons, none of which sound good to the students:

  1. There’s less wasted time. When a student is late, we can get started on the lesson without him. If I’m late, the guys don’t just get started without me.
  2. I can have stuff written on the board when they come in, so they don’t have to spend the first few minutes of class staring at my back.
  3. It gives them a change of scenery. According to scientific research, sometimes you remember where you were when you heard something. (I don’t remember the source for this, but I was sitting at my desk.) And I know this is true, because ever since we started this “one classroom” business, I can no longer remember what happened during which period.

So the classroom idea is great on paper, but unfortunately, there aren’t enough rooms in my yeshiva to make this happen. That’s how I ended up in the dining room.

Dining room? I don’t know what to call it. Lunchroom isn’t accurate, because they eat all 3 meals there. Dining room implies fine dining, or at least everyone using silverware. And cafeteria implies a much more formal structure, whereas in this yeshiva, there isn’t actually a chef. The yeshiva orders food from a service, and a guy brings it.

I know this, because after class, the entire yeshiva stands out in front of the building to help bring the food in. They don’t even like the food. And it takes maybe two people to carry it in. So they’re going out to be melaveh the food in. Even if the food is late, they will stand out there, with no coats, already holding a plate and fork so they can run alongside whoever’s carrying the heavy pans in and attempt to serve themselves before the food even gets into the building.

I don’t think that’s how cafeterias work.

Now you’d think that class in the dining room would be the best thing ever. The kids would be very excited. But there’s not much lying around in the way of food. It’s basically whatever food people didn’t feel like eating during lunch. There’s also leftover bread from the morning, some milk that’s been sitting out for a questionable amount of time, and cereal boxes everywhere. And hot sauce.

Sure, I’m happier not switching rooms, but based on my experiences last year, I’ve added a bunch of weird classroom rules to my first-day speech:

- Stop eating.

This isn’t really a new rule. Though technically, the rule used to be, “No eating.” Now it’s, “Stop eating.” Because forget the “no eating in class” rule -- now people who aren’t even in my class come in just to cook.

I do sometimes look the other way when it comes to eating, because if I tell my students, “No eating in class,” they can say, “Well, by that logic, no learning in the dining room.” But they haven’t thought of saying that yet, because when they eat, their brains shut off, which is why they’re not supposed to eat in class. I know this because most of what they eat is the cereal, and I constantly have to keep reminding them not to do so on the fleishig tablecloths, which the janitor lays out while he’s cleaning up from lunch so he doesn’t have to wipe down the tables.

- Stop cutting through my classroom.

This rule isn’t so much for the people in my class. It’s for the people in other classes that use the dining room as a thoroughfare.

For example. The dining room has an emergency door to the outside that is not so much a door as it is a large window. And the students are very liberal as to what constitutes an emergency. An “emergency” is defined as “recess” or “getting to class after recess has ended.”

And then there are the students who just wander in: “Does anyone know what’s for supper tonight?”

Like we know. The guy calls the dining room.

- Don’t sit too far away.

And it would be easier to ignore the students who wander in if my own students were sitting anywhere near me. The dining room is two table-lengths wide by like a football field long. The door is at one end of the room, and the whiteboard is at the other. There are students closer to me than they are who don’t even belong in the room.

Basically, every grade is divided into a stronger class and a weaker class. And the way the weaker class works is that the first day, everyone tries to sit in the back. Why are you sitting so far back if you’re a weaker student?

I don’t think they’re weaker; I think they just can’t hear me.

And it’s not like I can just sit closer to them. Not unless I get much longer board markers.

“Mr. Schmutter, I can’t see the board.”

“Yeah; me neither.”

Part of the idea of having the kids move to different classroom is that if I want to tell them where to sit, they don’t say, “Well, this is where I sit in the mornings.” But now they just say, “I’m not sitting at your table; that’s where the ninth graders eat.”

“It doesn’t matter. You’re not supposed to be eating. Do you think the ninth graders are going to come in and beat you up?”

“No; the table’s a mess.”

And it is.

- Stop handing in sticky papers.

The janitor doesn’t get to finish his job every day of laying tablecloths down on sticky tables, because some days he walks in, sees the mess, and goes home to work on his resignation letter. But whatever happens, my table is always the stickiest. The yeshiva has a lot of great qualities, but I don’t think they teach the ninth graders how to eat without dripping everywhere. Maybe that’s tenth grade. And I know this because for a week or so, I was wondering why there was a section of board that my marker didn’t work on, until I figured out that it was covered by a thin layer of soft-boiled egg. I couldn’t figure out if it was one of the ninth graders who did this, or whether someone egged the entire table of ninth graders. I had to bring in a paint scraper.

So now, every day when I come in, I have to figure out what that stuff is on my chair, and then some days I have to clean my table. I’m not cleaning everyone’s table, but I am cleaning mine, because I figure that this way maybe some students will sit there. This is what I do with all that extra time that I have before the students get in. It took me a while, but I eventually figured out where the janitor keeps his rag – in the washing sink, near the dish soap. Whenever I use it, my hand smells for the rest of the day. I don’t know if he ever cleans that rag. It’s the dirtiest thing in the yeshiva.

See, this is why you’re supposed to cover your textbooks.

- I’m not holding onto your papers for you.

One of the downsides of the dining room is that there are no lockers. If you have something personal, like a cereal box, you just leave it around, balanced on some of the pipes that go across the ceiling. So no one holds on to anything. They’re not running upstairs to put things away when they have to get outside in time for the nightly supper levayah.

When we were in their classrooms, they would leave the papers on the desks and assume they were coming back to them later. In the dining room, three other classes come by later, and then the ninth graders eat supper on it.

I did have one class last year that actively tried to do something about this: Toward the beginning of the year, one guy commandeered a box of corn flakes and put all the papers in there. Everyone else in the class liked that idea, but instead of getting their own cereal boxes, they put their papers in that same box too, and they wrote on the box, “Mr. Schmutter’s fourth period class - do not touch,” and they balanced it on the pipes. It was one cereal box for the whole class for the whole year. And no one was in charge of weeding out the papers no one needed anymore. Eventually, the box was ridiculously heavy, and it was always tipping over, and then one day the glue gave way, and there were papers everywhere.

You’d think the students would learn their lesson after that, but the last thing they want to do in school is learn anything.

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia, a monthly humor columnist, and has written six books, all published by Israel Book Shop.  He also does freelance writing for hire.  You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.