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In my middle school, everything revolved around the lunch period. All the gossip, smooching, playing and fighting happened during lunch. It was a time for eating, but more important, it was 30 minutes of freedom.

The sixth-grade lunches at my school were no exception and were probably like most sixth-grade lunchrooms across the United States. The food was terrible. The worst was the Salisbury steak, in that the meat they used put into question the definition of the word "steak." The most desired item was the Nutty Buddy, a sugar cone filled with vanilla ice cream and covered with chocolate and peanuts.

There were three lunch lines where a student could access his meal: two regular and one a la carte. The lines were menacingly long, and kids giving back-cuts were merciless. The pecking order was extensive. The bullies gave cuts only to bigger bullies and pretty girls, while the skinny kids, well, they stayed skinny.

By the time the student at the end of the line procured his meal and sat down, he would hardly have time to take his first bite of Salisbury steak before the bell rang signaling the end of the lunch period.

For these 12-year-old wimpy sixth-graders, there was an option that allowed them to purchase from the cornucopia that the front of the lunch line offered.

This option came in the form of a wise preteen by the name of Aaron Cunnings. Aaron could not afford to buy his meal, but he had too much pride to stand in the "free lunch" line, so he used his talents to feed himself.

He created a systematic method by which he not only got his lunch, but also left school each day with a silvery jingle in his pocket.

Aaron knew that the skinny kids' problem wasn't a lack of money. They suffered from "Late Bloomer Syndrome." They had no clout; they'd back down from a push or take two for flinching. Another thing about Aaron: Everybody liked him, and he liked everybody _ especially the skinny kids.

At lunch, Aaron would strategically place himself among a group of non-eating, skinny students. After enough had gathered, he would start "taking orders" from each kid:

All right, who wants somethin'? What's that, Jimmy, you want a milk and fries? You going to buy me somethin'? Another fry? Okay? That's 55 cents per fry and 35 cents for the milk. Oh, you want chocolate milk? Add another 10 cents. That'll be a dollar fifty-five for Jimmy. . . .

Who's next? Mike? What you want? A Nutty Buddy? You going to buy me one too? All right, that's a buck, man. Thank you, Mikey. . . . Steve wants a milk and sugar cookie. All right, Steve, that's 70 cents. What you going to buy me? All you got is a dollar? All right, man, I'll just keep your change. I know you're poor too. . . . Any more? All right, I'm off. . . . Back in five minutes!

Now, the fact that Aaron did all the math quickly in his head with only a partial sixth-grade education was impressive, but not his highlighting talent. His skill was in the "be back in five minutes" part.

Aside from the skinny kids, Aaron liked the third-period PE kids the best. He made sure that he was in good standing with them because the third-period PE kids were allowed to leave class early, thereby securing a position at the front of the lunch line. Aaron could often be seen joking and high-fiving with this group, and he was not beneath slipping them an extra sugar cookie from time to time. The result: Aaron got front-cuts more than haircuts.

Even the lunch ladies liked Aaron, due to what he called his "lunch-lady charm." He never missed a new hairstyle or nail polish and always complimented each lady accordingly. He buttered them up the same way they buttered their fresh rolls, and it paid off when he loaded up his tray.

Aaron always got the new, hot pans of Salisbury _ straight out of the oven. But his mastery did not end there. Aaron had the ability to hide a sugar cookie as large as his hand underneath his tray. The lunch ladies never caught on.

When Aaron returned to the table with his bounty, it was like Christmas. He handed out the ordered food quickly and inconspicuously, then joined the other boys who were already eating voraciously and breathing only when they burped. Aaron would talk with them, complain about homework and, if he was still hungry, go on another run.

The thing was, not one student resented Aaron for using them to buy his lunch. Aaron provided a service, and all involved benefited. The skinny kids ate, and Aaron stayed clear of the free lunch line. Everybody liked Aaron.

I loved Aaron, though he rarely paid me any attention. In fact, I was one of the only skinny kids that he didn't talk to. You see, I bagged my lunch.

I checked in with Aaron the other day, and I can report that the little entrepreneur is still trying to make his way in the world. He's still in college, a "seventh-year sophomore" he calls himself. He has spent time at a couple of schools, bouncing from major to major: premed, biology, never sure who to be or what to be.

Aaron is deeply in debt but now has a different plan. He has been accepted at USF and will enroll this spring, combining an old strategy with a new major: economics.

Brian Overcast is a graduate student at Florida State University, where he teaches freshman English.

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