FALL RIVER — All the best superhero stories begin On A Day Like Any Other, and so this one does, too. It was Tuesday of last week, and the small downstairs cafeteria at Samuel Watson Elementary School was humming along as it always does at lunchtime.
And because every good superhero story needs a villain, this one starts with an especially nasty nacho. Slathered in meat and cheese on 11-year-old Dominick Hernandez’s plate, the rogue tortilla was lying in wait.
Dominick Hernandez loves nachos. The bespectacled fifth-grader loves them almost as much as he loves pizza, and even more than he loves hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and chicken patties.
If this were a Greek tragedy, the love of nachos might have been Dominick’s tragic flaw. Because instead of going quietly into the digestive hereafter to which most nachos resign themselves, this chip lodged in Dominick’s windpipe. His friends shouted for help while he quietly turned blue.
But thanks to Christine Saurette, the lead lunch lady at Samuel Watson Elementary School, this is not a tragedy.
Every good superhero needs a costume, and Saurette’s involves a loose blue button-down and — sometimes — a hairnet. She raced across the cafeteria and got her arms around Dominick.
Perhaps the Heimlich maneuver is not, strictly speaking, a superpower. Anyone can learn it, after all, and everyone should. Saurette did. She squeezed Dominick and whispered a question in his ear: “Can you breathe?”
But choking victims cannot answer questions. Her training kicked in.
“I love these kids,” she said, and she knows every one of the 400 or so at Samuel Watson except maybe a few kindergartners. She’s been at the school for five years and in the district for 10, and is not crazy about the term “lunch lady,” she said, because she’s “not one of them old ladies.”
The nacho’s path to villainy was considerably longer. It was 1943 when a group of Army wives, who had crossed the border to go shopping in Piedras Negras, Mexico, stopped at a restaurant that was already closed for the day. With the cook gone, the maître d’ threw together what he could find: Tortilla chips, cheese, jalapeños. His name was Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, and he had just invented the nacho.
Now nachos encompass everything from the mealy chips and radioactive cheese of ballparks to highfalutin’ concoctions involving tuna tartar and wasabi crema.
Dominick did not think about this during the moments his airway was obstructed by Anaya’s creation. He is 11, after all, and has not spent those years studying the origins of snack foods. Nor did he know that a custodian near Omaha rescued a boy from a nacho just a few months ago; that thousands of people a year — mostly kids — die of choking; that snack foods in the windpipe once nearly felled a president. What he remembers, mostly, is that his breathless moments felt very long.
What happened next is no surprise — this is, after all, a superhero story. The nacho was vanquished, and emerged with the rest of Dominick’s lunch on the cafeteria floor, to the brief amusement of his classmates. Saurette shut that down, too: “If I yell, they listen to me,” she said.
Dominick was rushed upstairs and to the hospital, and was back in school the next day, eating applesauce.
Saurette said she does not much care for all this attention.
“It’s embarrassing,” she said. “I’m not the kind that likes this recognition.”
But recognition comes with this superhero gig. Jodi DeCourcy, Dominick’s mom, starts to cry every time she looks at Saurette. A week after she leaped into action, Saurette was still wearing the silver bracelet DeCourcy and Dominick gave her as a token of their thanks.
“Before, [Saurette] was just a lunch lady to my son, and now they have a special bond,” DeCourcy said. “We are definitely grateful, and sometimes, with things like this, you just can’t put the feelings into words.”
Saurette doesn’t fancy herself a hero. She just reacted, she said, and followed her training. But she does have a costume, sort of, and a superpower, more or less. And she whirled into action when danger struck.
There is one other thing every a superhero needs, of course: a nickname.
“All the kids call me Miss Chris,” she said.
That will do.