Before you read this, stop.
Think for a moment about the three most significant people, other than family, who impacted your life in a positive way during your childhood.
For me, all three were teachers. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Fenny, recognized that I was already reading above grade level, and she encouraged me to stretch even more. On the day school ended, I cried all the way home because she taught me to love school. My second grade teacher, Mr. Dillard, had none of Mrs. Fenny’s warmth, and he gave a swat with the paddle for every word missed on the weekly spelling test. But he was an African-American male elementary teacher, highly unusual even now and more unusual at the dawn of integration. He taught every student in our class that effort was the great equalizer. I didn’t cry when that year ended and, in fact, didn’t appreciate Mr. Dillard’s impact on my life until many years later. Mrs. Toler, my high school English teacher, demanded my best, taught me to love literature, and gave me faith that good writing could change the world. I became a teacher because my parents revered education, but I became an English teacher because Mrs. Toler taught me the power of the written word.
Your three significant people may have taught you completely different lessons, but they loom large in your memory for a reason.
Stop. Now imagine your life without them. You would have been different, of course, but your life might still be positive and significant because you had parents or family members who helped you realize your dreams.
So hit the pause button of your thoughts for a minute, and think of three family members who shaped what is best in you.
For me? My father, who quit school in fifth grade, demanded I get the education he didn’t have. He made me believe that education was the key to a better life. He sacrificed his life to black lung contracted in a coal mine so that his five children would have a chance at a better world. My mother, who quit school in ninth grade but earned her GED after her children left home, taught me everything I know about unconditional love. She believed fiercely in her children, and she taught us that every person in the world has value and that, even though we lived in poverty, there were children who had less. My sister, the eldest child, taught me to read as she was learning to read, and I don’t remember a time in my early life when I couldn’t open a book and fill my life with stories or trail behind her and her friends and listen to their stories.
Now stop yet again. Close your eyes and envision your life without having known any of the six people who mean so much to you.
I sit here at the keyboard trying to conjure such a world, but the screen of my mind is blank. I can only conceptualize such a place as I do when I write fiction—I have to put out my hands and feel my way into the void.
And yet those of us who are educated, who have had mentors who’ve helped us find meaning in our lives, are sometimes the first ones to dismiss the people who, through no fault of their own, are born into a world where they have few advantages. We sometimes believe, even if we don’t voice it, that in this country anyone who is destitute must have themselves to blame.
It is certain that the lost and the broken have made some poor decisions that have led to their circumstances. But it is just as certain that some of what has happened to them has been beyond their control. And the balance of those two certainties is rarely visible to the casual observer.
I’ve always been troubled that I could not make a difference to every student I taught. Given personalities and teaching styles and human baggage on both sides of the equation, I failed some students. But every time I was able to build a relationship with a troubled student, I learned that the student’s situation was never entirely of that student’s own making.
We know this. And we expect every teacher to try to be that significant person to every student in her classroom. So why do we allow society to give up on adults who are lost and broken—to ignore the poor and the least among us?
Perhaps the single most compelling factor is that it’s terrifying to consider that we might not have control over our own lives and circumstances. And we abate that fear by keeping our distance from those who have lost control of theirs.
How many of us have intimate and personal conversations with even one homeless person, though we walk by them in the city every day? And what about the 85% of America’s poor who live outside urban centers? How many of us know personally even one struggling person from rural areas theNew York Times recently identified as the biggest regions of poverty in our country—“Indian reservations in the West; Hispanic communities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; a band across the Deep South and along the Mississippi Delta with a majority black population; and Appalachia, largely white”?
Just as every teacher in America feels overwhelmed at the magnitude of saving every struggling student, every American can quickly feel overwhelmed at the magnitude of lifting up the downtrodden. Yes, it is far easier to distance ourselves and tell ourselves that we would never allow that to happen. We’ve been doing it since man first began to cluster in societies, as we know from history and literature and even holy texts.
The War on Poverty began 50 years ago when Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson each had an intimate encounter with America’s poor. After a campaign tour through Appalachia, Kennedy made his first executive order as president an expansion of programs to assist those in poverty. In his inaugural address, he said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” Johnson, after teaching Latino children in a segregated school in Texas while he was in college, said, “I shall never forget the faces of the boys and girls…and I remember even yet the pain of realizing and knowing then that college was closed to practically every one of those children because they were too poor.”
Few would question that the War on Poverty has not yet been won. Some say it has been lost. But ask any of us who were saved, in large measure, by those programs, and most of us will vociferously disagree. Some of us may just want to forget that life, but engage us in personal conversation, and most of us will express our gratitude for the programs that lifted us up and allowed us to offer our children better lives.
So isn’t it an investment in our future to lift as many of the poor out of poverty as we can?
The next time you meet people who avow that the poor deserve their plight, perhaps you might ask them to name six significant people and imagine a fictional life in which they’ve never been a character.
How can we give every successful person in this nation an intimate look into such a world?