Tag Archives: poverty

The Key to Education?

Graduation 74

As I look toward retirement in a few days, I’ve been thinking about the most difficult class I taught in 30 years in the classroom.   I was about 20 years into my career when I was hired to lead the English Department in one of three schools that made up my district’s first experiment in choice. Our school was the new one—the one many students didn’t want because it had no history and no ties to the community.

The boundaries for all three schools were redrawn, and our school opened with only ninth and tenth graders. If students didn’t get their first choice, they were guaranteed a spot in their new home school. Because of our signature program in the arts, many creative students chose us. We also had a large number of students who didn’t want to be there, as well as some students who had problems in their home schools who came to us to get a fresh start. Those in the second group created the perfect storm that shook my confidence to the core and gave me a dose of humility that I’ve never forgotten.

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Courageous Conversations about Race and Poverty?

I Voted

“Why do you keep trying to reason with those people?” It is a question I’m asked repeatedly by my liberal friends on social media when I attempt to engage in a discussion with relatives and childhood friends who support Donald Trump.

Why? Because I believe that well-meaning liberals who dismiss the concerns of poor whites and call them ignorant might as well be the warm-up act for the next Trump rally. Our refusal to acknowledge their concerns has helped set the tone for Trump’s stage appearances.

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How Do We Feed the Hungry?

Irritated that my day had gotten away from me and mad at myself that I hadn’t taken the time to make lunch to take to work as I usually do, I finally found time in late afternoon to duck out of work to go to the organic market a few blocks from where I work.

On nice days, I can walk to the market in ten minutes, grab a healthy lunch from the soup and salad bar, and make it back to work within half-an-hour to eat lunch at my desk.  Such is the glamorous life of a person who works in central services for a large school system near our nation’s capital.  Before I came to work here, I thought that these employees, whose lives were not regulated by bells as teachers’ lives are, went out for leisurely lunches in a civilized way as teachers can only do on professional days when school is not in session.

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How Can We Make a Difference for America’s Poor?

Poor Kids

“Don’t go into the teachers’ lounge,” she said.  “They put out contracts on kids in there.  And don’t let the cynics jade you.”

An African-American woman who brooked no nonsense, she demanded that every student in her class give maximum effort.  She taught across the hall from me my first year teaching, and I learned from her the things that were never addressed in education classes—how to build relationships and set high expectations.  I knew how to teach a novel, how to teach students to write, but watching her taught me those essentials of classroom management that have to happen before students can learn anything.

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That Poor? Really?

Mom and Fam

Today is my mother’s 79th birthday.  Born in 1934, about a year after Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, she was forever shaped by the forces of the Great Depression.  If my siblings and I left food on our plates, she chided us to remember the starving children in faraway places and then picked at the food we left, as if by eating the crumbs she could satisfy those hungry children she saw in her mind’s eye.

Mom never knew her biological father, who died when she was three.  Before her tenth birthday, she had lost the two siblings closest in age to her, a brother who was five and a sister who was seventeen.  Her mother died when I was an infant, and her three remaining siblings died during my teen years and young adulthood.  She suffered the loss of three miscarriages and the loss of my father—and six years ago the greatest loss of all when my brother died at the age of 47.

My mother has always been a worrier.  When my four siblings and I were young adults, before the loss of my brother, we teased her that if she didn’t have anything to worry about, she would worry about what she was going to worry about next.  Back then we had no understanding of why she couldn’t sleep until she knew we were safe in our beds.  But when I think of the magnitude of the losses she suffered from childhood on, I know that my mother is a woman of uncommon strength.

And I wonder now, as I sit in my comfortable suburban home, how many children who have lived through the current economic crisis that has spanned their childhoods will grow up with memories similar to my mother’s.

When my husband and I volunteer at a cold weather shelter each winter, we are most moved by the children, who deal with the dire circumstances of their parents in many different ways.  One six-year-old’s mother told me that her little boy had started wetting the bed again, not an easy thing to deal with in a temporary shelter in a church.  One mother of teenagers told me how she took her children to the library so that they could stay warm and that she encouraged them to read the classics that she had read in school.  And one young man, angry and embarrassed, withdrew to a corner with his arms crossed, refusing to speak to anyone.  Another told me how he left the shelter for the campus of the nearby community college, where he took classes free and relied on the help of professors to secure books.

When I was teaching, most of my colleagues showed compassion for students in such circumstances, quietly trying to help them feel comfortable in a world where some of their classmates drove more expensive cars than we teachers did.  But once, when the school where I taught required students to buy a writing handbook, a student who was receiving lunch through the free-and-reduced meals program came to me when I was head of the department and told me that his parents had no money for the book.  I arranged with the business manager to cover the cost of the book from the school’s general fund, as our principal always directed us to do for students in need.

Usually in such circumstances, the student quietly told the teacher when there was such a need, and this was not a student I taught.  But I understood why he had not approached his teacher when she came into the seminar room at lunch.  As the teacher shoveled a generous lunch into her mouth, she told her colleagues, “If those kids can wear designer jeans and carry a cell phone, they can afford to buy the damned handbook.”

The teachers sat for a moment in stunned silence.

Sitting in my office, which adjoined the seminar room, I fumed.  I rose from my chair, thinking of my mother and those children at the cold weather shelter.

But just as I was about to inject myself into the conversation, one of the teachers said quietly, “You know, kids can get designer jeans from the thrift store for a couple of dollars.  And there are programs that give homeless kids a cell phone so that they can make a call in an emergency.  You won’t see those kids texting on those phones, but you might see them pretending to talk on them at lunch so they seem like everyone else.”

I cheered her silently and sat back down, watching the scene through my open door.  The offending teacher lowered her fork onto her plate, her face flushing in what I hoped was shame.

“Really?” she asked.

“Really,” said the other teacher, picking up her own plate and going to the sink, her back to the table.

And, as always at such times, my thoughts turned again to my mother, who sits in a nursing home, no longer able to speak of the circumstances of her childhood.  But I’ll be forever grateful that, even though I grew up in a family that sometimes needed government assistance, my mother always, always reminded me to have empathy for those who had even less.

Happy Birthday, Mom!  Thank you for teaching me almost everything I know about kindness.

And how about you?  Tell me a story of compassion.