Teachers took to the streets on May 16 in North Carolina. It's been a long, hard decade for education since the economic meltdown. When the state legislature and governor's mansion changed hands, things became grim indeed. They've never recovered and now public schools feel under attack from all sides.
I started this blog when I left the classroom in 2011. The changes were already apparent. Raises were a distant memory. Classroom budgets diminished and I found myself spending more of my own money and tapping parents for basics. I hear it got a whole lot worse after I left teaching. Retirement gave me some distance but I still talk to friends I left behind.
This has been a week of public protest. On May 14, the Poor People's Campaign kicked off with direct action and civil disobedience in more than thirty cities across the country. Raleigh was one of them. The crowd was small compared to the Moral Mondays from a few years ago, but the issues are the same. Poverty, racism, healthcare, living wage, education. People are coming together.
These two actions back-to-back have had me thinking. They are so intertwined, poverty and education. I think back to my days in the classroom and the poverty that was evidenced every day in our school.
It wasn't one of those terrible schools you see pictured on the documentaries. Actually, the building was sound and recently renovated. The school staff was caring and dedicated. It stands in a neighborhood whose residents often struggle. Many of the 6 to 8-year-olds I taught showed signs of stress.
I remember one little boy who, after being given a toothbrush by the visiting dental educators was thrilled because he had his own now and wouldn't have to share a toothbrush with his siblings.
I regularly had children who were underdressed for the weather or showed up in clothes that hadn't been washed recently. Some came to school too late for breakfast and arrived hungry almost every day. Some whispered that they hadn't eaten any supper the night before. I kept large bags of cereal behind my desk and cheese crackers in the closet for such situations.
Sometimes they would go through the lunch line only to find that their account was empty. I wasn't the only teacher or teacher-assistant who kept extra money on account to cover those lunches.
Serious behavior problems arose. A few times I had to report suspicion of abuse. More often, a child would "act out" unaccountably, hiding under a table or crying and rocking inconsolably. I made many referrals to our overburdened counselors or assistant principal.
Our school had a burgeoning population of Spanish-speaking students during the years I was there. Despite the language barriers with both the children and their parents we managed, and all of us grew together. What I did not anticipate were the problems particular to immigrant families. There was the boy who took everything home every night because this was the third school he had attended during the current year. Sure enough, one day he simply never came back. When one of my little girls confided that her daddy had been taken away and had to go back to Mexico, I was stunned. She was devastated. My heart broke for her.
Too many of these kids had to deal with situations that would have been unthinkable to me as a child: the boy who was going out to dinner to celebrate his dad's birthday but they ended up at the ER after the girlfriend stabbed his father, the girl who came to school one morning talking about the man who had been shot dead at the end of her driveway the night before, the number of kids who lived with grandparents or other relatives because their parents were on drugs or locked up, the child who had to get up before dawn to ride with his taxi-driving mother until time to go to school.
Poverty. I thought I knew about it. I had been on welfare and food stamps when my son was an infant. I had scrounged and worked multiple low wage jobs to hold body and soul together. But I realized it was a whole different level of experience the day I tried to teach a sequencing lesson to one of my first-graders.
I spread out six brightly colored picture cards entitled "How to make a Bed." His task was to put them in order. He hesitated then moved the cards around, obviously guessing. I gave him hints, but it didn't help. Finally, he told me he didn't know. He had never had a bed. He slept on the couch or the floor in a sleeping bag.
Poverty and Education. That's why I march.
|Poor People's Campaign, Raleigh NC, 5/14/2018|