Monday, June 23, 2008

Raising Wee Willie Winkie

I realize, more than my children may think, that being a mom means being a Teacher of the Year every day for...hmmm...twenty six years so far for me. A mother is the ultimate teacher; I know because mine is still trying to teach me.

Me: I don't know, Mama, my air conditioning is just not working well.
Mama: Have you changed your filters lately?
Me: They have to be changed?!

I think about the things I've tried to teach my children along the way, and I think about the way they've turned out. I wonder if those two components (me teaching while they learn) meet anywhere in the same zip code. My stepdaughters, Heather and Erin, have turned into mothers themselves, and have adopted my opinion that there is no greater call. They adore their children as I adored mine, and they are doing the best they can for them just as I did. My daughter, Kelli, the 26 year old professional cheerleader, turned into a talented dancer somewhere between crawling on my dance studio floor when she was six months old, pointing to dust bunnies and saying, "Dir-do, dir-do" and being named a captain on the TopCats squad, cheerleaders for the Carolina Panthers.

But then there's Will. Is there any part of that boy that slightly resembles me? Can a mother actually teach a boy anything important? Our family has lamented on many occasions that poor Will barely had a chance in our house. First, he was the only male, at age three, living in a single parent home. Then, after the "family blending wedding," he was the only male, along with four women, when his stepdad was on 24 hour shifts at the fire station. We all remember "the attack of the bras" that scared Will to screams when he stepped out of the shower one night. The girls were just trying to dry some lingerie on the shower rod...

I always worried that I couldn't teach him well. I had a heck of a time with the potty training adventure. Then I struggled with anything hands-on. See, Will's hands-on required left handed emphasis, and mine required right. Try to teach a left hander to tie a shoe, snap a finger, swing a golf club - the list goes on and on. Will was the comedian, the class clown, the entertainment in our family (and in his classes, much to his teachers' dismay.)

Fast forward 24 years. Today I delivered my Wee Willie Winkie (runs through the town, upstairs and downstairs in his nightgown...Will's nickname when he was a baby) to a jet plane. He is now in the city, NYC, to continue to pursue his career in acting. His mother, the teacher, is not in fact an actor...unless you count the daily performances in front of seventh graders. His mother, the teacher, would NEVER move 500 miles from home to a big, scary place with nowhere to live and no substantial bank account.

But I did teach Will all about dreams. He knows that I believe in going after them, even if it means taking a few (many?) risks. Even if it means leaving everything you know to learn new things and meet new people.

In the car on the way to the airport, it hit me that Will and I may not be so different after all. As he blasted the radio so loudly I couldn't think...while excitedly sharing songs he loves that I've never heard of, I realized this: of all of my children, he's the one who gets the lyrics instead of just hearing the music.

I think of myself at 24. I was dancing and cheering like Kelli. I had already brought my first baby home from the hospital like Heather and Erin. But I had poetry inside of me like Will. I just chose to quietly put mine on paper while his is placed under a spotlight for thousands to see.

Break a leg, Will. And remember...I'm here, 500 miles away, just changing the filters...

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Poverty or Bad Parenting?

Our last novel this year is Crispin, The Cross of Lead by Avi. Set in the Middle Ages, Crispin is hunted by assasins after the death of his mother and finds a friend in a wayward juggler named Bear.

This time of year I always feel like I live in the Middle Ages. The princesses aren't talking to the peasants, and, in fact, they haven't all year. But the "peasants" seem to loom a little larger during the pre-summer last days of school; they're on my mind, and I'm losing sleep. The reason lies in two words: field trips.

It is apparent if you're paying attention on any school day who the "haves" and "have nots" are. The more affluent students line up in the a la carte lunch line, purchasing from a variety of tasty snacks - pizza sticks, subs, cheese fries, and so on. The others announce their lunch numbers without shame to the cashier while holding their styrofoam trays of mystery meat and green beans.

"Only one milk. Too bad - we're out of chocolate."

These are the goings-on of a normal day in a school; students have accepted who they are and usually don't try to hide the fact that they receive free lunch.

A field trip day is different, though, and not having money is painful for some kids. There will be gift shops and opportunities to purchase treats, and let's not forget that the trip itself costs money. ("Bring your $10.00 with your permission slip.") So last week I asked my sixth graders if I would see them all on the trip to the museum the next day. Tommy was the only student who remained quiet, out of character for him for sure.

"Tommy," I said. "Why aren't you going?"

"I don't have the money," he answered with his eyes lowered. I proceeded to tell him that we never let that keep a student from going, and I walked to the phone right then and called his homeroom teacher. She told me to send him straight to her for a form and then asked about Joe, another student in my class who hadn't turned one in. As it happened, he wasn't at school that day so we weren't sure what his status was.

I sent Tommy, and he soon returned with the form. He then told me that his teacher had called Joe's house while he was in her classroom. I asked what the outcome was, but he didn't know. Off he skipped to participate in middle school antics with his classmates.

The next morning I was making my bagged lunch for the trip. Just in case I packed an extra PB& J, extra chips, and cookies. Then I drove to school just in time for my morning duty in the library. It wasn't long before Tommy stepped through the door. He looked miserable.

"Did you bring your form?" I asked, sure that he forgot it because of the look on his face.

"Yes," he answered, still as forlorn as the day before.

"Then what's wrong?" I asked. He looked over his shoulder, then back at me.

"I don't have lunch," he said. And then..."My Grandma ate my sandwich this morning because she was mad at me. She tried to make up by handing me a banana, but I was mad then so I just went to the bus stop."

I laughed in an effort to cover my shock. "Well, I guess it's good I packed extra." He smiled and walked out, skipping.

Tommy wasn't the only one without lunch that day. But luckily our cafeteria manager made several bagged lunches for the students who receive free lunch.

Okay, so put yourself in sixth grade. You don't have a lunch, but the "lunchbox kids" sitting beside you are pulling out their Hostess Cupcakes, juice boxes, and deli-sliced sandwiches. Are you going to get up and walk over to that cooler and take a "free lunch" bag (which, by the way, is a white bag - it won't even blend in with the brown bags that some students brought)?

So I sat there at a museum picnic table and thought about the injustice of poverty. I reflected back to my own daughter's fifth grade field trip to Washington, D.C. I was a chaperone, and we were to meet the bus at 6 AM. So Kelli and I, both equally excited and hyperactive, ran into the 24 hour grocery store on the way to the school and snatched up all the snacks, drinks, and candy our basket would hold. Once on the bus, I could barely fit on the seat with our "stash" beside me. I was still daydreaming about the importance of sending children on field trips with food when Tommy's homeroom teacher came over to my picnic table and began telling me about her conversation with Joe's parents the day before.

The conversation went like this:

Teacher: I didn't receive Joe's permission form, and he's absent today. Is he planning to go?
Mom: Joe's father and I are separated. I only see him on the weekends. You'll have to call his dad. But I can tell you, he's out of work so I doubt he had the money to pay.

Next conversation:

Teacher: This is Joe's teacher. I'm calling about the field trip.
Dad: Did Joe show up at school today?
Teacher: No, he's not here.
Dad: Oh. I guess he decided not to go. (Me: What?!!)
Teacher: Well, is he going on the field trip tomorrow?
Dad: I don't know. I'll have to ask him if he wants to go.

The story continues: I did see Joe on the field trip. He was wandering around at the picnic tables during lunch. I asked him if he was going to eat, and he said, "I'm not hungry." Interpretation: "I'm not going to pick up one of those white lunch bags."

This situation has caused me to lose sleep again. What kind of parent would eat a child's lunch and send him on a field trip with nothing? What kind of parent wouldn't know whether or not his son went to school? (I thought he was "out of work." Where was this "parent" all day?) And next, do we ask our children if they want to participate in their educations?

As I lay awake for the umpteenth time in my career, I thought back to one of my favorite students, Dee. He's in a group home now. Finally, his behavior was too much for his social worker to deal with. For me...his mother is "too much" to deal with. You see, Dee's told me on numerous occasions that his mother takes money from him to buy drugs. And his grandmother takes money from her to buy her own drugs. Once Dee was suspended from the bus, and I knew that he would miss our field trip to the zoo because no one would bring him to school on that day. I called his mother and told her that I would pick him up. He waited for me at a nearby church because he didn't want me to see his house. When I got there, I had an extra biscuit for him.

"Did you eat breakfast?" I asked.

"No," he answered. "My Mama's still asleep."

"Did she fix your lunch or give you money to buy lunch?"

"No, she's busy. She has five children with five different men. You know, Mrs. Rigsbee, even I know that just ain't right."

That night I asked myself what kind of mother would send her child on a field trip with no breakfast and no lunch? How did she think he would eat? Is this a question of poverty or poor parenting or both? And how do we end it?

Dee called me on Mother's Day. I haven't taught him in four years. The message went like this: "Mrs. Rigsbee, this is Dee. I just called to wish you happy Mother's Day. Call me back."

Dee, I'm not your mother. But in so many ways, I wish I were. And although I want to single handedly wipe out poverty and ensure that all my students' parents are good parents, I know I can't do it alone. So I have to settle for doing what I can, one PB&J at a time.

But I have to tell you - it hurts my heart.