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.


Jessica said...

First of all, I wanted you to know that I'm not harassing you. We had to find three interesting blogs for my class at UFL and I loved your insight so I've continued to read yours. Second of all, this blog touched my heart. I had my own experience today with the exact same thing you're talking about. I'm teaching summer school and I had a kid shut down on me. I taught him earlier this year when his mom sent him to live with his dad that just got out of prison, and then his grandma sent him back to mom when he couldn't stay out of trouble at our school. I had him out in the hallway when the principal took him. The principal came back and told me that he got him to talk and he hadn't eaten since yesterday morning and he was really hungry. He didn't come to summer school yesterday so I guess he didn't get fed. Anyway...the principal got him some food and he came back to class and resumed his normal disruptive behavior. I have to admit though, I was sort of glad for the disruptive behavior because at least it meant he wasn't hungry. I want so bad to help him but I don't know what to do...
As for your situation, I do have a couple of suggestions that we use at my school. First of all, this past field trip we went on we MADE kids buy a school lunch. That annoyed some parents but we used the reasoning that there is always going to be a kid who forgets their lunch and this keeps that from happening. That way, no one knew who had free lunch and who didn't (on the form we sent home the parents just wrote in their lunch account number). Second, we always ask if parents want to sponsor a child for a field trip and we always get one or two that do and that really defrays the cost for those who can't.
Anyway...keep blogging, I enjoy your entries!

Cindi Rigsbee said...

I like the "everybody buys lunch" idea. I should have mentioned another idea - I went on the 8th grade field trip (not my students) to help chaperone, and they had it catered. Every child had the same barbeque, hushpuppies, and slaw, and it evened the field. No one felt left out. In the future I'm going to do it that way every time, and like you mentioned, have parents donate extra for those who can't afford it. Thanks for reading, and you are not harrassing me! :)

mnmsalyer said...

You make me cry, my friend. Then, of course, I laugh through my tears. You make me remember what it was like to be back there, right next to you, right next to the Dees and the Scartishas and the Andreas (and so on) whom we loved and struggled with so much.

Email me asap. I've been trying to find you since the last number I had for you stopped working. I'm having to keep track of the whole family through what I can online, but I'd much rather talk to you, D, and the kids.

Jude said...

From the perspective of an impoverished parent (I made $10,000 three years ago), I can tell you that it isn't just food. Last year I accompanied my kids on a middle school band field trip to an amusement park. I'd sent my older son on this same trip with $10.00 in previous years. I learned from going on the trip that he really needed at least $50.00 because he had to purchase two meals and needed money for fun. This year, I gave my son $50.00. He didn't give me any back because a friend of his had his $20.00 stolen, so my son gave him money so the friend could eat. Then there are the horrendously expensive "food projects" frequently thought of by geography teachers. I complained about one of these to a teacher, and she said "Well, we have a scholarship fund to help defray the cost of the food for students who need it." She hadn't bothered to mention that in the letters home to parents, so I scraped together $30.00 to buy enough oranges to divide into orange sections so my daughter could participate. This is our last year of free school lunches, thank goodness, because I'm finally making more, but I'm grateful that those lunches were there to help us out for the four years we needed them, especially for field trips (although they persisted in giving my son pb&j sandwiches even though he's allergic to nuts--still, there were other things he could eat). It's a middle class world, and if you don't have the money, you're screwed.

Teacher in the middle said...

You've put into words what so many of us feel. My husband doesn't quite understand why I can't stop thinking about students, their parents, what they go home to, what they leave to come to school, etc. Thank you for writing this!

Anonymous said...

oh this makes me cry... as a child of middle-class privileges, it kills me that my son has to do without the luxuries that other kids at school often get. "he had these cool check mark shoes mom, i wish i could have those." my son will be in fifth grade this coming school year, and he's in the ED classes, because he's bi-polar. he's had free lunch since kindergarten and comes home angry because the other kids get ice cream, and slushes, etc. since he's disabled, i must stay at home with him, and if i work, we lose most of our benefits. including having to pay for childcare(!). i feel terribly that he has to be "the poor kid"... as i never did. it is good to see a teacher that actually cares. thank you for your blog.

TeacherJulie said...

This post touched my heart and I am teary-eyed.

I have read several of your passages to my daughter sitting beside me and she was shocked to hear that this happens in America.

Those things you mentioned are frequent happenings here in the Philippines. Coupled with the fact that even if education is free, children are not able to go to school because there is simply no money to pay for other things they need. If they do attend public school, here are up to 60 students in a class.

Seems like education here is a privilege for those with money in their pockets and feels that this is not a right for every child.

Have a great week :)