I am fairly confident that you, like me, view the end of the work day on Fridays as a cause for celebration. Bring on the weekend! For most of us, we work because we have to but, it is on our free time that we can relax, re-energize and slip into the comfortable clothes of the life we really love.
When you think about schools in this regard, the image that springs to mind is of the dismissal bell ringing for summer vacation, the doors of the school bursting open and the kids pouring out, hooting and hollering, throwing their books and papers into the air, heading out to the carefree world of summer vacation! That image had been my reality as a teacher for the first 17 years of my career. Everywhere I taught, the kids were as excited for their weekends as they teachers were. Everyone was happy on Fridays! Spring Break always rocked! And, don't get me started about the giddiness of summer vacation!
But, then I transferred into the school I am presently teaching at and everything changed. I teach in the middle of a social housing complex, which means that virtually every student at my school comes from a household that relies on some form of financial assistance from the Government in order for them to meet their basic needs of food and shelter. When I first began working here, I had a vague notion of what poverty meant for me, as their teacher. I thought that everything would be fine as long as they worked hard for me. I could supplement when necessary with supplies but, an honest work ethic would be enough to help the kids enjoy a successful time in our classroom. If they were academically low, that was fine. I work with all manner of students and would happily do so with them. Basically, I walked into our classroom on the first day of school, totally and completely unprepared for what I was to encounter. Suffice to say, poverty is a bitch! My time at this school has provided ME with the real education. I am a changed and better human being for having had this experience.
It is difficult to accurately describe what living in poverty is like. For someone like me, who has a full fridge, a warm house with lots of toys and a bank account with my own dollars in it, I have no right to state that I know what it is like to be poor. But, as witness to the myriad displays of emotion, drama and humanity that unfold before my eyes, each and every day, in our classroom, schoolyard and hallways, I, most certainly, have knowledge to share. The best way I know of to even remotely convey the depth of the complex, multi-faceted, nuanced layering of issues at play when it comes to poverty, is to tell you the following true story. The story is called The Christmas Block and, honestly, I couldn't make this stuff up! Writing this for you blows my mind, even now.
One of the ways that we, as staff, dealt with the pervausive nature of poverty at our school, was to focus on developing a greater sense of community among the students and, by extension, their families, too. We tried to show them that you don't have to be rich to be nice, to do the right things in life, to be helpful, to contribute to the betterment of the classroom/school/community in a positive way. We tried to empower them and to help to boost their self-esteem by making them realize their own self-worth as human beings on our planet. That is no small task, in an environment where everyone is beaten down and in various stages of defeat.
Among the many initiatives we enacted, was one where we actively sought out opportunites for the students to participate in events outside of the school. The thinking was, to attempt to change the public's perecption of our school from being " a welfare school, filled with bad kids" to being a nice school, with a warm sense of community and an ever growing list of positive accomplishments. In this light, we jumped at the chance to participate in an event sponsored by our local Public Library. It was a storywriting competition. The lure for us was that they had categories of prizes for the top stories but, also, prizes for the best rate of participation, as a percentage of the school's total population. Being a rather small school, size wise, we thought that if we could just get each student to simply write a story that met the contest criteria then, we would automatically qualify to the participation prize. This would mean that we would get to go to the awards celebration and get our school's name in the newspaper. So, off our little authors went.
In my class, we had to write a story about any topic we wanted, as long as it was 100 words long. Sweet! No problem! We could do it, even if it took us a couple of weeks! As the children wrote, their stories were woefully-unimaginative. This was not surprising due to the lack of literacy in their homes. It is hard to become a creative and expressive writer when no one has ever read a bedtime story to you in your life. But, even with the low quality of most of the stories, one stood out as even weaker than the rest. It was from a boy named Tom* ( I am using my name, for the sake of privacy). Tom was a unique student for several reasons: one, he had shown an above-average level of ability with Mathematics. This gave him the reputation among his peers, as being one of the smartest kids in the whole school. Tom was, also, unique, in that he had a tremendous amount of pride and, routinely, refused any of the free food, clothing or school supplies that his classmates so eagerly and consistently grabbed up. So, when it came time to read Tom's story, I had hoped that it would be one of the few to demonstrate a decent amount of skill.
Tom called his story, "The Christmas Block". To summarize it, the story read....it was Christmas morning. His only gift was a wooden block. He liked it. He put it down to go outside to play. When he returned, the block was gone. Someone had stolen it, he was told. The end.
My initial reaction was one of disappointment. Who writes a story about a block for Christmas?! What changed my thinking was when I showed this story to a colleague who had been at this school much longer than I had. She was far more familair with the inner-workings of the neighbourhood that I was. As she read it, she said, "I think Tom is trying, in his own cryptic way, to tell you that something bad happened to him at Christmas. If I was to guess, I'd say he is trying to tell you that his parents took his gifts and sold them for food or drugs or cigarettes or whatever."
To say that I was stunned is an understatement.
I conferenced with all of the students about their stories. When it came time for Tom's conference, I was pumped. I asked him to tell me about his story. He just repeated that it was about a block that he had lost. He was very tight-lipped about it all. I asked him if he had lost the block in real life. He said it was just a story. I asked him if he or anyone he knew, had lost birthday or Christmas toys. He replied, without looking up, that lots of things happen in his neighbourhood. I asked him again, if the story of the Christmas block was a real story. Tom got up, smiled a sheepish smile and, as he began walking away said, thanks for the contest.
Tom was the sort of student who was never going to admit what had actually happened to him nor, that it had happened before and would, in all liklihood, happen again in the future. But the more I poked around, trying to uncover the truth, the more convinced I became that, in fact, Tom had had his Christmas gifts taken from him by his parents and so had many other students. In fact, the systemic looting of children's possessions to help fuel the addicitions of their caregivers was, as it turned out, quite a normal part of life in my school neighbourhood. No one was outraged by it. It was just how the world worked, in the eyes of my students.
As I came to understand this more, I began to recognize the connections between what was happening at home and some of the behaviours I was seeing at school. For instance, almost all of the kids were, what I would call, hoarders. Their desks were crammed full of anything and everything that we had done in class. At first, my Type-A personality was such that Desk Clean-out day was a regular feature of life in our classroom. But, I soon came to realize that everything that was going home was ending up being put straight into the garbage. There were no refrigerator art galleries in these homes. I began to learn that if the student valued their work then, it needed to be honoured on the walls of the school because, that was their only chance to be recognized as being special.
The story would end here, if not for a bit of luck with the contest. Our school was awarded the prize for best rate of participation! That was awesome but, what surprised us all was that, Tom's story was selected for special recognition. We had been contacted and asked to nominate someone who was not known as a writer but yet, had produced noteworthy work. I thought of Tom right away. I sent an short, explanatory note along with his story. The judges read his story and deemed it worthy. So, Tom and his whole family were invited, along with me, to go to the Gala Awards ceremony at a fancy-schmancy banquet hall downtown. This was not the sort of place that families from my school normally frequented.
The awards ceremony was scheduled to begin at 11:00 in the morning. Tom and his family were downtown by 8:00am. I know that because I was running an early morning errand and saw them walking around the banquet hall, trying to find their way inside. When I arrived, I found them seated in the front row of chairs. The whole family was there; Tom, his older brother, his mother and father, too. All of the men had gotten haircuts. They were wearing new dress shirts which came from the Dollar Store, according to Mom, who was very proud of her men.
The emcee of the ceremony was a local author of some reknown. He had quite a dramatic flair and proceeded to work his way through the various prize categories by reading snippets of each student's winning entry. As he did this, I thought about what might happen when he read Tom's story about his parents stealing his Christmas gift......with them sitting in the front row!!! But, as it turned out, I didn't have much to worry about. Our emcee turned Tom's plain-sounding little story, into a melodrama worthy of the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV specials. As an orator, he had Tom's words fill up the entire hall. The story sounded glorious! Tom's family were thrilled. As Tom was called up to receive his award, he kept his head bowed the entire time, even as the applause of the crowd filled the room.
His mother hugged me and thanked me for helping her son to have such a wonderful moment. Tom's dad shook my hand. Then, they turned quickly away and melted into the sunshine outside and went back home.
Like I said, I just can't make this stuff up!
Since working at this school, I have seen how poverty really affects my students. How it creates environments where the students view parents as people who will protect you with one hand while stealing from you with the other. Being raised in such an environment means that my students don't react to material possessions the same way as other children might. Incentive programmes don't hold any sway here. I can't tell a child that if they complete X-number of tasks they will earn a reward because, they know their possessions will just end up being stolen or broken at home. The normal mentality of striving to achieve a goal doesn't work here. There is a disconnect between the wishes of my students and the reality of their lives. Nobody writes letters to Santa at my school. It is a vicious, negative existance, from my point of view but, from the point of view of my students, it is just life. It is so messed up. But, poverty is messed up, too!
So now, when the dismissal bell rings on a Friday afternoon and the kids don't really want to leave...I have developed a greater ability to understand why. I counter this, the only way I really know how, I hug every one of them who seem to need it. Then, they are wished a good weekend and I stand in the doorway and watch them walk toward home.