A Tough Lesson

I thought I understood poverty.
I was a Welfare mom. I made my way through school and got past that stage of life. I took the classes to explain how students of poverty think and feel. I’ve been to the workshops on how to help kids see past their present to try to find hope in the future.
I’ve given money and food to the homeless. I support United Way.
I’ve taught for almost two decades.
Like I said, I thought I understood poverty.
And then ON came to live with us.
The first week she smacked me across the face with the truth of poverty.
Her face and body were bruised, but that was nothing compared to her heart and soul.
That first weekend I prayed over and over for her to see we could be an escape. We could help her. I wanted to demand “STAY WITH US!” but I knew that wasn’t the answer. It had to be her decision. After three days, it was, but only with a caveat.
She told me after her first day at Rider that she’d never be like DD. Never have friends like that because she hated them. When I asked like what, she told me she didn’t want to offend me, and not to take it personally, but friends like us. “Rich people.”
I didn’t take her words personally, but they did hurt. They hurt because I saw us through her eyes.
I’m a school teacher and DH owns a lawn care service. I’ve never looked at us as rich, but she did. And by rich she meant judgmental and rude. Big eye opener.

That first week we just wanted her to focus on finding a way to get back in school.
Her old counselor someone I’d talked to in the past, was willing to do whatever we needed to get her on my campus.
We thought she’d be there for a few weeks tops before moving to the alternative campus to graduate early and move on with life in a safe way, whatever that entailed.
When her transcripts came in, the Rider counselor told me the grades were impressive. Despite constant truancies and moves, she was an A-B student.
It shocked me. How could an A-B student be a drop out? How can that happen?
Another shocker. In my world, kids with good grades stay in school and go to college. In hers, grades were no big deal. In hers, college wasn’t an option. In hers, the life plan was written and it was going in a direction where grades made ZERO difference.
An educator I respect says First, Do Not Deprive of Hope.
Until then I didn’t understand what exactly that meant.
When educators (including ME) say “I’ve got to hold these kids accountable or they’ll never learn” about kids like ON, we’re missing the point. They don’t care. We can’t make them care. Our world, our gradebooks, our lessons, DON’T MATTER. Their hope for something different is gone. Our “accountability” statements are the equivalent of the two minute showers we get every once in a while in the midst of this god awful drought.

It’s been months now. ON reclaimed her hope. In large part because of the amazing teachers on my campus. One, Cleveland Wallerich, reached out to ON almost immediately.  He never treated her like a child of poverty, a child with no hope. That’s probably important. He made her feel like every other kid in the class. Those first weeks when she was quiet and sick and bruised, not sure she was even going to stay with us, he didn’t let her become invisible even though that’s what she seemed to want. He treated her like a normal person. He spoke to her every morning when we walked through the door. He teased her about me. He established a connection and made her laugh. That didn’t happen all that often at first. Today she laughs a lot. Today, she’s different, but the same. A child with hope. A child who’s survived.

We bought ON’s graduation announcements and cap & gown this month. She took the SAT. Once ON reclaimed her hope, everything changed. She wants to go to college. She’s graduating from a traditional high school. She has a job. She has friends who have plans for life after high school. She hasn’t been sick in months. The bruises on her face and body are gone. I know the ones on the heart and soul still exist, but they’re healing…BECAUSE of hope AND prayer. We prayed a lot, our small group prayed with us and reached out to ON, including her in everything we did this summer. AND ON’s old school counselor called this month to check on her. When she heard about ON’s new life plan, she was overjoyed. I told her we’d definitely send her a graduation announcement.

I talked to an older teacher at a conference last week. He told me about his experiences with poverty as a child. He said it still hurts to remember how he was treated. His voice cracked with the 50-yr-old memories. He was different because he was poor, and his peers never let him forget it. BUT he made it. He broke the cycle. ON will too. And as she does, I’m going to be paying attention as a teacher and an aunt.

Poverty destroys. It sucks away hope. Schools can do the same if we’re not careful.

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