From Laurie Clarcq, a teacher in upstate New York in response to James:
You are not an isolated example but you are a rare one. I’ve taught high school students for 30 years in a rural area. The students whose families are above the poverty line are the ones who, overwhelmingly, hear messages of hope and support for a financially stable future via education. Those whose families live at or below rarely see outside of their own reality. In many cases, in today’s world, they have more financial aid available to them..many could go to college for little or nothing…but they and their families see little value in education. They do not even consider future careers that require education. That is clear by the time they enter ninth grade.
First of all, school is a different world than it was. While wealth has always helped, my observation is that more and more, a family’s financial background comes into play. Because so much emphasis is put on the data, more and more rewards are given to students who do well, STARTING IN KINDERGARTEN. Students who do well often come from families who read to them from an early age, can afford a good preschool program, ate well and exercised well and slept well the first five years of life. Kindergarten teachers are remarkably accurate in their ability to predict who will graduate from high school and who will not. Some of that may be from experience. Some of that may be because, in kindergarten, we have already identified who will be successful, who will not, and treat them that way (whether we realize it or not). Families with means will encourage students to play sports, take music lessons, have art supplies at home, provide computers and computer access from an early age. They will travel. They will encourage behaviors that will be encouraged at school from infancy…whereas families from lower-income social groups will not…without even realizing it.
It is not just the availability of money that makes the difference (although I promise you that a third grader who uses a computer and can afford a trip to the nearest arts and crafts store for his Solar System project will receive a much higher grade than the kid who did his on the back of a letter from Social Services.) It is the MINDSET of possibility (my own term) that money brings that is the biggest difference.
I am sure that Pat Barrett could explain it far better than I, but what I see is that these families require each member (in the family and it also often includes people in their “community” to be HIGHLY interdependent. These students have emotional, financial and social commitments early on in life. They are EXPECTED to stay home from school whenever a baby sitter is needed, or some stressful situation arises and a family member needs support. They frequently have adult responsibilities by ninth grade: paying bills, child care, negotiating disagreements between adults, visiting family in jail, arranging doctor’s appointments etc. It is very very difficult for them to even imagine taking enough personal time away from their families to put homework first, give up work time for classes, or even worse, leave home to go to college.
The other issue is harder for some of us to understand, but I assure you that it is very real. There is a cultural understanding in these families, that going to school and doing better than one’s parents is an insult to them. That a student would think himself better than a parent, and to act on it, is in many cases, unforgivable and therefore, unthinkable. The family is not going to ‘move up” with the student. In order to do better, the student would, eventually, have to leave the social environment in which s/he lives. In this kind of “closed” community, that rarely crosses their mind. They simply would never think of it.
The third issue is that doing well academically routinely requires delayed gratification…and that is simply NOT part of their reality either. But that is a deeply rooted, psycho-social phenomenon that I;m sure is dissertation-worthy, so I’ll leave it at that.
There are students who do it. And we encourage every single child to become what God would have him or her become. But, teachers are one tiny OUTSIDE voice among many closer and louder voices that they hear every day.
For me, that is the attitude of the home and surrounding environment, and my experience is that it is closely tied to families without financial resources. Can addressing poverty help that? In the sense that students might then NOT have to take on so many adult responsibilities..yes.
In addition, I believe that it would surprise many to know how many students ONLY eat at school. 1. There isn’t food at home. Either there isn’t money or the money is used elsewhere and that is beyond the student’s control. 2. High school students from these families often work evenings and do not use their money to buy dinner. It goes for gas to get to work. 3. Believe it or not, many of these homes actually LOCK up their food. For some, it is a way of controlling their children. For others, it is a way of protecting the food, many of these folks live in “communal” family situations (3-4 “families” in a household) and this is simply how they protect their resources. Also, parents who are addicts often have paranoid behaviors that lead to this…as do many parents with untreated mental health issues. (two situations which are prevalent in my area in this income bracket)
The last piece that adds to the challenges that these children face is the fact that they rarely get a good night’s sleep. They may not know where they are sleeping. They may be avoiding sexual contact from someone in the house. They may have family members up all night playing loud video games, or drinking/using drugs, arguing, etc. They often have younger siblings to take care of at night if mom works overnights. They don’t get the medical attention and medications they need when they are ill and sleep very poorly due to a number of ongoing physical ailments. They often live in crowded houses/apartments with little personal sleeping space available.
One might think that given all that they face, that they would love to get the heck out of Dodge and take advantage of a good education to do it. Well…not if they have never seen that happen. Not if, from kindergarten on, only the “rich” kids do well in school. Not if they have been an integral part of a system that requires them to put today in front of tomorrow.
Exceptions exist James, they truly do, but not as often as we’d like. All human beings have their challenges, each child, regardless of his/her background can become far more than his/her childhood has dictated. But before that can happen, the possibility of such a thing must exist in his/her mind. Your beautiful mother gave you that. Let’s hope that we can find the resources to help those who weren’t so blessed.
I would add to this that I was raised in a small Ohio town and experienced all the things such people experience as long as they were born White. At this point, I have a hell of a trump card (excuse the word) to play: one of my classmates went on to be a Harvard professor, president of the American Sociological Association, author of the best-seller Bowling Alone, and advisor to Presidents. Recently he took his research team back to our hometown, Port Clinton, Ohio, and did a study of what had happened there since 1959. The opening of the book details life in the town when I lived there, so you can see that my perspective is derived from direct experience just as it is on issues of education, poverty and race. Frankly, I’m not too sure many people have the combinations in their background I have. So as with poverty and education and race, you are free to question my perceptions of small town life in America in the 50s, but don’t tell me I know nothing about it just because it doesn’t correspond well to your gauzy, 50s sit-com, Republican nostalgia view.
BTW. Ruby Payne has become justifiably famous for her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. The book made me uncomfortable because it is written very much from the outside, as in, “We have the keys and you don’t and here is how you get the keys”, as if normative American, White, Middle Class society, what I call Norwegians, just rolls along with all the answers and these poor folk just need to get on board. Having said that, I will say that anyone working with poverty populations should read her book.