Tag Archives: poor

Night School (or, crying at my desk)…

It’s a rookie move to sit crying at your desk WHILE THE KIDS ARE WORKING AWAY, isn’t it? I’m supposed to excuse myself to run to the bathroom, or step outside and slump down in a ball of messiness, but…today, it all happened too fast. My students are at work independently doing some standardized testing preparation for next week’s high-stakes affair, and I—diligent multi-tasker that I am—use that time to check my school email.

There’s a reply from a student who’s asked me to write a recommendation for her for a summer program that has a strong social justice component. This student, who is that one amazing kid we are fortunate to teach at least once in a lifetime, knows this proposed program is quite similar to the one she did last year. Might you do something more academic, I ask? You know, build out your resume and learn some new academic stuff. I’ve no doubt you’d be even more amazing in those summer programs.

Her reply is that she knows she should do something more academic, but she pays for everything in school (afterschool activities add up) and…this is the part that got me…maybe she could take a night school class.

Night school? You are 15 years old, can address issues of privilege and power better than most adults, write a dream piece of analysis, have a voice that is poetic and brilliant and memorable…and you know you should do something like go to night school because there’s no way to think about programs otherwise.

Tears. Leaking. I’m looking away from them—or trying to look but I keep looking at the email and it’s blurred because I feel so incredibly helpless at that moment–staring away from the kids who are diligently writing because they take everything so seriously, and I am crying. At 10:30 a.m., after we return from a fire drill and are re-starting after our disruption, I’m catching up on housekeeping, and I’m crying.

Because WHEN, for the love of all we do as educators, do the good kids get to win?! I’ve been thinking about this article from Slate for a few days now.

She’s one of those kids. She’s White, low-income, over-involved in school, but can’t dare to think of an opportunity that’s offered by the local colleges and universities, or others across the country, because she needs the money. I hate it when I am reminded that young people have to deal with grown-up problems. I hate that in this friggin’ school district that spends nearly 30K per child (!) that we can’t give her enough—or her peers who are equally well-deserving and eager and will change the world, I’m quite certain, if we JUST LET THEM—can’t think creatively enough to consider allocating funds for stipends, or making other things free. I hate that they have to make decisions that will mean something, ultimately, and will impact them, unfortunately, and so much of these decisions are predicated on factors they cannot control, cannot change, cannot surmount.

That is, until they do…surmount them, that is. I remind myself that I was one of those kids, smart and poor, who benefitted from reading the Fiske Guide to Colleges, dog-earing some pages about schools I couldn’t necessarily place on a map with any good accuracy, and who said yes when others suggested I leave my hometown, major in English and American Studies, hire me back for summer after summer and not mind while I read my way through the days. Make no mistake. It’s been incredibly hard and I’ve wanted to quit, but I didn’t. But I also didn’t understand—until now, when I am faced with students who are trying to essentially make a way the best they can—that one little decision can change everything, and how precarious the path is that we ask them to traverse, largely unaided and uninformed.

Everything.

Usually, I am overcome by moments of intense emotion—teaching does that to you—before I get myself together and think of what I am able to do with these moments, and I cannot anticipate when or where they will occur. That’s what happened today, as the students worked and as I slowly (but silently—maybe I’m not so much of a rookie after all) fell apart and put myself back together again. I’m reminded that the local college has an extension school that is taught by the best professors and that high school students from here can go free. She’s going to come chat next week, I hope, and we can think about that as an option. I’m sure we’ll consider other options, as well, as we sit down, research, talk, hope, do…

And I won’t cry, but I’ll hope really hard, put my head back down, and get to work to think of how we can make decisions—or pressure those in the power to make the bigger decisions—to envision how to create equity for these brilliant, brilliant children that are going to change the world.

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New School Chronicles: What Poverty Smells Like

After growing up poor, you have a particular type of respect for your parents’ ability to keep that vital bit of information from you. I grew up dirt poor; seriously, I think at one point our household income might have been less than $18,000. Raised by my grandparents, I remember that they often didn’t have to file taxes because they didn’t make enough. But there was always money for essentials and some extras. True, I envied what my more affluent peers had, but my grandmother always told me that I could do whatever I set my mind to.

Years later, I guess that one of the things I set my mind to was getting the hell out of poverty. I had an unbelievable network of folks (Black and White, mostly White, actually), that had an unwavering support in my potential. More, they helped me reach that potential in myriad ways: small gifts, jobs, connections.

When I taught in the city, I always made a conscious decision to live in the neighborhood where I taught. That’s meant living within a mile of one of the poorest areas of Boston. Recently, I moved to another part of the city. Before, though I lived in that poor area, I lived on particular street that was middle class (some parts even upper middle class). So, I could straddle two worlds: walk to my school and then turn the corner on the way home and think I was in the suburbs. Now, though, I live in an area where I don’t have that escape. I live in a food desert (well, there is a Save-A-Lot), where liquor stores outnumber any other stores, high immigrant population, significant areas of crime (because I obsess about crime stats)…and my street is quiet and tree-lined, but this time, it’s not enough.

Where I live reminds me, too uncomfortably, about being poor. I don’t like such reminders.

And now I have this interesting moment wherein I’m always quick to acknowledge someone else’s privilege, but I best acknowledge my own. See, I’m moving out. After one month, I’m moving BACK to my old, middle class neighborhood because I want to live around people with similar “middle class values.” I do not like the way my apartment smells–a blend of despair, mold, diminishing dreams–the litter that’s everywhere, the sadness that lingers as I walk to the bus stop.

I am privileged. I have savings. I can move. I have friends who are willing to put me up while I’m in between places. I have a choice. I am Black and middle class and I have privilege.

I’ve run into a number of former students (ALWAYS) in my new location. They are all surprised that I live over here, some even ask me if I am “okay” for making such a choice. But THEY live here. This neighborhood is their daily reality, this neighborhood is the place where they grew up, where their families still reside.

They do not necessarily see it as hopeless, and I shouldn’t, either. Some do, but some don’t. Every kid’s experience is different.

But with privilege comes responsibility. I have a choice, after all: I could move back to the old neighborhood, think of this one-month stint as an “adventure” and keep living my relatively comfortable life. Or, I could act on this new information and use it to have a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be Black and Brown and poor as a young person today. I could start being much more responsible for advocating for initiatives that directly benefit these kids. I could understand–I mean, REALLY understand— that just because you’re Black and Brown and poor does not mean you are stupid or have no potential.

I could…

In the last week, I’ve been able to articulate why I have been so uncomfortable in my present situation. I do not want to be reminded of being poor. That is my privilege. Yes, I’m a Black woman, but I’m highly educated and I have the options to choose my life. As someone with that privilege, it’s my responsibility to use that privilege to make the lives of the kids I teach who don’t have that privilege better.

It just is.

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