Kids today. I hear people complaining constantly about how kids don’t respect anyone anymore, how the world is falling apart, people are afraid to be parents, etc. But for every shrieking brat (and they existed before today) there are ten other sweet kids that blend in.
Years ago, I worked in an urban school. Poverty over 92%–almost all of the kids on free breakfast and lunch programs. These were children who had the audacity to be born to parents in poverty; the children no one wants to talk about. The ones who came to school in tank tops and flip-flops in the snow. The ones who ate lunch at school on Friday and waited until breakfast on Monday for their next meal. The ones who had never seen a book and had very few toys.
I hear people all the time say, “Well, if poor people would just suck it up and get a job, they wouldn’t be poor!” Here are four true stories of three poor families and their extraordinary children, all aged 6 to 8. (All names changed)
#1 Alice graduated from high school with great grades and a bright future. She got married and had two children, Derek and Susie. After her daughter was born, her husband became secretive and difficult, and then violent. He became addicted to drugs, lost his job, began beating his wife. She took it until he punched her preschool-aged son. She packed up the children and fled. When she returned to get her things a couple of days later, her apartment was empty, her bank accounts emptied and closed. She had her children, her car and a small amount of cash. They lived in the car until she was able to get an apartment.
Alice worked four jobs to pay for the apartment, daycare and for going back to college. These four jobs made just enough money to disqualify her from food stamps and other forms of assistance. Taking a single day off would cause her to lose her job. Despite this, her children were gentle, kind and well behaved, and worked very hard at school.
Around Christmastime, we filled stockings for poor children in other schools. All of my students tried to fill the stockings with their own school supplies until I stopped them. Derek offered repeatedly to keep half of his crayons and put half in the stocking, so at least the children would have something. The fifth grade teachers would pool their own money and choose one family in need to buy clothes for. They chose Alice. After the break ended, Derek returned to school wearing brand new clothes and shoes, beaming with pride. “Look at me!” he said. “I got new shirt and new pants and new shoes! Not many kids are lucky enough to get new clothes and new shoes. I’m the luckiest kid in the world!”
When I met Amber and Stacy, they were barely twenty and each had a child in my class. They lived together, working opposite shifts to take turns watching over both children. Amber had been raised by a religious family who neglected to teach her about life; at thirteen, she discovered she was pregnant. When she went to her parents for help, she was literally thrown outside and the door locked behind her; she lived on the street and had her daughter Christine in a dumpster. Shortly after, the same happened to Stacy, and the two managed to find a shelter and eventually pooled enough money to share a tiny apartment, with the children sleeping and eating on the floor.
Christine and Alan were two of the sweetest, most generous children I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Christine was brilliant, a voracious reader and writer; Alan loved science and spent all of his free time sitting at the back of the classroom with a children’s space encyclopedia. They were both unfailingly polite, eager to help other children when they were hurt or scared, and volunteering to help classmates learn to read. When she saw a child who came to school without socks in winter, I saw her take her own pair of extra socks from her backpack and secretly slide them into his. (I gave them back to her, and replaced them with a pair I brought. We kept extra socks and underwear, along with snacks, in our classrooms). She slipped her brand new lip gloss into the desk of another student who was having a bad day. Alan drew pictures of rainbows and flowers and set them on the desks of kids who were having a bad day.
At Christmas, each child was set to receive a new toy from the Salvation Army and the Rotary Club, who helped all our kids at the holidays. Christine said, “Alan and I decided if we get more than one toy, we’ll donate the other. Did you know that some kids don’t get any toys? And after all, who really needs more than one, anyway?” And sure enough, they each got two. Christine brought her baby doll to school to show it to me, but had given her new Barbie away. “She’ll make some other child SO happy. and Alan gave his racecar to another little boy.” she said, smiling brightly, before going to the reading corner to read the doll a book. She wanted to be a teacher; I believe she will make an amazing difference in every life she touches, as will her cousin.
Antonio was a new kid halfway through the year. He had luminous brown eyes and a huge smile, and an incredible, inquisitive mind. He approached me the first day with something clutched in his fist; he opened his fingers to reveal a plastic bag filled with wet coins. “Is this enough for lunch?” he asked softly. “We had to pick them out of the sewer this morning. I washed them. I hope it’s enough.” His hands were red from cold. I assured him it was without counting it; out school never let the kids go hungry. He told me that looking for change in the gutter was a common past time on the weekdays.
Antonio loved science and reading. He was shy, but friendly. He read stories to the kids that were struggling, and always sat next to the lonely kid at lunch. At the end of the year, Antonio’s mother came to see me, carrying a book order, and asked me to help pick books her son would like, and she had $300.
That’s what the gutter change was for. She said, “My husband and I tell them every day that they won’t live this way, and this is how they’ll get out.”
Antonio loved the books.
Sheila was homeless. She lived with her parents and sister in shelters and a broken down truck. Her parents were former soldiers. She loved science, and spent hours after school in the library studying. When one of my friends, a scientist, came to talk about her job, Sheila was fascinated. she asked her how became a scientist, where she went to college, and how she could get the money to go. Her mother said she spent the next few weeks writing to colleges, asking what she needed to do to save enough money to go.
Sheila, Christine and Alan’s families all moved out of state to follow job opportunities the following year.
Alice graduated, got a good job and bought her family a house.
Antonio, entering high school this year, is an honor student at a science magnet school. His little brothers are following in his footsteps.
Remember, while there are welfare queens, they are few and far between. 90% of the people I worked with were kind, loving, hard working people with polite, honest children, who will grow to be equally amazing adults. Please consider becoming a Big Brother or Sister, volunteering to read or tutor at your local library or low income school, and giving to food banks.
To close, I got this on a plaque one year when teaching, and I keep it on my desk:
“An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a human figure in the distance moving like a dancer. As he came closer he saw that it was a young woman and she was not dancing but was reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
“Young lady,” he asked, “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”
“The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.”
“But young lady, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.”
The young woman listened politely, paused and then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves,
saying, “It made a difference to that one.” (Loren Eiseley)