The Details that Stick in My Mind

Poverty and Education (Part I)

The school bell rang and a new day had started. Fifteen minutes later, a kid came to the clinic writhing in pain. He couldn’t sit, he couldn’t stand, he couldn’t lie down. He clutched his middle and was in absolute agony. We called his mother and she said she would pick him up and take him to the hospital. The minutes ticked by and we wondered where she was. Ten… fifteen… twenty… When she arrived, we learned that she didn’t have a car. She had walked from her home to the school. A staff member drove them to the hospital which happened to be just down the street. We hoped it wasn’t something serious, but were scared that it might be. In less than an hour, mother and son were back at our school. We learned of his ailment – hunger pangs! That night, I told my family about the little boy and we cried at our dinner table. This happened seven years ago, but it plays out in my mind even today in minute detail. I was in an urban school with high poverty and the lessons I learned that year were ones for which I had no reference point.

I grew up in India and am not unfamiliar with poverty, but seeing it in America, the land of plenty, continues to surprise me. In 1989, when I arrived in the US , I had no knowledge of poverty and homelessness in this country. That changed quickly! I remember standing outside an ice-cream shop in Boston when a man walked up and asked my husband for a cigarette. Then he turned to me, pointed to my ice-cream cone and said, “I’ll take one of those too.” He laughed and walked away. I asked my husband if he knew this man and learned that he was quite likely homeless. I was shocked. A few days later, a man begging outside an ATM kiosk said, “Spare a rupee, ma’am.” I gave him a ten dollar bill – probably because of his cheeky grin!

In India, we have the ‘educated unemployed’ – people with college degrees and no jobs. I was naive enough to think that couldn’t happen in the US! You see, in India, you could be Bill Gates and there would be people begging right outside your home. You would encounter slums and see images of poverty every day. In the US, there are freeways and highways that take us away from inner city areas and it’s possible to live your life here and never pass through poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

I was in graduate school at Boston University, studying special education and I remember taking the ‘T’ and then a bus to go to the Boston University Medical Library to read some articles for a paper on Phenylketonuria (PKU). Ah, the inconsequential little details that stick in our minds! Halfway through the trip, I felt like I was entering a different world from the one I lived in. Was I still in Boston? I was stunned to see a landscape completely alien to my year-long experience in Boston. I couldn’t understand how this level of poverty was possible in America. I couldn’t understand how it was that I didn’t know this neighborhood existed even though I thought I had traveled ‘so much’ around Boston. I had just seen tremendous poverty in America and had no reference point in my experiences to understand it.

Years later, I continued to learn about poverty as I worked with students in public schools in Iowa and Indiana. I remember driving to school with my six year-old son. NPR’s Morning Edition kept us company and this time they were broadcasting a piece on poverty. My son, who was apparently listening intently, chimed in from the back seat saying, “But, mummy, there are no poor people in America.” I tried explaining to him that some of my students lived in poor neighborhoods. That afternoon as we drove back home I showed him run-down neighborhoods, homes with tiny yards, boarded-up windows… and he said, “They are not poor. They have houses.” He had seen poverty and slums in India – people with no food, shelter, clothing, no clean drinking water or access to toilets – and in his little mind he had defined poverty through that lens. He had no reference point for poverty in America.

Working in public schools, I  learned about free and reduced lunches, food stamps, homeless shelters and hunger. Eventually, I learned that my heart thrives in an urban school setting. This is the place I call my ‘professional home’. In the school I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I sensed that the cafeteria had a different feel to it. I couldn’t figure out what was different. Eventually, I realized that the kids ate everything that was on their lunch trays. No one was throwing out unopened cartons of milk or cups of fruit. They ate every last bit of broccoli and peas. I had worked in other schools where this was not the case – where good food was simply thrown in the trash. This was different – in a not-so-good way – because I now realized that hunger pangs could easily be an issue for many, many more kids.

A few days before Thanksgiving break, a teacher called me to her classroom. A student had ‘shut down’. He refused to do the work assigned to him. He didn’t disrupt the class but he was certainly non-compliant. I brought him to the office and tried to see what was bothering him. Kind words, caring questions – he refused to respond. He was not disrespectful. He just would not look at me or speak to me. His eyes filled with tears but they didn’t trickle down his cheek. He was bravely holding them back. It broke my heart and I felt helpless. I gave him a few minutes to pull himself together thinking that might help. When I returned, I found he had had crumpled and torn the paper on his desk and it was now littered all around his chair. His head was in his hands and he still refused to talk to me. Just then, a teacher walked by. She said, “Mrs. Balagopal, would you mind if _____ comes and helps me in my classroom? He was in my class last year and he will be fine with me.” I asked him if he wanted to do that, and he nodded quietly. She asked him to go ahead and she stayed back to share a few words. She wanted me to know that I might see students ‘falling apart’ just before breaks – long weekends, holidays and summer vacations. She shared that in school they had access to two meals which were likely their ‘biggest’ meals each day. She had learned that student behavior often worsened when breaks were approaching. In the days ahead, they would not have these meals to rely on. We now know that trauma affects kids in many ways. I would never know the reason why the student shut down, but this teacher taught me a big lesson that day!

Throughout the summer vacation, each year, my school district provides breakfast and lunches to children and they even bring it to some of the apartment complexes in our neighborhoods. Every Friday, my school, and many others provide students with Back Sacks from Gleaners, the local food bank – a bag of food for kids to take home  so they can have access to meals over the weekend. Euphemistically, we call this program the Nutrition Club, so that students don’t feel singled out! The last day of school before winter break was on a Thursday. Our school secretary said that dozens of kids had come to the office all day asking, “Today is Thursday and we don’t have school tomorrow. Will you have the Nutrition Club today?” What, I wondered, would they do after the food was gone in a couple of days? Students new to our school are not shy about asking if we have a Nutrition Club. “We had it in our old school. Can we join it here?” We wish we didn’t have a cap on the number of students who can be in the ‘club’.

These stories, and many, many more stick in my mind. I’m learning to deal with it in America, even though I don’t understand it. Yes, I saw a lot of poverty in India and so this shouldn’t surprise me. However, having lived here for over two decades now, it feels personal because I know these kids. I know their names and some of the stories from their lives. They are now my stories too because for 7 hours a day, 181 days of each school year, these kids belong to me. I want to make a difference in their lives. I know that their lives are complex, and I lack a magic wand, but I have the power of my thoughts, my ideas, my words… and I can reflect on their stories to shape the work I do and that my school does for them each day.

In this and subsequent posts, I hope to share the lessons I’ve learned from the stories that are stuck in my mind. This is not about the research that others have done on the connection between poverty and education. I want to pen my reflections on the lessons I’ve learned along the way and what can make a difference in the educational experiences of these children. In urban schools, we ‘battle’ the effects of poverty on a daily basis and it can wear us down pretty quickly. Imagine how worn out we might be if we were the ones living in poverty! It’s easy to become cynical about the things we see in our schools and the challenges we face. This set of posts aims to bust that cynicism by thinking of what is possible, by framing ideas in terms of what we can do, what we should do and what we would do were these kids our own! I hope you’ll tag along on this journey!

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” — James A. Baldwin

Advertisements

“I didn’t take this job to give up on you!”

How often have I said this? And often vehemently. Yet, this week I had to reflect on whether or not I meant this unconditionally.

As an elementary principal in an urban school, I have a fire in my belly about the work I do, fueled by a sense of optimism that keeps me afloat and helps me bounce back when things get tough as they are apt to do. My job has its share of ebbs and flows, highs and lows and what keeps me going is the belief that I might make a difference, perhaps leave an impression on the lives of others and stretch them in the direction of possibilities that might enrich their lives in the future. The latter part of that sounds like such a romanticized version of a principal’s role, doesn’t it, given that people often see individuals in my role as the proverbial boogeyman? “Did you know this auntie (in India, the adult friends of a child’s parents are called aunties or uncles) is a school principal?” A scary person, indeed! Others see it as a tough job. I’ve heard the “I wouldn’t want your job for anything…” line often enough, and more so recently given the push and pull educators face from politicians and the community these days. And… I still love this job.

It’s about kids… Kids who come to us with an incredible sense of curiosity about the world they live in. Kids who have an array of talents, often untapped. Kids privileged to have a wealth of experiences, resources and support. Kids who have experienced challenges and trials for which my life experiences bring no reference point. Just as parents often wish for their children a better life than the one they have, I wish for my students the opportunity to be well prepared to do anything they may choose to do in their lives. I hope they will love to learn, and learn how to learn.

In the meantime, the world many of my students live in is a lot like an obstacle course – perhaps a hurdle race. They run and reach a hurdle, they jump over it, run again and reach another one sometimes making it safely to the finish line. In some cases, they are like the novice athlete – not quite making it over the hurdle… knocking it down as they struggle to hone their skills. Often their teachers coach them through these hurdles, occasionally the referee (principal) has to make a call. Was the hurdle knocked over accidentally, or deliberately? Should the athlete be disqualified? And how complicated might things get when the referee sees herself as a coach?

As I work to piece together the slow motion replay in my head when hurdles are knocked over, my goal is not only to help students work through their current obstacle but also guide them so they can figure out a way to deal with the next similar hurdle that stares at them from just a few yards ahead. The kids are sometimes bummed out, and sometimes tough. Often their feelings are bruised and they want to save face. Sometimes they lack the words to share what’s playing in their minds… what they are feeling in their hearts. Some of them carry so much baggage – the unseen kind that for $25 you couldn’t pass on to the airline baggage handler for just a few hours until you get to your destination.

My job is about pushing and pulling, nudging and cajoling, caring and nurturing, lifting others up and working hard to stop them from falling while hoping to inspire and guide them towards new paths – hopefully ones that will be slightly less bumpy. I realized, as I reflected last night, that I have some lines that spill out of me at intervals – in a deliberately kind yet sometimes firm tone, and in a calm voice. Words that mean a lot to me… words that help build trust with my kids and their families… words that let them know I care, even when things are rough.

“You know, you’re way better than that. You’re capable of so much more!”

“I want you to be the best you can be!”

“I often tell other people how smart/bright/talented/creative you are, and I’m not sure they believe me when they see some of the choices you make. Did you know, only YOU have the power to make them believe my words. You can make my words true. You can make my word good by doing the right thing!”

“Do you want people to see you as a kind, caring, positive, happy, cheerful and generous person? Or do you want them to think of you as someone who bullies others, hurts others or does not care? You are the only one who has the power to make that happen. You know I’m right, don’t you?” 

“Do you believe that I care about you? Do you believe that I respect you?”

“Have you ever heard me yell at you, put you down or say mean or disrespectful things? I know how to be grumpy, I can yell pretty loudly, I know a lot of mean words, and I am pretty angry about what you did, but I choose not to yell or scream at you. How can I ask you to do the right thing if I don’t?”

(My family likely wishes I could stick with this at home! Yes, this is my big goal… one I’m still working towards. But for now, I’ve stuck by these words at school for over two decades with no slip up.)

And for the moments when they knock down the toughest and tallest hurdles, unable to summon up the skills to jump over them, I’ve said this:

“The easiest thing for me to do would be to give up on you. But I didn’t take this job to give up on you. If you want to get me off your back, then stop and think and change what you’ve been doing. I wouldn’t ask you to do something you couldn’t do, right? And you don’t need me to keep telling you things you already know. You have so many people who care about you at school and want you to do well. We’re here for you. Count on us.” 

Inch by inch, and sometimes with tinier steps we move forward together – building trust, sharing lighthearted moments, caring words, smiles and compliments. In most situations, parents see that we want the best for their kids. Yet, occasionally, that hurdle turns into a wall that one of my kids slams into. One of those “Please don’t put me in a situation where you don’t give me a leg to stand on and bail you out” walls… where I have no choice but to don the referee’s striped shirt. Yes, we all earn consequences – good or bad – for the choices we make. And I don’t believe in the good kid/bad kid syndrome – I believe kids are generally good yet may make bad decisions (yes, yes, those rose-tinted glasses are out there for all to see right now). Those walls sometimes bring me moments when I feel like my bag of tricks has run out. When I wish I had done just one more thing to prepare a kid for the hurdle ahead of him/her – one that is so obviously looming ahead of a child who is unable to make the right decision at the right second to jump over it, or to summon up the control to tackle the impending crash with a spirit of sportsmanship.

Ah, so much for a euphemistically written post! There is much to say about the stance one wants to take as a school leader, while dealing with the trials that are part and parcel of a leadership role that is ultimately about people – young people – and therefore comes with a complex play book and rule book. Donning the referee shirt symbolically and worrying that one has moved away from the coaching role one believes in implicitly, while plagued by a fear… that my word might not have been good. “I’ll never give up on you.” Really? Unconditionally? I’d like to think so. Yet our time together is so fleeting, often made even more so by the mobility that winds kids through multiple schools in a matter of months or years; or by the transitions from elementary to middle to… How do I make good on my word? When do I keep my promise? How much time will I get?

Reflecting on what we do in some sense becomes second nature when we care and want to do more and do better, right? And in the midst of those reflections creep in the gremlins of doubt and worry. “Should I have…?” “Did I do…?” “What else could/should I have…?” I do believe it is healthy to go through this process of reflecting on our actions as leaders and educators. It’s tough, but we can come out stronger on the other side. Getting there takes some time and work, and there are also moments when I need to lean on the wisdom of others.

The words that helped me bounce back to coaching mode came from President Obama’s commencement speech given yesterday at Barnard College (a women’s college affiliated with Columbia University) – a speech shared on a friend’s Facebook wall today. A great speech I know I will share with my students as we journey ahead together. And his words that helped me shed the striped shirt?

“My last piece of advice — this is simple, but perhaps most important: Persevere. Persevere. Nothing worthwhile is easy. No one of achievement has avoided failure — sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don’t quit.”

He didn’t really need to tell me something I already knew, but I needed to hear it today! And… my learning and growing continues. I know again, that I’m far from quitting, and I won’t let my kids quit.  I realize that I might have to switch shirts again as I get my kids ready for the world they live in, yet, even as I do, I will keep saying to them, “The easiest thing for me to do would be to give up on you. But I didn’t take this job to give up on you. If you want to get me off your back, then stop and think, and change what you’ve been doing. You have so many people who care about you at school and want you to do well. We’re here for you.” 

And, we’ll always be here. The best gift will be, if over time, unbeknownst to us, they remember that as they play the game of life.