In “my old life” (pre-kids) I worked for four years in a inner city failing Title I school that was primarily populated by African American children. I taught special education. I entered my new career as a teacher with only a provisional teaching license. I was entirely clueless, only armed with my eager willingness to serve my students. This time of my life was both incredibly challenging as well as totally eye opening. I am a middle class white woman who grew up in a loving safe home. Prior to my time in this job I approached the world with unending optimism and little appreciation for the complex issues that the poorest of the poor in our communities face. The school building I worked in was over 100 years old. It had documented patches of black mold in the the basement I taught in, which sent me home with powerful headaches on many occasions. We sent home a supply list each year and almost never had parents actually purchase the items on the list. Paper was rationed to teachers and once we ran out of paper, pencils, dry erase markers, etc. it was up to us teachers to fill in the gaps. Doors were left open to the building on a regular basis, making it difficult to prevent parents from entering the building without checking in. IEP’s were handed out generously to “problem students” because it was the only way to attempt to help or at least remove these students from the general education classroom. Our playground, once was new, within months was burnt and vandalized with profanity. Does this sound anything like the school your child attends?
I will never forget my first student. She captured my heart. She came in each morning unkept, smelling of urine and often delivered to me before the end of breakfast due to obnoxious behavior. When life felt like too much for her (which was often) she would throw herself on the floor, yelling and screaming. Seeking the attention of anyone who would notice. I remember sitting with her one afternoon her screaming at the top of her lungs for no apparent reason. I tried everything I could think of to calm her down. Finally, I just decide to try hugging her. As soon as I embraced her she stopped immediately and broke out into laughing tears. All she needed was love.
My last year teaching I taught a third grade inclusion classroom. One day a student saw a picture of my backyard on my phone. Their first question was, what park was my son playing at? When I explained it was our backyard they commented how lucky my kids were. It was the first time it dawned on me, my kids get a park in their backyard. My children honestly have no clue how blessed they are. How lucky they are to have bedtime stories, a yard to run wild in and piles of toys in every corner of our home.
Even more than those things my kids get to be generally safe in their home. For a period of time we lived in the neighborhood adjacent to the school I worked at. At the end of our time there someone shot off a round of bullets into our home. One came in just inches above where my son was sleeping. We sold our home immediately and bought a home in a quieter area. Once when teaching I asked a group of 5th graders what experiences they had with emergency workers such as police and firemen. They all had a story about a shooting to share. All of them. Once again my heart broken for these children. I knew how traumatic shots ringing in your home could be. We were lucky, we could move. We can have the power to bring keep our children in generally safe spaces. These families don’t have the same options.
I share these snippets of my time in this setting to help you see what I see now. First of my family is incredibly blessed. I am more thankful than ever for the opportunities we get to give our children. I hope to help them appreciate the privileges they have been given.
Next, the struggles these children faced each day are so foreign to me because their lives are so different from mine. I cannot pretend to know their story, what they need or how to solve the complex problems their families face. All I can do is listen and love. We so often write the stories of others in our mind based on what comes across through the media or even worse based on prejudicial stereotypes. No one person is the same. We have to acknowledge we are different. We have to acknowledge each person’s uniqueness. If we want to be the hands and feet of Jesus that my first students, literally was screaming out for, we just have to humbly show up. Don’t pretend to have all the answers. Acknowledge it’s not fair. Just show up.
Finally, when I talk about issues of politics I am slow to accept the headlines. Slow to see one way to solve the issues our world faces. I try to avoid conversations that pit one group against another. The truth is I don’t know what it is to be living in poverty, how can I speak on behalf of this group? I am weary of politics that lump groups together and create a us vs. them story. Essentially, I think public spaces need a lot more humility and a lot more listening. I hope I can model this in my life.
Hope this offers you a new side to the story, maybe one you haven’t seen for yourself. One that grows humility, thanksgiving and compassion in your home.