The Poverty Life Lesson Plan
An Evans-Manning Award to foster mom Sharon Astyk for this stunning comment left on the education and poverty thread:
It is interesting to me, having in my home school-aged kids of the WORST families – the ones who do badly enough to get the kids removed from their parents. If you listed the jobs those of us who are/were parents do every week, the list would run to five pages for most us. And yet, ask which ones are legally required of a parent, and you find a very, very short list. Medical care if ill — but no routine care. Food – but not healthy or good food, just food regularly. Shelter — but minimal is ok, including in a shelter, couch surfing at relatives, being moved around from auntie to auntie… No discipline unless the child is an out-of-control teen — and often not even then. Clothing. Not beating the child until marks show. Not committing kinds of abuse so egregious you get caught (and it has to be pretty egregious). No safety violations so dramatic you get caught. That’s about it — loving them, reading to them, cooking for them, hugging them, teaching them, none of that is required to be a parent.
In those worst families, there are some members who can function above that minimum, and they often have quite a few extra children who they are officially or unofficially caring for. All of the kids in my care have come after some kind of failed placement with relatives — not because the relatives were bad, but because they were overwhelmed. Single mothers with four kids suddenly get two more — with major behavioral problems. Great-Grandma has raised her children, her grandchildren and now she’s got two toddlers and a baby. Dad gets them for a little bit, but breaks up with his girlfriend, and just doesn’t have the chops to go it alone. Meanwhile the kids have been abandoned by parents for drugs, alcohol, boyfriends, domestic violence etc…, and then passed around from relative to relative, moved from school to school.
One of my last placements was a group of four children as bright as I’ve ever seen. The four and five year olds were smart as whips, and incredibly competent — but neither knew their colors, their letters or their numbers. The older boy was sad and easily upset, becoming hysterical due to abandonment and misery. The four year old girl already knew that all her female dolls had to have a male doll for them, because a female without a male was worthless. Both had already seen their mother beaten within an inch of her life on a regular basis, and been beaten themselves. You could see how their lives would go from here — the older boy will be unprepared for kindergarten, lacking even the basic skills that other children have. Held back for a year to “get ready” and already tall, he may well be held back again in first grade due to lack of skills and reinforcement of those skills. By the time he makes it to second grade he’s behind, not reading well (since except in foster care he’s never seen a book), a head taller than most of his peers, and angry, angry, angry because people think he’s stupid (and he’s not) and sad, sad, sad because his life is terribly, terribly violent and sad.
By 4th grade he’s in special ed, and making trouble because he’s a bright kid who just can’t read well, and he’s bored out of his skull. He’ll turn sixteen in 9th or 10th grade, and then he can drop out — and there’s a good chance he will. Even though he is one of the smartest children I know.
His sister will do better — she’s even brighter and she’ll take to the sitting and reading of school better. She’s a sweet soul — her brothers already call her “Mama” in part because she spends all her time caring for her three brothers (one older, two younger). She’s the adult in her family — her mother is wholly passive and depends on her for everything due to depression and fear of Dad, who she chooses over and over again, because she’s afraid to lose him. At just-turned-four she dresses her brothers, helps them in the bathroom, makes their food, brings food to her mother. They’ll hold her back another year because they just can’t spare her at home.
Dad already hits her because she’s mouthy — she talks back to him and tries to protect her mother. She’ll learn soon not to do that, and that that’s what you can expect with a man. In school she’ll do well — except when she’s not there because Mom’s in bed after her last beating and she’s got to take care of the baby. She might even graduate, if she doesn’t get pregnant by a boy who loves her — even if he hits her, because she knows, has been told, has seen she’s got to have a man. She’ll get a decent job, she’ll care for her kids as best she can, protect them from the violence when she can, and there’s a good chance that if she manages to get out of the worst violence that she’ll end up taking care of some of the kids who weren’t as lucky. She’ll have no time for numbers or letters with her kids — she’ll work long hours and when she has a day off will be recovering from the last beating, or trying to please the latest boyfriend. What she won’t do is go to college (although she’s astonishingly bright), what she won’t do is get out — because there’s so much pressure not to betray her community, and so much education in who to be and what to expect that went on before she ever came to school. And she won’t get out because family is all they have — it is all she’s got, and that is at risk too. Doing something to step away and outside your family and your class risks losing them — and awful as they are, when that’s all you’ve got, you cling to it.
I hope I’m wrong about the kids — I really am. I hope they get out, they get help, they get good teachers, the relatives they’ve gone to (for now, they’ll end up back with Mom and Dad again) do better than I expect — and they’ll try. But there’s so much pushing hard the other way — not the least of which is the sense that achievement takes out away from everything you know, makes you different in irrevocable ways –and that family, so tenuous and vulnerable, always on the cusp of breaking down, is more important. There isn’t any question that they can learn. There isn’t any question they have learned — most of the children in my care can do things that no child of mine could have done at the same age. They can care for themselves and siblings in ways no child could, they are competent at things that no child of four or six or eight should know. They are capable of learning, but by the time that teachers get them so many lessons have been so deeply ingrained it is little wonder that teachers can’t rewrite the lesson plan.
And public policy is somehow supposed to make everything okay for these children?