I found this comment to a Bob Herbert column by a teacher who works at a school attended mostly by poor whites. I’m excerpting it in full as comments have a tendency to disappear into the ether, but also because I don’t think many people have (fortunately) any idea what poverty really means for educational outcomes. The comment, followed by a comment about Rebecca Skloot’s book (italics mine):
As a teacher in a low income, mostly white, school district, ‘the poor’ are not an abstract concept to me; they are my students. I see first hand what poverty does and it’s not just – as the wealthy imagine – give you less money, My students are homeless, sleeping on benches. My students have arrest records, from blowing things up or burning things down. Their parents are in jail, or abandoned them, or they abuse them, or – on the other side of the spectrum – they work three shifts. The kids are poorly fed and poorly supervised. THey don’t sleep properly and are often up until 3:00 playing some video game. They should be on medication but their parents can’t afford it; recently my student with Bipolar disorder came in off the wall, late, with no explanation why. Her mom had apparently abruptly taken her off of her medication because she ‘didn’t like the side effects’ and now they’re searching for another doctor to proscribe another medication (this is what she says) and ‘that might take a few weeks.’ For some reason, this is a common story in the school–parents taking their kids off medication abruptly with no transitional plan. I don’t know why. But it’s horrible for the kids. Of course many kids don’t have health insurance and medication is expensive, so there are many kids who can’t take ADHD medication when they need it badly, or have migraines (a very common occurence) but take ibuprofin, or have asthma. Many families (not all) don’t value college and their goal is for their child to graduate high school; a D- is fine. This is stated point blank. And it’s true, if your goal is either to just graduate or to go to community college, which after all, is all they can afford.
Our school, based on their very low property taxes, is literally falling apart. We have rat, mice and cockroach infestations, no supplies, no technology other than ten year old computers. The room is freezing right now (heat is very poor–cold air comes out of the vents!) and in May it’ll be boiling hot–no air conditioner or fans, no circulation.
This is poverty.
The kids look around and say, “We suck.”
This is the message they get, all the time, at home, at school.
Our wealthy politicians abandon them with their top down slogan-based attack on teachers, as though threatening and bullying us will somehow magically get the kids to perform better on corporate tests (as if the tests matter, but that’s another story). As if we teachers are not already in the trenches and we need to be whipped to do our job–that’s the wealthy approach: ignore the very existence of poverty, ignore the very serious effects of poverty, which are global, and pretend that all we need to do to solve the problem is threaten to fire teachers. Yes, that’ll eradicate poverty and its impact. Their other solution is to pull out the cream of the crop, the ones without arrest records and without violence, with parents who feed them and are able to get them medication, and put them in a privately funded charter, spending far more per child than we can, and then, IF they do better (many don’t) they tout this as some sort of solution. Um….what about the unlovely poor? What about them? What about the students I teach.
We cannot ignore poverty or pretend there are easy quick fixes such as threatening teachers (of all people). This is a very, very serious issue with enormous repercussions. Poverty is a host of problems, not merely ‘no money.’ It’s difficult to read that Mr Obama has hired yet another Corporate/Wall Street insider to stand at the helm. Surely there are bright people who haven’t worked in either Chicago politics and/or worked on Wall Street. The media – besides you, Bob- very often abdicates its responsibility. Yesterday it reported glowingly on what a hard worker this guy is. Wow. And there are no other hard workers out there? To illustrate how hard a worker he was, they said they could ask him a question at 4:00 am because he was awake and at work. Well, I’m awake and working at 4:00 am, and my poor students are awake all the time. And the ones with functional parents who work three shifts–well, they know the meaning of ‘hard work.’ I’m disgusted by our politicians of both stripes and their race to plutocracy and abandonment of their duty to most of the nation as civil servants.
One of the things I haven’t really seen discussed in all of the talk about the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the hard life many of Lacks’ descendants. Some are doing well, but several are simply not functioning well. A heartless bastard would consider them to be hopeless screwups–”the unlovely poor.” A decent person would realize that child abuse, sexual abuse, untreated mental illness, inadequate education, risk for exposure to addictive drugs, and chronic health problems–and each of these are all found in some of the people described in the book–are just damn difficult, if not impossible, to get out from underneath. And these things feed back into each other too.
I raise Skloot’s book because I think she did an unsung and superb job of illustrating poverty–and did so in a way that was accessible to an audience that might not otherwise read about it.
At this point, someone will say, “Well, how do you fix poverty?” Not easily, but we can lessen many of the problems. We can provide adequate facilities, books, materials. We could seriously grapple with the inaccessibility of higher education for the poor. We could have a healthcare system that focuses first on patients, not rent extraction. We could provide adequate mental health services (consider the events of last weekend)
We could do those things, but, sadly, I’m pretty certain we won’t, given the current climate of free-market Randism and ‘fiscal austerity.’
So suffer the unlovely poor it is.