I teach in upstate New York at an elementary school that is designated by NYSED as "High Needs/Rural" I would like to share some of the experiences I had today while my colleague and I conducted home visits with the families of four of the 80 kindergartners entering our school this year. Two of the families we visited today are on varying degrees of public assistance. One family I would categorize as working poor and the other lower middle-class.
In the two homes of families in need of public assistance, I was struck by the dimness. Not one light on. I suspect one family had their electricity turned off. Neither of us heard even the hum of a refrigerator. So quiet. I think of my own children's and my lighting habits. How we take for granted being able to flip on the light to cheer up our space or do work not thinking about the little bit of extra $$$ it takes to create a warm, inviting, and workable atmosphere. I know how it makes me feel when I'm not in a comfortably lit room. As I looked at the little girl clinging to her mother with her dirty and disheveled clothes, I began thinking about the impact being in a well lit school environment might have on her. Would the vacant look eventually be replaced by the tiny spark of a twinkle. Later, my colleague and I noted on the post visit form. "No twinkle" or even an eyebrow raised at the mention of things most 5 year old hearts would flutter over. Several years ago I had this mother's daughter in 4th grade(now 20) Mom is approximately 45 years old and has three grandchildren of her own. I knew she was a single mom and commiserated with her about the common struggles being one myself. She seemed to open up a little more after that. At the end of the meeting, I asked her what were some things she wished she could do for her daughter that she just can't because of financial limitations. Mom's answer: "Sometimes she asks me to buy her a book when we're out shopping and I just tell her 'Mommy can't do that right now.'" How many times have my own kids come to me asking for a certain book they need to read for pleasure or school. We love to keep our books. Within minutes it's ordered on Amazon and in their hands .
Libraries are of course an option, but limited transportation and incurred late fees are often a hindrance. One post visit note recorded: "Black teeth. In need of dental care." Was this little girl not talking or smiling because her mouth was in pain?
We visited with a young mom and dad (at the most 23) with their two young daughters. When asked if they had any concerns or questions before her daughter came to kindergarten she replied, "What happens if _______gets lice? Do I have to leave work right away to get her? Can she come back to school the next day? Her father won't have a car to come get her. I can't afford to miss work (single income) and school(she's going to college part time)" Luckily for our district the PTA has purchased the $20+ lice removal kits for the nurse to give families in need. I'm not sure if that's the case in every school. The expenses of chronic head lice keeps adding up if you don't get rid of them the first time. All bedding has to be washed. Spray has to be purchased to spray fabric couches and chairs. An extra trip to the laundromat. What if you can't find a ride that day to get the spray and wash clothes? What if they don't have the money to take care of those things? Absences from school begin to rise. Hourly wage jobs don't give paid days off to stay home to watch their child while they treat them. We've had children miss dozens of days of school due to chronic lice issues. This can be a devastating cycle for children academically as well as socially. I don't care how discrete the nurse is, almost always the cat is out of the bag about what classmate has lice. You can imagine how mortifying and isolating that would be for a child. Mom also asked about free lunch. I could see the embarrassment in her face. This intelligent, hard-working mom told us she asked because although she worked full-time, her wages were not enough to put an adequate amount of the food on the table. Food stamps needed to supplement. Was she was also getting WIC I asked. Since she worked full time and went to school, she had missed too many of the required meetings that are held 12 miles away. Was not allowed to recertify. It dawned on me that there must be many other families in our community that are missing out on this incredible nutritional benefit because they have no transportation to the meetings. We also discussed how expensive produce is at our local grocery store and not having access to larger chains where prices are more reasonable. I had a chance to speak with the Dad privately in the kitchen. A scrappy, jittery, and smart guy. Shared that his greatest desire from childhood (also a child of poverty, divorce, and displacement) was to join the military and make a life better for himself than he had growing up. That was his ticket out. In our middle-class world we see college as a way to advancement. Someone coming from a world of poverty may see the military as an road that leads to clean, stable housing and a way to ensure they and their family will never go hungry. His dreams were disrupted when he did not receive the needed medical waiver for his eye condition which minimizes his depth perception. When we first met, I saw right away he had an issue with his eyes. His left eye had a continuous shake. The only help he ever got for his eye condition was through the Lions Club. A free exam, new lenses in a pair of discarded frames probably circa 1982. On the bright side, he is hopeful that he will be able to pursue his dream of becoming a massage therapist. He is trying to learn everything he can about it on his own with borrowed books until he can go to school once his wife is finished. Practicing on his wife he said he "can just feel his anxiety disappear...something about the physicalness of it...making someone else feel good really helps me." How many people in his situation are even aware of the mental health services available to them. Might not matter anyway since the services are about 20 miles away from our town. No car, no public transportation, no services.
The next home we visited was cozy, also dim, and happily cluttered. Two parents. Five children. Youngest was six months old. Mother was maybe 40 years old. About to become a grandmother for the first time. Her son (21) and daughter(20) are both becoming parents. Mom shared with me that she now works through . 12 hour shifts as a waitress at a restaurant 18 miles away. She tried to make a go of her own luncheonette here in town when I had her son two years ago. Working 80 hours a week and trying to keep afloat in a town that has lost much of its industry took its toll. Forced to shut down. As my friend and I clucked in admiration of her hard work, told her how great she looked having just had a baby not so long ago, working 60 hours a week, AND managing not to lose her mind with her busy family she said, "I never took anything from nobody. We're making it." There is still some shame here about having to accept any public assistance. Chances are if you shop at our local store someone you know will see you using your EBT card. Your neighbor just might be the cashier ringing you up. So many here go without. We have many hungry children. Evidenced by the great number of boxes of cereal my colleagues and I purchase each month to make sure everyone has a midmorning snack. These children are ravenous. Can't learn if you're hungry.
I hope these snapshots of rural poverty brings an awareness of some of the commonalities these families share with the urban poor. And that advocates from both areas can work more closely together to bring some much-needed educational, social, and emotional relief to these families.