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May 2013 | Volume 70 | Number 8
Faces of Poverty
My dad sat me down, and with his thick Spanish accent and a determined look, said, "Pérsida, to what college you go?" It wasn't really a question. He was daring me to say anything other than the name of a respectable university. He said that to all seven of his kids. As a result, even though we were dirt poor, we now boast two PhDs, two master's degrees, one theology degree, one bachelor's degree, and one high school diploma. (The high school diploma was earned by the daughter with special needs. Even she was given no choice.) If I could say anything to educators that could make a lasting difference in the lives of the children they serve, it's this: Parents are the silver bullet. No amount of poverty can compete with an informed and determined parent. Starting in kindergarten, make sure your students' parents know that the expectations they convey about schooling will likely determine their children's future.
—Pérsida Himmele, associate professor, Millersville University, Millersville, Pennsylvania
I grew up in a three-room house with no bathroom and no running water, in the rural Appalachian foothills. My parents were high school dropouts; both were blue collar and hard working. They wanted better for me. I knew the importance of education early. Reading was held in high regard by my dad, who was smart but illiterate. I had to read necessary items for him. I went to college to become a teacher because my father's teachers had failed him. When I started college, my mom earned her GED and went to college with me. She's a teacher now, too, for the same reason. We both despise teachers who fail their students because we know the impact bad teachers have on students.
—Amanda Gillespie, science curriculum specialist, Canton City Schools, Canton, Ohio
I grew up in the kind of dysfunctional poverty and chaos that led to 40 different moves by the time I started high school. Although my parents said that they wanted their children to be successful academically, in reality the very notion of that success was a threat to the insular family system they had created. I modeled myself after the only heroes and heroines I knew—teachers. Becoming a teacher meant that I left behind that world of poverty and dysfunction, but it also meant that I had to leave behind my family; I no longer belonged in their world. At the same time, my experiences set me apart from many of my middle-class colleagues. Living in the "doorway between two worlds," as a poem I once read states, is the double-edged sword that makes me an effective teacher of students who live in poverty.
I sometimes hear my colleagues complain that they have tried so hard to reach a student in poverty, offering him or her the proverbial brass ring, only to have that student return to his or her former life and ways. I want to tell them that they don't understand what they are asking of this student. They don't understand how powerful the need for belonging is. We don't get to choose our students' paths, only point out the limitless horizons and hope that one day they will find their place.
—Amy Miller, teacher, Fisher Elementary School, Lynden, Washington
Growing up in Chicago's North Lawndale and attending Chicago Public Schools insulated me from the realities of my real poverty. But in middle school, I found I did not have the vocabulary to express my ideas, and I struggled mightily to learn new concepts from print. By my sophomore year at Farragut High School, I seriously considered dropping out because I did not have the words to think. Miraculously, I ended up writing the school newspaper's sports section. The changes were dramatic—and threatening. My homies were threatened by my new vocabulary, and many times I was chastened for "wanting to be white." George Williams College enrolled me under probation through the National Defense Student Loan program. But because of my low fluency rate, it required Herculean effort to complete the required course reading and graduate.
—Lemarr Treadwell, 5th grade teacher, Calwa Elementary School, Fresno, California
A number of years ago, I taught a 4th grade boy who lived in a car with his brother, mother, and father. To avoid the park rangers, they parked each night in a different place at our local state park. Each day, he devoured his free school breakfast and arrived in my class to enjoy the warmth and comfort of our room. It wasn't long before he was fast asleep, catching up on the sleep he hadn't gotten the night before when he shared the back seat of their car with his brother. Despite his lack of food and rest, he longed to be a good student and worked hard to keep up with the other students. I made sure he knew that I was proud of his efforts. But after about three months, he moved. His parents had decided that by moving 70 miles south to the big city, they could live under a bridge and not be confined to their car. They saw this as an upgrade! His new school would be the 3rd one that year.
—Sarah Swicegood, lecturer, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas
I grew up in a rural area in the Midwest. I had nine brothers and sisters, each born one year apart. My father worked, and mom stayed home and raised the kids. I went to a small Catholic school, and we were very poor. I don't think the school charged anything for tuition at the time. Everyone was poor in that area. We had to wash dishes in the cafeteria to pay for our lunch. My education was not affected by our poverty. I didn't have anything to wear on the days we could wear something other than our school uniform, but the education I got in that small school carried me through high school and beyond. I don't think it is poverty that puts children at risk—it is ignorance and the breakdown of the family. Our nation is full of success stories in which poor children become great leaders.
—Mary Lou Gamache, principal, Diocese of Savannah, Albany, Georgia
In 1964, I was 10 years old and lived in Atlanta's West End, a rough inner-city neighborhood. Twelve of us resided in a two-bedroom, government-subsidized apartment. The fence just outside my front door separated the black population from the white. My parents were too proud to accept government cheese or powdered milk but grateful indeed when the neighbors offered them. Biscuits and powdered milk for breakfast and dinner made school lunches seem special. School was the only place where I felt equal. My grades were all As and Bs, and I only missed two days of school in 12 years. Mama was the reason—the glue, the security, the sheriff, the psychologist, and the ER nurse. Her word was the last word, and I never knew her to be wrong. We were clean and followed her orders: "Don't embarrass me with your actions."
Eventually we moved to rural Cobb County, Georgia, where we rented a weathered shack and 62 acres for $100 a month. I was hesitant to drink water from a hole in the ground and hated the bugs, spiders, and snakes that seemed to lurk everywhere. But I grew into my teens, got a job, and entered high school. Again, I blended in well. I made friends and got good grades. I was elected to class office, named a Senior Superlative, and had my own radio show. I never dated. I couldn't imagine my friends finding out about my life of poverty. I was ashamed of where I lived, how we lived, and my large family.
I recognized education as my way out. With encouragement from teachers, I decided I would attend college. Graduation night, I informed my family of those plans. My mom was thrilled, my brothers in awe. But my dad—well let's say he was not as excited. He was the oldest of 13, and when his parents died he had become the head of the house. His expectations were that everyone left school, got a job, and pitched in. In his eyes, my plans were disrespectful and arrogant. I took the worst beating of my life graduation night, 1972.
But I went to college—part academic scholarship, part athletic, mostly Pell Grants and loans. In four years, I never spoke with my father. When I graduated in 1976, I was fortunate enough to find a teaching job. At about that time, I called my mother. She told me that for the first time in 11 years, "Pop" would not be able to have a garden. He had no seed money. I summoned my courage and asked her to put him on the phone. He sounded like a beaten man. Working in his garden and the food it provided defined him. I asked how much money he needed, and he replied, "Too much, don't worry about it." On further discussion, "too much" turned out to be about $200. I was more than eager to help—to prove that I had done well. He wouldn't hear of me sending him money that I "didn't have."
A road trip home, with cash and a pay stub to prove that I was making all of $7,600 a year, would change everything. My father was shocked and grateful. I never thought I'd hear the man say, "Son, I was wrong. That education thing did pay off, didn't it? I don't think I've ever seen anyone make that kind of money!"
Yeah, Pop, it did pay off. Today, after 35 years as an educator with seven degrees, I have a new job as social worker and truant officer for Santa Rosa Schools in Florida. I deal with ignorance and poverty in kids and parents daily. It's a good thing that I had the proper training!
—Bruce Smith, attendance assistant/social worker, Santa Rosa County, Milton, Florida
I lived for two months with a 15-year-old girl who had grown up in abject poverty and had been abandoned by her mother. I volunteered to support her so that she could take her final examinations. She explained that her dreams of finishing school and going to college became more distant each day, not because of a lack of finances but because there was always someone reminding her of her grinding poverty and ridiculing her dreams. The only future she could see was to finish her impending exams and return to her mother, who lived in a makeshift hut in an urban shantytown. I managed to fulfill one wish of hers—to see herself dressed up (in borrowed clothes) for her school leaving party.
—Grace Mangar, volunteer, Sneha Jeevan Kendra, Mumbai, India
All of us were poor in my neighborhood. Poverty was not a badge of shame. Having few books at home meant that we used the public library extensively, which probably accounted for our reading skills. Working jobs during middle and high school taught us responsibility and accountability. Collaboration helped us keep our family financially afloat even as we seemed to drown under so many problems. The ethic of hard work and thrift continues to characterize most members of my family. I still see myself as a poor working-class person even as I earn a middle-class salary and live in conditions I could not have imagined as a child. I am rich in experiences from my impoverished upbringing, which resonate in these days of economic crisis.
—Vinetta Bell, research associate, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Raleigh, North Carolina
We are an early/middle college serving students from nine different school districts. Our student population varies from urban to rural and from rich to poor. All students are focused on taking college classes beginning in 10th grade; they earn up to 60 college credits by the time they graduate. During the school year, we collect funds for a variety of charities. This Christmas, we were gathering gifts and funds for a local family in need. One of our students rides the local city bus to school every day and lives on a very limited income. This student was the first to open his wallet and pull out one of the only two dollars he had to donate to a family in need. It is often the students who have the least who give the most.
—Sarah Richardville, Dean of Students, Monroe County Middle College, Monroe County Independent School District, Monroe, Michigan
Many say that students living in high-poverty areas may not have high-quality teachers. However, when I was a young child, 30-some years ago, in Long Beach and Wilmington, California, nothing was further from the truth. Our teachers knew the community where they taught was crime-ridden, rough, and gang-filled, but they took that challenge for a reason: to teach the kids. My elementary school teachers saw my abilities, not that I was just a foster child who moved frequently. They encouraged and challenged me, even though I had social and emotional issues. I got to do things most other children may have dreamed of: wear a kimono and perform, learn to play the violin, and see a helicopter land at school. Even in elementary school, I knew I had a bright future and would someday become somebody. Today, I am an educator because of the positive experiences I had in school.
—Tally Burkhart, education/technology consultant, Literacy Rules! Consulting, Tustin, California
My mother was 16 and already had a 2-year-old when I came along. The norm in my family was typical for the area just north of Atlanta where I was born. The difference was my mother, a woman who could make any place feel like home even if it had four wheels. Although I attended six schools before 4th grade, my mother made it clear that school would be my only way to create something better for myself and my family. School was the place where everything made sense; the harder I worked and studied, the better my grades were. School was my sanctuary, my safe place, where I could control my destiny—and if I could succeed, it would offer my salvation. Life got more stable, and I managed to graduate as salutatorian of my high school, graduate from college, and acquire a master's degree. I have never left school. In the chaos of the 21st century, school and knowledge continue to provide order and safety.
—Greta Abreu, teacher, Gwinnett County, Auburn, Georgia
For much of my childhood, we lived in an old rural house with no plumbing, no central heat, and frequently no electricity. During my elementary school years in the 1970s, my single mother was employed, but from junior high school onward she was out of work. We always had shelter, but sometimes there was no food at home.
I recall in my early elementary school years being dropped off at school well before the school day because my mother had to get to work early. I was told to just sit by the front door and wait for school to start. This became "normal" and was sometimes reversed after school. The school principal took me to his home one day so that I was supervised and explained to my mother when she picked me up that she couldn't leave me unattended. (This was well before extended-day programs.) I recall feeling awkward while at school before and after hours, particularly after the principal noticed the situation.
—Kelvin Thompson, assistant director, Center for Distributed Learning, University of Central Florida, Orlando
Growing up in the Clinton-Peabody housing project south of downtown St. Louis in the 1950s, I attended a parochial school. Although my mother only completed one year of high school before she got a good job at Western Union, she always encouraged learning, especially reading. My father was about to return to school to study accounting when he died suddenly at age 50, when I was 8.
We never knew we were poor. St. Louis was (and still is) a great city full of free cultural institutions: the zoo, art museum, library, and municipal opera in Forest Park. Our family took full advantage of these informal education offerings, and we thrived! As the sixth of nine children, I did not attend college following high school; instead, I worked as a staff member at St. Louis University where I received free tuition and began taking college classes—for fun. Eventually, I earned a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and a PhD in education from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Washington University, all on scholarships.
—Kathleen Sullivan Brown, associate professor, University of Missouri–St. Louis
In 2000, I was working with a mother and her two sons, along with a social agency, to get them adequate housing. She had worked in dry cleaning for years, lived below the federal poverty line, and had terminal cancer. The mother told me that she paid $199 a week to live in an extended-stay hotel. It dawned on me that she was paying roughly the same amount per month for housing that I was paying for my mortgage. She took home less than one-third of my income, and most of that income went to a hotel room. Her two boys were frequently in trouble in school; one had already spent time in a detention facility. Circumstances did not improve for these middle school boys when they got better housing. Both exhibited explosive tempers and were losing any desire to succeed in school. Despite hard work, the mother was unable to get past the urgent day-to-day challenges to provide a positive future. As I encounter poverty, I now focus on the resources within the school that can help students discover opportunity. We cannot control what they do not get outside of school.
—Paul Bonner, principal, Huntsville City Schools, Huntsville, Alabama
I did not realize I lived in poverty until I went to school and was laughed at by my classmates because of my clothes and shoes. My mother did housework and cooked for other families. My father was a factory worker. My father never finished 9th grade, and my mother never finished 4th grade. I had three younger sisters along with a pet dog. Even though we were poor, education was a focal point in our family. My mother and father wanted us to be successful, and they believed education was the key out of poverty. In facing the ridicule at school, I just worked harder to succeed. It became my mission to fulfill my parents' dreams. Sadly, my father never knew I completed my doctorate, but my mother did before she passed away.
—Robert Walls, principal, Campbell Elementary School, Campbell, Ohio
I was raised in poverty back in the 1950s. We lived on a farm several miles from school with no access to public transportation. When my parents could no longer afford the gasoline, my brother and I stayed home. My parents were advocates for education, so my mom taught us at home for two years, and when I went back to school, I went into grade 4. My five siblings and I all completed high school.
I have now become an advocate for education; I finished two bachelor degrees to become a classroom teacher and then completed several postgraduate certificates to better serve specific students. More recently, I completed my master's degree and have started doctoral studies. I hope to target the problem of student motivation and retention in my research. Part of my passion for education was likely fueled by the tentative beginning I had and the plethora of opportunities for continued studies now.
—Henry Goertzen, resource teacher/consultant, Northern Lights School Division #113, La Ronge, Saskatchewan, Canada
Poverty is mostly a sad situation. Most of the time, as a poor person, you live around other poor people, and it is easy to feel that there is no way out. But poverty also taught me to be resourceful and creative because I couldn't afford many things. My parents believed we could better ourselves; they were immigrants to the United States who came with nothing but dreams. As an adult, I began to know others who were in better economic circumstances, and I achieved the same for myself.
—Dale Stein, elementary education teacher, Burlington School District, Burlington, Vermont
I was born to a 17-year-old single mother in Philadelphia. Scared and confused, she did her best. Her best was a life filled with welfare, abuse, and loneliness. Going to school each day was an escape from the fighting and abuse—a chance to be a child. My mom was busy with her own growing up, so I was at school as much as possible.
I was a struggling student, but my teachers believed in me. Their support, both educational and emotional, enabled me to see that poverty did not have to follow me into adulthood. My teachers encouraged me to go to college, and that is when I realized the strong pull of poverty. My parents did not want me to further my education. They didn't see a need for it—neither one had an education above the 8th grade. I decided that I needed to be a teacher to give hope to all students, because the pull of poverty is strong and the lifelines for students are few and far between. Teachers can be those vital lifelines.
—Diann Moran, instructional coach, Ascension Parish, St. Amant, Louisiana
Two memories stand out about growing up in poverty. I needed clothes and was in the 7th grade. My mother obtained pants for me; although they were new, they were odd. They only had one back pocket and strange front pockets. I hated wearing them to school. I would walk on the opposite side of the street to avoid classmates. I would keep my jacket on to try to hide the fact that my pants were a pocket short. I was embarrassed by comments classmates made when they asked about my cheap pants. Fortunately, by 8th grade my mom could afford regular pants for me. Her second challenge was to discover a way to obtain low-cost orthodontics to straighten my teeth. She did, and again saved me from ridicule at school for having "buck teeth."
—Robert Kaminski, principal, The Village School, Eugene, Oregon
Every morning, 8-year-old Terry gets up and fixes breakfast for his three younger siblings. He is proud that he can scramble eggs and fry bacon even though he has burn marks on his hands and arms where the grease spatters. He dresses himself for school and makes sure his younger brother is dressed, and both are out the door in time to catch the bus. At school, he worries about the twins because Mom was still in bed when he and his brother left. He would like to stay after school for tutoring, but he has to hurry home so Mom can get to her job on time. Juggling homework is a problem because it is Terry's responsibility to make sure everyone has dinner, takes a bath, and goes to bed on time. Mom doesn't come home until after midnight; sometimes Terry waits up for her to report who did what during the day. Tonight, Terry had to give Mom a referral he had received from his teacher: He had fallen asleep again in class, and the teacher is very concerned that he is not getting his homework completed on a regular basis. His grades are not acceptable, and the teacher knows he is capable of doing better.
—Mim Gottfried, assistant principal, Triangle Elementary School, Mount Dora, Florida
My parents were on minuscule wages during my high school years. There were times when they skipped meals because there was only enough food for my brother and me. They didn't pay taxes, and we were eligible for full welfare. Lucky for us, we lived in Australia so my brother and I received an education and were always safe, but we were completely dependent on the economic stability of our federal government. I now realize that many kids in similar circumstances in other countries would not have fared so well. I do remember being indignant, though, when other students received higher grades in science because they had access to better resources. I was limited to whatever was in the house, so I chose Mum's scrap fabric bin. My textile experiment faded in comparison with the projects of students who had a budget. Nevertheless, I was educated. I completed my PhD in 2012.
—Alison Willis, lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia
Divorce in the 1970s era of deadbeat dads forced my mother into night-shift factory work to support a family of six. At the age of 8, I was charged with adult tasks beyond my emotional and psychological comprehension. Cooking, cleaning, child care, and stalling bill collectors became my after-school world. Opportunities to experience many high school hallmarks—establishing lifelong friendships or participating in after-school clubs or sports events, proms, or field trips—were denied.
Day-to-day concerns force children of poverty to acquire short-term vision. Will the water and power be on when I get home or an eviction notice be served today? No 401ks, no vacation funds, no emergency funds. It's a 30-day, anxiety-driven survival plan dictated by government entitlements, menial employment, and a lack of resources. Without the meeting of basic needs, talents and self-worth are denied full development.
It was only because of the few caring educators who advocated on my behalf that I went on to earn a graduate degree in early childhood education.
—Barb Smith, teacher, Notre Dame Academy, Savannah, Georgia
I was the second oldest of five children. In 1966, my mother decided she couldn't take it anymore and left the family. My father, who became a union carpenter that year, ended up quitting his job and going on welfare. We lived in the projects in a two-bedroom duplex. My father was a good and loving parent. Still, I felt so jealous of other girls who had pretty clothes. I never had any money or even a piggy bank. I never got my hair fixed up, just cut off after catching head lice. There was never enough money or food to get through the month. I was a quiet, shy child who did whatever I could to avoid getting noticed in school, and it worked. I had no self-esteem. For some reason, I thought that I was a poor reader, an inadequate student, and I could never go to college because I was not smart enough and my family was poor so we couldn't afford it. All through high school, I went unnoticed, and there was no interest taken in my future.
—Sandra Johnson, teacher, Winter School District, Winter, Wisconsin
We want to hear your stories! Future "Tell Me About" columns will feature readers' experiences building student resilience, leveraging teacher leadership, and more. To see upcoming questions and contribute a response, go to www.ascd.org/tellmeabout.
Copyright © 2013 by ASCD
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