One of the schools I work at serves a large number of families who are living below the poverty line (about 85% of our kids qualify for the federal free/reduced lunch program). I am ever more impressed by the resilience of our students and their families. Parents who attend family events often arrive with their lunch pails (having just gotten off from work for the day) and look so very weary. I wonder if I am the first person to smile at some of them and look them in the eye that day. I could care less about the number of teeth they're missing, the well-worn clothes, or any other sign of difficult days they've had. What I do care about is that they love their children and want the best for them. No matter how hard things have been, these parents still show up at the school door to support their kids. I find that incredibly touching. It makes me all the more determined to make sure that while their children are in our charge during the day that they have the best classroom experiences we can give them.
Others in the community are not of this mind. There is an assumption that people living in poverty do so by choice (although some do invariably prefer the welfare route). If "those people" would just make some sort of effort (and get off of drugs/alcohol...and quit beating their children), that they wouldn't always be just one step ahead of the landlord. This misguided view point was reinforced for me in the comments section of an article in the on-line version of the local paper. The article was about a plan to transform the public housing neighbourhood in my school's attendance area into a multi-income level area. Here is one comment:
I, for one, am against this conversion. I say keep [that housing] a slum and keep the scum and crap of [our town] confined to one area. They are easier to keep under control if they are consolidated to one area of town. This makes the job of the police easier. Instead of the police running all over town to fix problems caused by these drug addicts, drug dealers, and general scourges of society, they could just camp out in [the public housing]. Ghettos raise property values elsewhere in the city. Letting these proven degenerates out into the city will only lower the property values of decent people.
I wish I could say that this particular view is rare. It's not. At my school, we are often reminded about how much the larger community discounts "those people." Here is another take on things from that same comment section:
I'm sorry to hear that you feel that I am scum and crap. I am a single mother of two children living on a limited income in [public housing]. I pay my bills on time. I do not do drugs or drink, nor have I broken the law and had the police come to my home. On top of it all I serve my country one weekend a month and did serve my country for over 8 years full time. I am a decent person. Not everyone in [public housing] are drug addicts, drug dealers, and general scourges of society. Many of us do not make enough money to live elsewhere without help. Maybe if more people took the time to find out who the residents of [public housing] are they would not be so quick to judge us because of where we live than for who we are.
I had to cheer at that. Not everyone in that position has the self-confidence to stand up, but this woman does. And there are any number more of people like her living there who are in the same situation. They are "those people," and I'm very happy working with them and for their children. I don't see myself as being able to solve the social problems that they find themselves in, but I'm not interested in making assumptions about why they're there or kicking them just because they're down. I admit that my lifestyle isn't much like theirs. We likely don't have a lot in common in terms of our backgrounds. What we do have in common, however, is that we're all doing the best we can for ourselves and the children in the school. That makes "those people" my people, too.