His mother works away from the home Thursday through Tuesday. His job is to get his two younger sisters out of bed in the morning, get them breakfast, get them to the school bus, get himself to the bus, come home, help them with their homework, make them dinner, get them to bed, do his own homework, and get himself to bed. If one of his baby sisters is sick, he stays home with her. If one of his baby sisters misses the bus, he stays home with her. If he doesn't get up when the alarm goes off, none of them go to school.
On the rare occasions when he does make it to school, he tries so hard. But when you attend school regularly only two times a week, there's too much all at once. When homework is the last thing you do in a day like his, it's a low priority that rarely gets done. How can I expect him to do it? His life is busier than mine. He's smart, he's kind, he's polite, he's the best big brother in the world...he's eighteen and only a sophomore in high school.
His mother doesn't know where he spent last night. His mother last saw him when he stopped by to borrow $20 two weekends ago. When I call her to discuss his sleeping in class, she interrupts me to tell me that she doesn't know how much he sleeps or where he sleeps and she cannot be held responsible for him.
I took him aside, away from all the other kids, and asked him to turn in his book to page 112. He opened it to page 57. Is this the right page? He really didn't know which page was 112 - he couldn't tell. How can I ask him to do Algebra, even simple Algebra, when he doesn't know his numbers? I ask him to read a problem. He tries, he tries so hard, but he just can't do it. He's smart, he's funny, he's sassy....he's fifteen and barely knows the alphabet.
On early release days we don't serve a school lunch. The kids tell me all day long that they are hungry. I have spent more money than I care to think about to keep a box of NutriGrain bars and a selection of juice boxes in my offices.
On the last day of school, I find her in the bathroom, crying, after the final bell has rung. I'm so hungry, she tells me. I box up leftovers from the last day picnic and hand it to her. Lunch was usually her only meal of the day, she tells me.
Before I started at this job, I had heard stories like this. Stories of kids who hadn't been fed, who didn't have a steady place to sleep, who were raising their siblings, or who just plain don't have parents who are involved enough to see them fall behind. But, being here, seeing their faces, hearing their stories is enough to make me end up in the bathroom tonight, crying, wondering what difference I am making. They aren't just stories to me, these are KIDS, people with faces, with funny jokes, and a future that makes me sad.
I'm not always the most patient teacher. I get pissed when they don't try. But it is only very recently that I've begun to realize that they can't try - they probably can't think of anything except how hungry they are and how their moms and dads aren't coming home that night. How can I expect them to try when they can't read? Add negative seven and five when they can't even write the number seven? It's not THEM, it's ME. They are young, idealistic, and often neglected and sad. I need to do better, be better, be more understanding.
Because at night I come home to a warm apartment, a fridge filled to the brim with healthy food, and a loving family. And who knows what they go home to?
Please support your local schools. Please support your local food shelters. When you see a homeless person on the street, remember that they were, in all likelihood, born into a lifestyle without a lot of options. Be patient, be kind, and always place yourself in the shoes of someone without all your advantages.