I am learning what it means to be a teacher in a low-income area.
Last month a student was crying. She had a severe toothache, so I suggested she call home.
She was back in five minutes. “I’ve got to suck it up, we don’t have money to go to the dentist right now,” she said through a wad of Kleenex, and trudged to her desk. Speechless, I immediately went to my teaching buddy Sooz who knows everything when it comes to this stuff.
“Go down to the office and tell the principal and secretary. They’ll take care of it,” she said. I must have looked shocked. “It’s okay, Twi. This happens at our school. But we take care of it.”
Indeed. The school arranged an appointment, and a support worker drove the student there and back.
During lunch, as I supervised Lego Club, I thought back to Halloween and Christmas. I was beginning to understand the wisdom and compassion of my colleagues.
For Halloween, the student support teachers had organized a before-school “costume exchange” in their room. Students had one week to bring in old costumes and/or find new ones. On the day of Halloween, they arranged for volunteer face painters to decorate excited students. During the costume parade, every student was decked out. Every student.
With Christmas came “The Christmas Store.” Loaded with donations from teachers and community members, the newly-transformed music room contained “gifts” for students to purchase for family and friends (prices: from $0.10 to $2.00). The grade seven students then wrapped and labelled the presents for the purchasers and delivered them to the appropriate classrooms. On the day before Christmas holidays, all students had gifts to take home and hide. Brilliant.
After Christmas, the first snow led to a flurry of student concerns. Many did not have boots, hats, mittens, or warm winter coats. Fortunately, the school has a collection of donated/purchased clothing and boots. Students that require winter clothing are snugly outfitted.
When I mentioned to a neighbour that we give clothing to kids that need it, she said, “Do you feel right giving hand-outs? Shouldn’t kids have to, you know–work for it?”
Work for it? For clothes? Winter boots? Mittens?
No. Children do not have to earn warm clothing.
They do not have to earn breakfast or lunch or fillings in their teeth or even Halloween costumes.
Children, all children, deserve to have basic needs met, without judgement and without shame.
Yes, the issue of poverty is complex, and it’s easy to point fingers. But while you debate the issue, children still have toothaches. And they are still hungry.
And watching my colleagues, I am finally seeing the subtext: that dignity, not judgement, comes first.