It was 31 years ago, the summer after we moved to the country. When I’d go home from work, I’d drive down Willard Street and pass a tiny drab house with peeling paint and windows wide open in the stifling heat. A young blonde-haired woman with sad, empty eyes would always be sitting there under the only scrawny tree in the yard with a baby beside her in a battered playpen. He was usually standing up and clinging to the rail, almost always crying. I’ve wondered about her baby many times.
Did he make it to a better life than she was able to give him back then? Did he learn how to dream about an improved future? Was he able to get the education he needed to make a better life for his children?
My girlfriend Kathy has been a teacher for more than 30 years. She and her family live in Flint, Michigan, now depressed in the swoon of the auto industry. She teaches in an inner-city school. She has shared so many stories about kids she has taught. Kids in the 21st century whose houses have dirt floors. . .in the middle of a city! They are kids who come to school and fall asleep because they were out all night. Their parents were too drugged up to remember that their kids weren’t at home. She says that most of those students with those problems drop out of high school, and many of them end up in the same cycle as their parents
I’ve thought about that and about all the other kids who do not have much of a chance to be anywhere but where they’ve always been—in a cycle of poverty.
My friend and I discussed what some economists have said about poverty in our community: Our poor people aren’t as poor as the people in third world countries who have corrupt governments, war, famine and pestilence to contend with. While I agree that when looking at consumption only (as they do), by comparison, our poor are wealthy compared to their poor.
But poverty is more than an absence of financial resources. It is an absence of resources in general. Poverty is relative. I don’t understand how in a country in which there is such plenty, someone can think that a low-income person who is missing mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual resources is not in poverty. In a situation in which there is no support system of caring people from the rest of the community, is the person not living in poverty? I’ll agree we may have a different brand of poverty, but it is still poverty. Pure and simple, it is people “doing without” in a land of abundance, and children, like the baby in the playpen, for whom not even education may be able to build a path of escape.
My friend talks about how her students are not ready to learn when they come to school, not reading by the third grade, and not successful in much of anything they set out to do. They can’t pay the $3 for the field trip that might spark their interest in something new and exciting. They can’t think beyond the boundaries of families that encourage them to finish high school but never push them to shoot for anything beyond.
I heard a lady say, “In 1894 if a farmer’s barn burned down, people rallied around to help him rebuild it.” I thought about that. All around us people’s barns are “burning down” all the time. Unless it’s a national disaster or some exotic form of emergency, we don’t pay much attention. We don’t bring our tools and say, “How can I help?” After all, we have paid our “war taxes,” you know the ones that help fight the “war on poverty”-that war we just can’t seem to win.
I have been pleased to know about TEAMwork for Quality Living’s Circles program here in Delaware County. They are working with lots of people who are highly motivated to build a better life. They team them up with people like me who are willing to roll up our sleeves and walk with them to that better future. It’s really hard work. The people trying to make it sometimes take five steps forward and three steps back. But then isn’t anything any of us have ever had trouble doing well usually a struggle as we try to move toward that improved future?
And speaking of the future. . .I wonder if that baby was in a classroom like Kathy’s. Did he fall asleep in class? Did he hate school and hate getting behind and hate not fitting in with the other kids? Did he finally drop out? Did he get mixed up in drugs or any other distractions that put him in a downward spiral with an empty future?
Today I drive by that spot on Willard and the little house has been torn down. I’m thinking the baby’s mamma may have stayed stuck in her dark whirlwind of dead ends and disappointments. But I have hopes that the baby found a good teacher like Kathy or a caring community member like my friends in Circles or someone who taught him how to have a dream and how to run toward it. And maybe, just maybe, he grew up to be someone who doesn’t have to see life through sad, empty eyes.
— As told to Molly Flodder, Executive Director TEAMwork for Quality Living
This story originally appeared in Facing Poverty, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by TEAMwork for Quality Living in Muncie, Indiana.