Friday, May 22, 2015

Shame When Kids at School Talk about Their Summer Vacations.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you may know nothing about."

My step-father hid his weed under a chair in our living room.  When he had enough money to buy himself his favorite chocolates, a yellow box of Whitman's Sampler, he slid it right under the chair next to the small covered box of pot...

That is the truth.  I'm pretty sure I've never vocalized those words and this would be the first time I've ever written them....

This is a hard entry for me to write.  I have lived my entire adult life as two people.  There is the woman you know, who is the mother of two darling girls, a teacher and a reliable friend.  Perhaps you've followed a memory I've written about my divorce, my real father whom I've never met, or my struggles with cancer.

But there is another person who is constantly right below the surface.  She grew up in adversity.  Struggled through challenges that no child should have to endure.  When I look in the mirror I see her.  She is begging me to tell the truth.  She is pleading to be heard.  She knows if she tells, that other children like her may feel hope.  Sometimes I'll smell something or wake from a dream and it takes me right back to her.  I want to put my arms around her and hold her.  Comfort her.  Then I realize she is me.

She has spent her entire adult life with a mask, ashamed of that part of her that has made her so strong.  She is me.  And today I'm going to take off the mask and embrace her.  I can only share with you a moment of what 38 years has felt like.  I can only provide a glimpse of what it was like to be a child living in fear.  Feeling alone, isolated, left behind, abandoned.

Even one moment of light shed on the adversity may make a difference.  After all, that's why I became a teacher in the first place.  And as a teacher, this past week, I've seen so much anger. So much hate.  I don't know what caused the young man to commit suicide, but what I do know is that his death has caused me to feel the need to write this today.  My heart is full, so full of words and words and memories that are haunting me.  And I know that there are children that are out there that grew up just like me, that have become adults, and are living still in fear, wanting more from life.  Wanting to escape their life.   Not knowing how.

Let me share a piece of my story.

My step-dad was a drunk and then there were times he was not a drunk.  It was like that.  We lived never knowing.  Never knowing what Dad we were going to get.  When he was not drunk he was a fairly good dad.  He played basketball with me and catch and always whipped the ball as hard as he could and told me to toughen up.  He went to my softball games and watched from the end of the parking lot, ashamed to get out and sit in the stands with the other parents.  To this day, I love hate my step-dad.  It is a difficult feeling to have.  To love someone who has crushed me, but who put food on my table, took me to practices, accompanied me in my junior year prom dress shopping.  The man who taught me how to stack wood, measure with a ruler, and coached me with my algebra homework. The sober dad who loved me, even though we never said those words to each other's face.

But there is another dad.  And he was a product of his own tragic childhood.  He had his own personal hell he endured and how can I judge him as an adult when I know his drinking was his mask.  This dad, this drunk, stoned dad.... he was not a good dad.  He was angry and violent and sometimes came home after a night at the bar and sometimes he didn't.  He was a man who cracked a Milwaukee's Best for breakfast with his morning cigarette.  He was and is a man who was such a drunk that when you got close to him you could smell the alcohol reeking from his body.  He never laid a hand on the girls, but he would hit my brother with a belt.  I can remember the sound of him doing that, hurting my brother.  And my brother's cries.  And I felt helpless.  I didn't want him to hurt my brother but I was too afraid to say anything.  Because if I did, maybe he would hurt me.   My mom never let him get close to us.  She protected us and she tried to protect my brother.

I'm guessing you're judging my mom right about now.  You're probably thinking, How could she have let that man do those things?  Why didn't she just leave?  

If life were so simple, then there wouldn't be so much hurt in the world.

My mom gave birth to me in May of 1977, six months after her fifteenth birthday.  I believe that she was a "child having a baby".  As a teacher, I see it all too often.  Girls becoming mothers, just like my own mother.  Sometimes I wonder about their life.  Is their spirit as crushed as my own mother's was at times?  It is not for me to relinquish the secrets of my mother's own troubled childhood.  It should be enough to say that she had even bigger hurdles than I did.  She did what she could with what she had.  She loved us, she comforted us, she sang lullabies to us at night and she kissed our boo-boos.   She read us stories, baked cookies with us, sang Christmas carols and talked to us about life.  It was important to her that we talk about our problems. Under the circumstances, her having been an 8th grade drop-out, I applaud my mother for what she did succeed with... and eventually she did succeed.

When I was 8 years old everything changed.  Tragedy changed us all, and even changed my step-dad for a time.  When I hear people say out of our darkest places, true hope is born, I know this is so.

My 18 month old brother died when I was 8.  He died in my mother's arms as I watched from the backseat.  She had taken him to the doctor countless times,  Potsdam Hospital, Crouse in Syracuse and back to Potsdam.  He's just got the flu, they said.  Give him some children's Tylenol.  Maybe no one took her seriously because she came in dressed like her clothes came from a second hand store, which they did.  Maybe it was her unsophisticated speech, her "ain'ts" and "gonnas" and her errors with subject verb agreement.  Whatever it was, no one took it seriously and so my two sisters and my brother and I watched our baby brother die.

And after that, my mom changed.  Not immediately.  I was only 8 and I watched her lie on the couch with her back to us, covered in a multi-colored afghan blanket.   She did that for a long time.  Too long.  We were kept close to her.  No, you aren't going to ride your bike across the street....

But she did eventually return to school and get her G.E.D.  And as years passed, I found myself helping her with her college work.  I edited her papers and she and I would discuss her coursework.  I was in junior high school at the time.  When other kids were playing sports or hanging out watching tv, I was coming home to babysit and have dinner ready if mom was working.  She would leave me a note on the table.  A list usually of things that needed to get done.  And I was responsible for making sure we each divvied up the chores equally and got them done.  And then, when she needed me, I was  a sounding board for her struggles with college.

But let me back up.  Because I've lost a bit of what I wanted to share and instead got ahead of myself. This entry today I hope, if it leaves you with no other impression, then I want you to understand a little of what it was like to grow up in poverty.  I want to give a voice to all those kids eating free and reduced lunches... kids who might not have a mom like mine.  No one to cuddle them, sing to them, no one to love them.

Just a few thoughts on what poverty means to me:

  • Eating government food.  It comes in cans with white labels.  The cheese is so bright yellow that as an adult I refuse to eat orange cheese.
  • My mom and my family getting on a bus and leaving one state to go to another thousands of miles away to get away from my step-dad.
  • Not knowing who my real father is and never hearing a response when I finally write to him.
  • Eating our dinner from a picnic table in our dining room when we had no table.
  • Being cold.  
  • Refusing to eat school lunch because we had a ticket that the lunch ladies punched and everyone would know I was on welfare if they saw my ticket.
  • Waiting until no one was checking out at the grocery store and rushing to check out so no one would see me using food stamps.
  • Watching my mom cry because my dad was off on a binge.  
  • Watching my mom cry and pack my dad's things in a box and put them on the porch because my dad was off on a binge.
  • Watching my dad take an axe and destroy his own truck when he got home and my mom was not there.
  • Locking my dad out of the house because he is drunk and we are afraid.
  • the sounds of adults partying while I am in my room, trying to sleep.
  • My bedroom, without a door, and with plywood on one window and plastic over the other. My dresser missing two drawers.
  • Shame when kids at school talk about their summer vacations.
  • Getting one pair of sneakers and one outfit from Ames for the new school year and wearing them to bed the night before because I'm so excited to have something new.
  • Being afraid in the middle of the night that he might come in and do those things to me again.
  • Shame when kids at school tease me about my clothes.
  • Wanting to take a shower but we have no water.  Knowing I'm the stinky kid, wishing I could change it.
  • Knowing there's no Santa by the time I'm 9 years old and faking it so my brother and sisters can experience the magic a little while longer.
  • Crying silently because the kids at school exclude me.  
  • Shame when my parents pick me up and they are driving a car that is rusted and falling apart.
  • The smell of smoke, thick.  Cigarettes always in the air.  My clothes and hair smelling like a cigarette and knowing I smell like that, but not being able to do anything about it.    
  • Studying.  Studying.  Focusing on school and sports and doing everything I can so I can graduate and not ever have to live this way again.
  • Being called a lesbian by the guys at school who have no idea that I have no interest in boys because he did those things to me.
  • Hearing screaming at night.  Always hearing screaming.  And one morning the screaming is my mom... screaming at dad to call an ambulance,
  • Watching my brother die.
  • Not wanting to raise my hand because I don't want to be noticed by teachers.
  • Meeting my grandfather at 5 years old for the first time and being afraid to let my grandfather hug me because of the times when the bad man touched me where he wasn't supposed to.
  • Knowing my mom can't afford a good Christmas, and wanting one so bad.
  • Finally telling my mom about the bad touches.
  • Getting a job when I'm sixteen and spending my money on my younger sisters and brother, taking them places like the fair, because I want them to have some happiness.

Recently I heard a professor at SLU discussing they were going to have a workshop there so people could experience what it's like to live in poverty.  I felt a strong desire to speak up, but didn't.  Anyone who hasn't endured poverty's wicked ache, can't attend a two day training and know its hunger, its isolation, its shame.

That would be like saying we could watch the movie Lone Survivor and saying we experienced what it is like to be a marine.

Poverty is a cycle.  It's vicious.  It's brutal.  And, saddest of all, for many children, it's a life of secrets, lies, and despair.

I was lucky enough to have a mom who finally stepped out of the mold and broke the cycle. 
I was lucky enough to have teachers that made a difference just like so many of our teachers at MCS do.

There are so many other truths about poverty upon which I could expound, but even this little bit I think is enough.  I've always had the dream that I could help others like me... give a voice to the voiceless.

I'd like to end by connecting this to what I've witnessed as a teacher.

In the MCS school district I've studied the numbers for Free and Reduced lunch as provided by the state of New York.  The heaviness in my heart I feel when I see the numbers creeping toward and toppling 70% in the elementary schools, and only in the 50% range at the high that number decreasing because the disadvantaged are dropping out of school?  That would be my guess.

 If you look at the data regarding how students living in poverty perform compared to their counterparts.  The difference is obvious. It's widespread across the state.  We KNOW that poverty is THE biggest problem.

And yet, I hear so much blame placed on poor people.  Name calling.  I am certainly not making excuses for people who take advantage of the system.  What I'm trying to do is lead you to see.  Living in poverty is almost always synonymous to living without an education.  Living in ignorance.

When uneducated people make uneducated decisions, we, the educated, should not be surprised when their decisions are misguided, inappropriate, sometimes hurtful and even illegal.  We've got an entire generation of impoverished adults who have been living in a system in which welfare has become a way of life.  Who makes the decisions in our culture?  Educated people are supposed to do that.  We can keep pointing fingers and placing blame.

And while you're wasting your time doing that, there is a hungry child somewhere, sitting on a mattress that is laying on a living room floor, watching her father sleeping, taking care not to step on the heroin needles.

It takes a village to raise a child.

And if you're living in poverty and it feels hopeless, it's not. It starts with an education.

No blame.  Only change.

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”

~Kofi Annan


  1. April,

    That was beautifully written. I was crying half way through. My dad was a functioning alcoholic and mostly drank Thursday through Sunday. If he drank at home on the weekend, one eye was on the clock so he could pop one open at noon. Noon was the magic time. I guess if you drank before noon, you had a problem. If you waited until 12:01 then you were fine. My mom would try to get his paycheck on Thursday so she could get the groceries for the week and pay bills. We were never sure if he would come home those nights, so the question would always be lingering in our mind...Is Dad coming home tonight? I would lie in bed at night and worry that he would crash before he got home. Luckily, for us, he was not a mean drunk, but silly. He did not make a lot of money, we lived in a trailer, and money was always tight. The pipes always froze in the winter which meant you could not always take a shower. We got two or three new outfits for school and they were usually from Ames or Jamesway, until I got old enough to babysit and help buy my own clothes. I would get those new outfits out and stare at them, organize my new socks and underwear, and was so excited to wear them on the first day of school. I was excited to find a pair of Levis at Jamesway for sixth grade. I got made fun of though, as they were wide bottomed and too long for me. They were not the Levis everyone else was wearing. I had to pin them up with safety pins. As I got older, I was ashamed of my Skips sneakers, ordered from the Montgomery Ward catalog every year, because everyone else was buying brand name. Christmas was always hard for my mom. One year was especially hard and she could only spend $60 for each of us. I don't have a gift exchange with my class because I know how hard Christmas is for families living in poverty. One year, I was the last person in class who hadn't brought my present to exchange. My mom delivered it to school and since it was wrapped, I didn't know what it was. I was so ashamed when another girl unwrapped it, as it was a box of candy canes. It was all she could afford. I also have love, hate feelings for my dad as he could be so selfish. And yet, that was the way he was raised too. Who buys a small truck that only fits 3 for a family of 5? My sister and I had to flip down the tailgate, hop in, and ride in the back. He rode it home one day, drunk, and wrecked it. Somehow he didn't get a DWI, and we got a family car. I have many other memories and so I am able to empathize with the children in my classes. Not everyone lived a Norman Rockwell life. If you were waiting for dad to come home, mom and dad fought in the middle of the night, and dad missed work (Will he be fired?), are you going to concentrate on your math or worry about finding details in an ELA story? Will Dad come home and give mom the check so we can get groceries? My mom eventually went to business school for a year and became a secretary, eventually divorced my dad when I was a senior in high school, and then got her Bachelor's Degree. She had financial help and family support during this time. Like you said, not everyone who lives in poverty has a support system to break the cycle.

    Suzanne Thibault

  2. Beautiful and touching words!! April, you are a very courageous and strong woman!! I feel privileged to have had you coach my daughter for the past two years!! I wish your story could be printed and given to all students to read... it's a real eye opener. Thank you for sharing!!

  3. As a women who has lived both sides of it; as a kid, and an adult, education helps but it is not the only answer. Many people in the North Country make a career out of getting an education but are unable to get a job that actually supports them. I have pulled myself out and got a college education and am working. But, I can't seem to do better than $14 dollars an hour; which is NOT enough. I am no better off than when I was on welfare really. At one time I was homeless and I was working. We are all just 1 step away from true poverty. So, I don't think education is the real answer. It helps but really I am still paying off my student loans that I took out in 1996. I think the answer is confidence, a change in thinking, and real opportunities. And stop worrying what others think of you. We all go through these experiences for a reason. It's up to us to figure out what it is.

    1. I agree that the North Country has limited opportunities. But opportunities are limited because of the wealthy elite which control our country. Only when we educate a class can a class retaliate against this corporate structure. The longer people remain ignorant, whether by choice or by a result of this situation, and the more the cycle springboards out of control, the end result is complete destruction of the middle class and a true tyranny of leadership.

    2. true. we must rise and retaliate.

    3. Who do you think benefits the most from keeping people in poverty and dependent?
      NOT the business owners…. more people with money means more sales and more profit.
      basic sense...

    4. Of course, I respect your right to your opinion and as far as local business, no. They certainly do not benefit. Corporations, I'd disagree. Our government is becoming an oligarchy. I believe in the Founding Fathers' mission, but believe we have strayed far from the mark.