The first homeless person I ever spoke to was 6 years old. I asked him what he liked to do and he just stared blankly at me. He was taller than the other kids in my class, and he liked to watch them play on swings as he sat alone under the slide. As his (student) teacher, I worked with him primarily on his writing, and although he intently followed every direction that left my mouth, he struggled daily. He wore pajamas several times a week and had the only smile I’ve every seen truly stretch ear to ear. Before he walked home in the afternoon, he made absolutely certain each day to give me a hug and say, “I love you Ms. Lange! I’ll miss you!”, as even my most fervent student admirers looked on skeptically. One day, after a few months of school, he was suddenly gone. Moved, we were told. We weren’t sure what had happened to him.
The students I taught this year the opposite of my private school, dual income, privileged childhood. It was challenging to walk into the inner city, low-income elementary school each day to teach, and then walk into my apartment, where my husband/financial backer was reading with my well-fed toddler. The challenges were embedded not in the differences between myself and my students as people, but in my own powerlessness to change their circumstances. I could not provide them with shelter or safety outside of school. I could not promise them that they could spend time with their loved one. I could not protect them from hearing gunshots, or knowing how their uncle was killed. I could never release their parent from jail or provide enough money to help the grandparents who were raising them. The only thing I could do was show them kindness and hold them to high expectations in my room- expectations I don’t know that I could have reached at their age. We, as a society, call on these high-needs kids to have strength and overcome. I can’t explain how powerful it is to have watched some of them actually do it.
Some. Not all. But no one who truly understood their circumstances could blame them.
I struggle with the why of these problems. Fairness is not a reality in our world, and I don’t think it has to be. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty for everything I am- white, middle-class, educated, over-fed- when I actually know people out there who are systematically disadvantaged for not having those qualities. Guilt, it turns out, does very little to actually help people who need it.
It’s better, I think, to feel angry.
Not the kind of angry that moves people to violence. Not the kind of angry inspired by blatant ignorance. Basically- not the kind of anger we are confronted with over and over on whatever news outlet you subscribe to. I mean the kind of angry that does not allow you to be complacent even for a moment; the kind of unsettled feeling that drives you to act. The most productive anger is not fueled by hate, but by love for others. That kind of passion takes some bravery and some inconvenience, but that kind of passion is what I believe truly inspires change.
I never took time to feel the impact of one person’s suffering until that student walked into my classroom. He helped me see my class for what they were- six year olds growing up with insurmountable odds. This boy made me a better teacher in every way and helped me understand why developing relationships with students and a positive classroom climate are critical. He made me understand that I was angry for him, and that although I could not control what my students would face outside of school, I could control how I reacted to them inside our classroom. When I started to understand that, my students learned so much more.
In many ways, life will be strikingly different now that I’m at home, not teaching every day. Although I won’t directly work in a high-needs area anymore, I will work with my son. I hope that I can teach him that he has been born into advantages in life, and that he has the power to use his advantages to serve others.
I hope, if I do nothing else, to make him angry about something.