"We were poor, but we had love." - Loretta Lynn
"Poor kids just learn differently, you know?"
No, I did not know. Not at all.
The educator speaking to me was a nice person. We'd talked all through dinner at this event where talented, dedicated, obsessive teachers gathered to talk about pedagogical practices. I knew she was a good person. I knew her intentions were benevolent. I knew she was perplexed by how to reach a certain population of kids. But I was not happy with her choice of words.
I grew up a poor kid. OK, maybe not consistently. Because Dad was a professional gambler, we had years where he made decent bank. Those were the years we went to Disney World and Dad drove a Cadillac. We also had years where he was in jail or losing every wager. Those were the years we ate government cheese and paid for the beans and cornbread we always seemed to eat with the pretty, colorful paper that Mom didn't want anybody to see.
Even when we had money, we were poor. Both my parents grew up poor themselves. When we got some money, my father especially felt compelled to spend it instantly, a trait that is often associated with poverty, because you're worried you'll never have money again, might never get to know the luxury of eating at that fancy restaurant or staying in a hotel suite again, so you might as well live it up now and not worry about the future.
Neither of my parents went to college; my siblings and I were the first in our family to get there. We didn't have nice china. We didn't use top sheets underneath the handmaid quilts on our bed. We poured the leftover lard from frying potatoes into a plastic container to reuse another day.
I'm not going to pretend like I was terribly disadvantaged, though. My mother was dedicated to our education. She enforced homework strictly, monitored grades like a hawk, and spoke of college as an absolute certainty, albeit one we'd have to pay for ourselves through scholarships earned by making the highest of grades. Research shows that having a parent who is devoted to education absolutely helps set kids up for success.
And success is what we achieved. Speaking only for myself (although my siblings' accomplishments are equally impressive), I made straight A's all through school. I was the Salutatorian at my High School. I received a great scholarship to Centre College, an elite liberal arts school in Kentucky. I went on to earn a master's degree in education and am now a National Board Certified Teacher.
That's why now, when people look at me, they don't assume I grew up poor. I don't fit their stereotype. I seem like a middle class woman.
And I guess I am.
But in my heart, I still feel compelled to spend money when I get it, fearful that I'll never again know what it's like to drink the expensive wine. I still feel like the other shoe will drop, anxiety constantly knocking at my door, a reminder of days when things were constantly going wrong. I still feel inferior to people who grew up with money, convinced they know something I don't.
But I did NOT learn differently. It's just that when I went home, I had to do my homework on my bed while my dad screamed and threw things in the other room. It's just that when it was time to do my final paper, I didn't have my own personal computer from which to type. It's just that when Science Fair time came around, we couldn't afford $30 in supplies to make my board the fanciest at the entire event.
And the poor kids I teach do not learn differently, either. They are bright and curious. They are passionate about the world, about social change, about the ideas that stir in their heads when they read Langston Hughes or Shirley Jackson.
Yes, when they go home, they may find out that they need to pack all their stuff up to go to their aunt's house for a few weeks because they've been evicted. They may have to move from their current homeless shelter into another. They may need to make dinner for their little brother because Dad's shift doesn't end until 2am and Mom is sick. They may endure screaming in the other room because their parents are stressed out and unhappy and juggling medical bills they can't afford. They may have a parent who died (I can't tell you how many of my impoverished students have lost their parents way too soon) and they are drowning in sorrow. They may desperately want the new shoes everyone else seems to have, but their parents can't even afford to reliably feed them dinner.
No, they don't learn differently, but they do need different things. They need teachers like me who share our experiences, who speak of our own poverty openly and without shame. They need to see that being poor does not make you inferior or stupid. They need to see how much we love and value our families, value the lessons poverty can teach you, even if we're relieved to no longer have to struggle the same way we once did.
They need after-school programs to support them. They need homework help and clubs that give them time away from home and sports that help them channel their energy into something healthy.
They need a school that gives them pencil and paper - no questions asked - so they can learn without being shamed. They need a school that doesn't punish them for their tardies or absences, but rather asks their parents what support they need to get their kids to school on time and on a regular basis. They need healthy school lunches and breakfasts that don't just shove cheap carbs down their throats, but nourish them with fruits and vegetables and proteins so they can concentrate in class.
But most of all they need teachers who believe in them. Teachers who expect incredible work, and support them every step of the way until they achieve it. Teachers who do not view them as "different" from other kids, but as unique, each in his or her own way. Teachers who find materials that motivate them, that inspire them. Teachers that create tasks that are so exciting that kids WANT to learn, rather than having to complete something to get a good grade.
Poor kids have challenges that kids with money will never understand. But they can achieve great things. And maybe if we start treating them with respect and give them the resources they need to achieve their potential, they'll actually create a world where poverty no longer exists.