Monday, September 17, 2012
What Cynics and Education Reformers Don't Know
Picture the first day at the high school where I teach. Two patrol cars are stopped on the highway outside the driveway, their blue lights flashing to alert drivers to the increased traffic – or maybe to wake up sleepy teen drivers. The student parking lot is starting to fill up, and the bus riders who arrived earlier are standing outside waiting for the janitors to unlock the doors.
I am on morning duty, which means that I arrive early for school and patrol the cafeteria. At 8 the doors open and students stream in. Because of the way the building is arranged, all of the bus riders – half of our student population – enter through the cafeteria, many of them going straight to the breakfast line.
Some students in my district get on the school bus at 5:59. The longest bus route is 63 miles long. If students get to school tired or hungry, I’m not surprised.
Meals benefit many
As I always do when I’m on duty in the cafeteria, I think about the people who complain bitterly about children receiving free and reduced price meals at school. Although some cite widespread fraud for their objection, studies by Mathematica Policy Research dispute that. The most recent national survey indicate that 15 percent of students in the meal program receive more benefits than they are eligible for, while 7.5 percent of students receive less. A new accountability system being piloted by USDA will help correct that number, which the researchers say is the result of unintentional errors rather than deliberate fraud.
Other people oppose the meal program because they argue that parents, not taxpayers, should be responsible for feeding their own children, even in a district like mine where the majority of children live in poverty.
I don’t disagree. In fact, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think parents should be responsible for their children. But how does the state enforce that?
Eliminate the program and parents will step up, critics argue, but what about the parents who won’t or can’t? I’m not willing to make a child go hungry just because the adults in his life have let him down.
This year the breakfasts look a little different than in the past. New federal guidelines require more fruit and vegetables, and indeed, I notice students eating the fresh melon and apple slices along with their eggs and cereal. If better meals translate into healthier students, that’s a benefit in multiple ways.
I also spend my morning duty watching students feeding another kind of hunger – friends greeting each other with hugs, new students standing uneasily at the edge of the crowd looking around for someone to talk to.
“I’ve never been in this building before,” one thin young girl says as she sidles up to me in the cafeteria. “Where do I go? What do I do?”
Her eyes are wide as if she’s struggling not to panic, and she shifts her bookbag from one shoulder to the other uneasily.
“Where are you from?” I ask, and she whispers, “Oregon.”
She says she doesn’t want to eat breakfast so I tell her to sit anywhere and wait until the bell rings to go to class. Before she makes her way to one of the nearby tables, she says, “This place is so big. I’ll never figure it out.”
“Oh, you will!” I say, but she gives me a look that lets me know that my cheery reassurance is no comfort at all.
Kids keep coming and coming and coming. When I glance at the clock, one minute has passed.
From the corner of my eye I see a blur of pink – another student making her way to the girl from Oregon. Over the noise of the cafeteria I can’t hear her words, but the new girl gets up and follows the student in pink to a different table where several girls lean close and chat with her.
Hunger of a different sort
The new girl doesn’t smile, but something in her posture – the cant of her head, the slope of her shoulder – suggests she is relieved.
Why didn’t I think to introduce her to some of the students I know? Because every year I spend a week or two relearning things I forget over the summer.
Such as how much work starting school is – not just the logistical details of getting enough desks in my classroom and issuing textbooks, making out lesson plans and copying student handouts, but the much bigger, much more important task of building relationships with a group of strangers.
How someone in need – an awkward new girl sitting alone at a table – can evoke kindness from a teenager with challenges of her own, who knows what it feels like to be hungry and lonely, who doesn’t want that for anyone else.
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