Please don’t ever assume that just because a family is poor, that the students can’t achieve just as much as any other student. I have had a nerve hit this morning. I can’t even begin to explain the emotions that have come to a head.
Let me give you some personal background. I grew up poor. I didn’t realize I was poor. We bought our clothes at the Salvation Army and Goodwill. We had food on the table. I always had paper and pencils. When I went to kindergarten, I came home and told my mom and dad that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. I never wavered from that desire. I had a goal.
Somewhere in middle school, my mom told me the truth. That if I wanted to be a teacher, I would have to go to college. We didn’t have the money for that. But there were these things called scholarships for kids that worked really hard. Scholarships would pay for college. So my mind was set. I would get a scholarship. I never lost focus on that goal. Scholarships were the only way I would get to college. I still didn’t realize I was poor.
Yes, I was a free lunch kid. So were all of my friends. Years later, I would discover that my school was one of the lowest for socio-economic schools in our district. No one ever told me that poor kids didn’t go to college. All I ever heard was that kids that worked hard got scholarships. So I worked hard. In June of 1986, I spoke as Valedictorian of my graduation class. I had earned those scholarships to go to college. Looking back on it, I didn’t realize what I had done. I didn’t know it was such a big deal. College was always my goal. It was never about the money. I wanted to be a teacher. I just assumed I would always be poor. After all, that was all I had ever heard. Teachers didn’t make lots of money. I could handle that. I never had a lot of money so it was no big deal to me.
Now, as a veteran teacher, I have had the privilege of watching many poor students come through my classroom. I tell them about my story. I share that being poor doesn’t really matter, you see. I was not a victim of my poverty. I am successful BECAUSE of my poverty as a student. Yes, I understand that some in poverty do come to school hungry. I also understand that there are poor students that feel they will never get out of poverty. Trust me, I know first hand how poverty has made my growth more difficult. But poverty DID NOT STOP ME from growing.
When we discuss poverty, we need to stop and ask what we are really wanting to solve. Many people believe that the poor student doesn’t know what is possible. Trust me, every poor student in your school knows there are those with more than them. It is evident every time another student pulls out their new device. It is evident every time an affluent student talks about going to a theme park. It is VERY evident when the class trip costs more than you would ever dare to ask your parents to provide.
As a poor child, sometimes it did hurt that I couldn’t do what the other kids did. Yes, when someone made fun of my homemade clothes, I wanted to hide. In the long run, it made me more empathetic to the needs of the students in my care. I don’t care how much your parents make. I have seen “rich” kids come to school hungry because both parents work and no one was at home to fix breakfast. I’ve seen “rich” kids sit and doodle all day because no one cared if they learned or not. The problem isn’t “rich” or “poor”. The problem is the support that each student has.
I had a tremendous support system. Mom and Dad never stopped supporting my dream. They never told me I couldn’t become a teacher. To this day, Mom still listens when I have goals I need to talk through. She is still one of my biggest supporters. I couldn’t have achieved anything if she had crushed my dreams repeatedly. I have awesome teachers that never told me to reach lower. Mrs. Herring, my math teacher, encouraged me to participate in Mu Alpha Theta (Honors Math Club). She never even mentioned how difficult it would be to go to college as a “poor kid”. My guidance counselors wouldn’t even let me consider taking classes that wouldn’t prepare me for college. They asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and set me on that path.
I am successful, not because I went to college. I am successful because I achieved my dream. I am successful because I didn’t give up. I am successful because I had a support system that never told me I couldn’t succeed. A successful student is one that reaches for a goal and achieves it.