inner city teaching · politics · slice of life

The Vulnerable Among Us

I arrived at my student teaching assignment earlier than usual one weekday morning. The kids hadn’t lined up in the cafeteria for the Pledge of Allegiance yet. The tables and benches were still out from breakfast, which many kids ate daily. One of the fifth graders from my class was crying. She wasn’t proficient in English yet so she was unable to tell me what was wrong. So I asked her peers.
“The lunch ladies won’t give J breakfast because she got here after they stopped serving,” a boy from my class told me.
“Can’t J knock on the door and ask them to give her breakfast?” I asked.
“That’s not how it works,” another student informed me. “If you’re late, you don’t eat.”
I looked at J, her dark bob framing her tiny face, and noticed she had tears in her eyes. I asked one of her peers to ask J if she had eaten anything.
A quick “no” was given back to me followed by more tears.
This was ridiculous. She’s here before the bell, but can’t eat. I couldn’t fathom J being hungry until lunchtime. I got up from the table and walked over to the kitchen. I pulled on the handle, but it was locked. I peered through the narrow window. Multiple kitchen workers were washing dishes in the kitchen. I flattened my hand and rapped on the door with force until one looked up. She walked over and unlocked the door.
“Good morning,” I said as sweetly as possible. “I am a student teacher in the bilingual fifth-grade class. There’s a student in my class who didn’t eat breakfast this morning. She is hungry. Her friends said she can’t eat because she arrived after you stopped serving food. I need you to fix her a tray for breakfast.”
The lady from the kitchen said, “I’ll do it just this once. Tell her not to be late tomorrow.”
I wasn’t sure if I was overstepping my bounds as a student teacher. But quite frankly, I did not care. “I’m sure she’ll try to make it on time. After all, she wants to eat breakfast so she can concentrate and learn.”
The kitchen door closed. A moment later, the worker handed me a tray of food.
“Thank you,” I said.
I got no response. She turned around and locked the door behind her.
I spun on my heels and walked over to my student. “Here’s your breakfast, J. If you can’t finish before the Pledge, then we will bring it upstairs. I don’t think Mrs. R. will mind.”
“Thank you,” she said in the clearest English I had ever heard her speak.
“Of course. You need to eat.”
I haven’t thought about this incident much since it happened 13 years ago. However, the memory of the story came flooding back when I watched Mick Mulvaney, Office of Management and Budget Director, address the White House Press Corps yesterday. He stood there, justifying what many people believe are draconian budget cuts. He talked about a variety of proposed cuts, such as the ones to Meals on Wheels and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Multiple times I heard Mulvaney ask questions like, “Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?”
The injustice J faced on that winter morning had to do with the time she showed up. But what happens when the error isn’t about timing, but rather is about funding?
Looking at the proposed budget cuts worries me. How about funding for after-school and summer programs, where many children go for academic help and where they also receive a meal? What happens to those kids if that funding gets cut? How about the seniors who rely on meals and visits from volunteers coordinated by Meals on Wheels? What happens when these programs get cut? How about the 68% of children, ages two to eight, whose families watch PBS? What are these families, who rely on public television for educational programming, supposed to show their children instead? As a parent who is picky about the kinds of shows her daughter watches, I’ve gotta tell you that PBS is pretty much it when it comes to quality programming for children.
I could go on about my outrage to the proposed cuts on the EPA, NEA, NEH, and NIH, but quite frankly, I think my time would be better spent contacting my elected officials. Right now, I am horrified by the lack of compassion.
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36 thoughts on “The Vulnerable Among Us

  1. Stacey,
    The horrifying part is not the “lack of compassion” but the total sense of entitlement for the rich. Our state map of kids living in poverty is not pretty and in fact is worse than it has ever been. Young, old, hungry, homeless . . . and I guess Iowa farmers REALLY don’t need to pay for a WALL!

    Everything that is now “state’s rights” means a strain on state budgets . . . already set! It’s a shell game and it’s so sneaky because even the billions for THE WALL are under DEFENSE because who would argue about that.

    I’ve written more letters in the last two months than in the last 20 years. Ay, yi, yi . . . a never-ending assault on our most VULNERABLE!

    1. I am with you Fran. I went through a few drafts of this and decided to take out the part about the Wall. But, quite frankly, the fact that these cuts are being used as the way to pay for that wall disgusts me. As many experts have told us, a wall won’t make us any safer.

      I’m on a first-name basis with the field rep at my Republican congressman’s office. I’ve emailed, called, and have stopped in multiple times since January. (NOTE: The only times I had contacted him in the past were after school shootings. And G-d knows that’s still on every educator and parent’s mind!)

  2. I love your memory that led into your slice. It’s such a sad state of affairs right now…so glad you are speaking out! I have hope that things will change.

  3. One thousand times THIS. I am unbelievably frustrated at the selfishness of the people in power right now. Compassion for others is what makes us human. We teach our kids to be kind and generous, but the current “leadership” is modeling the exact opposite.

  4. Another sad fact is that they don’t seem to understand they are wrong about the “no impact”. Mulvaney seemed almost gleeful when explaining his reasoning. When I first taught, I had first graders in a poor neighborhood and I fought those lunch ladies who gave them less because they were little, but they still paid the same thing! And they ate every bite of their lunches. This was before after school programs, but I figured out then that the lunches were a big part of their sustenance for the day. (I bought a lot of snacks those years.) I’m glad you posted, Stacey. Thank you!

  5. It is so embarrassing to admit to people here that I am from the US lately. I know there is a lot good about the US, but I agree with you- it sure looks like compassion is dwindling. I alternate between sad and angry.

  6. We have free breakfast, lunch, and fruit/ vegetable snacks for the students st my school. I shudder to think how hungry they will be if budget cuts take it away. On top of that, the kids are learning to LIKE healthy fruits and vegetables.

  7. I hear you, Stacey. Horrifying and damaging but still supported by so many Americans that it’s embarrassing. I worry for your children and my grandchildren. What kind of world are we leaving them? I feel that I need to make my voice heard too. Only by being an informed citizen who engages in the political system can we affect change.

    1. I was chatting with a friend today. She said she cannot understand those who choose to turn off the TV and ignore what’s happening. That’s privilege. None of us can afford that kind of privilege right now.

  8. Heart breaking. I just don’t understand how this can be happening. Do the people making these decisions not know ANYONE who it affects? Such a failure of empathy and understanding.

  9. Thanks for your words – I am to upset to write about it. I also have stories like yours – I kept food in my classroom for those who could not get food from the lunch room. What are they thinking? Have they really talked to the single mom of two who I am sure is glad her children can eat at school each day? Have they really talked to the coal miner who’s elderly parents may be getting meals on wheels. Sorry I wasn’t going to write – just so angry!

  10. If you haven’t already, find your local FairDistrict and Indivisible group and join them. Subscribe to you local, state and federal representatives twitter and Facebook feeds. Go to Town Halls, write personal letters and emails. Call. Visit their offices. Vote in every election. NONE of what you said in your piece is an IF. BUT rather, a When. PA is Republican controlled just as the federal government is. CITIZEN activism is the way. Good luck to all of us.

    1. As Lynne or Rose will tell you, I’ve been doing everything in my new mom power to speak up. I regularly schlep my son to my congressman’s office. I even took him to Toomey’s HBG office re the DeVos appointment. I know how red my part of the state is so I’m working tirelessly to make my voice heard.

      1. Yes, a lot of us who are angry are doing all of that and as much more as we can. Did someone at Toomey’s office actually welcome you in? Surprised. Maybe the next thing, which just popped into my head, is to write an Op-Ed about it. Those of us in the classroom have to be careful about political speech, for risk of losing our jobs, but you could..Good luck to all of us!

      2. Yes. His staffer unlocked the door and met with me. Nothing positive came of it. I’ve had more success with my very conservative congressman’s office.

  11. I love the details of that memory. I can recall the numerous occasions that I had to nicely ask for food on behalf of students who had no control of their circumstances. Thank you for sharing this story. It’s a good reminder that we need to advocate for those who can’t do it for their selves.

  12. I’m so glad that I am not alone in posting about this today. This budget proposal has really got me spinning, and it’s definitely about the lack of compassion. Why would we not want to care for our seniors and children? What is the harm at supporting others through our tax dollars? People just don’t realize how many of us are so close to being or becoming those in need – it really doesn’t take much anymore. Thank you for posting!

  13. I teach at a school that is about 90% free and reduced lunch. Many of the kids at our school depend on us to feed them both breakfast and lunch. In the summer, they go to various programs around the city to get their meals. Ten years ago, my sons, who were in the foster care system, would have starved to death, if it wasn’t for Ms. Kym, the cafeteria lady who fed them extra breakfast and lunch, because they weren’t getting fed at home at all.

    I feel physically ill when I watch/read the news right now. I can’t stand it.

    1. Carol – With the exception of a couple of schools where I did some fieldwork, I’ve only ever taught in schools with high free- and reduced-price lunch rates (84% in NYC and 93% in RI). Like you, I know how much kids depend on those meals. To see anything get in the way of them getting the nourishment they needed turned me into a mama bear.

      We have to keep fighting the good fight. As educators, that’s what we do.

  14. Amen sister! This is such a crazy time and as educators we have seen the truth of how cuts affect students just like your story demonstrates. Thanks for sharing. I am fired up about all this but have still not yet called my representatives! Maybe this is the kick in the pants I need!

  15. Thank you, Stacey. The direction the administration is driving this country is horrifying. And Mulvaney’s speech, setting up people who use public, social services (that coal miner and single mom) as the people who are put upon, the ones who see those services as a burden, is despicable.

    We have so much work to do. #RiseAndResist is becoming my mantra.

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