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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