A fourth-grade student comes to her teacher sobbing because the girls at the lunch table refuse to let her sit with them because she smells. Her mom couldn’t afford to buy her deodorant until payday the next Friday.
A fifth-grade student comes to class tardy, but refuses to enter the classroom. Instead, he motions for his teacher to step outside and asks her to call the front office. He wants to ask for a change of clothes because he has worn the same ones for three days. His T-shirt is stained from Monday’s lunch, and he can’t handle another day of ridicule. His family has no washer and his mother couldn’t get to the laundromat until Saturday.
Two high school students are seen getting off the bus one morning but are later caught skipping school. They are good kids and members of the football team. The principal asks why they are skipping, and they respond, “We stink, we know we stink, and we don’t want people to have to smell us.”
A first grader misses over a month of school because she has lice. Repeatedly she comes back to re-enter, but is checked by the nurse and turned away for still being infested. The single mom hasn’t the means to scour the entire apartment.
An 11th-grade phenomenal female athlete plays every sport at her school and walks four miles home after practice every evening because she has no ride. Her home has no running water, so once a week, she wakes up early and walks to her friend’s house down the street to take a shower before school. The other four days, she comes to school with yesterday’s practice sweat still on her body.
A class of first graders enter their classroom with grayed teeth and halitosis. A 15-year-old girl smells of oily hair. An eighth-grade boy has no coat in December. A senior has no dress pants for graduation.
I could continue. For the next few months, I could even dedicate this weekly column to retelling the stories of how poverty effects our students. I could focus on the bullying, the ridicule, the isolation, and I still would make no dent in presenting the sweeping, overwhelming contagion that has infected all of our schools and robbed our children of what they need and deserve.
I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve witnessed the rawness and vulnerability and been privy to the condemnation that results from what so many of our students face on a daily basis. And let’s face it; most of us are oblivious to the physical and mental effects of never-having-enough.
I know most teachers certainly aren’t prepared to see what they see. We teachers don’t learn how to combat these sort of voids in our college courses, and we don’t take a class on learning how to meet the many needs of our students beyond the curriculum.
So what does a teacher do?
Oh, I can’t wait to tell you. This is what I like to focus on – the answers, the void-filling, the way teachers rise up, stand up and pay up when needed most. Teachers go after work and buy a fourth grader some deodorant. They escort a fifth-grade boy to the office where he can change into clean clothes donated by local business partners. They take a little guy’s clothes home and wash them. They make arrangements for football players to use the school’s washer and dryer for their personal clothes. They meet a girl early before school to open up the locker room so she can take a shower before class. They buy a class set of tooth brushes and make brushing teeth a part of the daily routine.
I could continue.
Most teachers don’t have much, but what we do have, we freely give to our students. We come to our classrooms because kids are there. Kids with stained T-shirts, gray teeth and smelly hair, and we think they deserve a fighting chance. Ultimately, these small gestures become huge, and it’s the hugeness of the impacts that make all the difference to our children.
I encourage you to join the movement of small gestures within our schools. There are ample opportunities to become a huge impact-maker with simple actions and items. If you need some guidance, ask a teacher.
Sheryl Green is a secondary educator in Columbus. Email her at email@example.com.