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How Columbus teachers helped a student ‘break the cycle’ of poverty in her family

I held her by the shoulders, looked dead into her eyes, and said, “Yvanna, you have to break the cycle. You have got to get out of here.” Her teary eyes told me she understood. That was about a year before she graduated from high school and right after an unfortunate conversation I had with her about some struggles at home she was trying to overcome.

Yvanna was charismatic, energetic, super positive and funny. She was a great athlete, but a not-so-great student. The vibrant young lady played soccer for me for two years and was a student in my senior level British literature class , so I had an awesome opportunity to get to know her well. Born into a two bedroom, crowded house with four other siblings, Yvanna quickly was becoming a product of poverty when I met her.

The first impression I had of Yvanna was her charisma and humor. Her sister, who also played for me, was more timid and reserved. Not Yvanna. She was a leader and a comedian who could capture the attention of anyone around her. Whatever struggles she faced in her dysfunctional home, she hid underneath her facade of humor.

But as with all of us, especially young people, the hurt eventually will bubble over. On this particular day, the eruption caused quite a bit of stir. In the aftermath, I was called to the office. There she was, our team sweatshirt ripped and dirtied, her hair a tousled mess. She was obviously distraught, so this was not the time for lectures or sermons about negatively representing our team, our school, me, herself. She needed her coach.

So, I sat down beside her in the principal’s office and asked what happened. The pain that unleashed itself was disheartening, and I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do to make her feel better. The fight was a simple case of protecting her honor, standing up for her family, saving face.

Poverty has a way of encroaching upon kids in ways we who have never experienced it may not realize. There are obvious signs — soiled clothes, body odor, unkempt hair, misfit shoes, etc. All of these outward signs were the visible catalyst for Yvanna’s scuffle in the dirt. But the years of living with an alcoholic father, watching her mother scrape pennies together to feed her children, spending the night with friends so she could bathe when the family’s water was cut off, playing on teams with teammates who had the latest and greatest equipment, walking four miles home from late practices, not being able to read on grade level, or quietly sitting in desks knowing she’s not smart enough, will chisel away the soul of a child. No matter the many qualities Yvanna had going for her, in her diluted, misguided mind, poverty had instilled in her soul an attitude of flippancy. Getting in trouble, failing my English class, losing a soccer game were no big deals to her.

When she left campus to return to her real world, the fantasy of school and sports became just that — a fantasy. What her teachers and coaches preached to her about preparing for the future, studying for a better life, and working towards more opportunities, were erased by empty cupboards, absent parents, and no electricity.

She was headed for her destined position – another statistic.

But every once in a while, the cycle is broken. Every so often, the phoenix rises from the ashes and overcomes. Ask Kathy Shelby, a fifth grade teacher at Waddell. She can tell you all about how she was supposed to be a statistic. She was supposed to follow in her parents’ footsteps and never graduate from high school. If circumstances had written her life story, she would definitely not be a fifth grade teacher, changing the destinies of young people, one student at a time.

I hope Yvanna’s story ends up like Mrs. Shelby’s. It’s quite possible, actually. When circumstances were stacked against her, Yvanna did graduate from high school. She did get far away from her environment. And she did go to college.

Just like Mrs. Shelby, Yvanna chose to be a teacher, too. I bet that choice had a little bit to do with the many teachers and coaches along the way who introduced them both to possibility, who took the time to look them in the eye and say, “You don’t have to settle.” I’d like to think so, at least.

Sheryl Green is a secondary teacher in Columbus, Georgia. To correspond with Sheryl, email