News Columns & Blogs

Sheryl Green: Closing the curtain on poverty

Sheryl Green

Sheryl Green
Sheryl Green

Every day my kids seem to have another app on their phone.

Yesterday, one of my students showed me this cool app that distorts your face. It was very funny, I have to admit. I didn't even know there was such a thing. Another student showed me a math app that will solve any math problem you take a picture of with your phone. Who ever heard of such a thing? These kids seem to know everything.

Except a lot of things.

I usually don't get home in time to see the "Steve Harvey Show," but this past week, I did. His guest was Spike Lee, renowned movie producer who doesn't cower from speaking the truth. I got the tail-end of a discussion of Lee's new movie, "Chi-Raq." Something Steve Harvey said struck a chord with me. He used a neat analogy to comment on breaking the cycle of poverty.

Most of us have been on an airplane. The majority of us suffer the walk of shame past the nicer section of first class to take our humble seats in coach. Before the plane even takes off, the stewardess closes the curtain to separate the haves from the have-nots.

Harvey told a humorous anecdote of looking down the aisle and being envious of first class's full can of Coke as he sipped his half-full plastic cup. He jested about the warm washcloths and pillows and extra leg room. Many of us have been there -- stuck in the middle seat between a smelly man and a snoring woman, looking up ahead with envy and longing. When the curtain is drawn, however, we have no clue what we're missing.

Harvey's airplane analogy is an accurate slice of our society. Large groups of people are never exposed to what they "could have" or what "could be." For Harvey, he was exposed to more -- exposed to better. So he settled in his mind to achieve what he didn't have, what he wanted, and ultimately he now sits in first class.

But what about those 30 kids in my classroom? The day after the show, I asked my kids who had ever been on an airplane. Three raised their hands. I asked who had ever been to Atlanta. Five raised their hands. Most of my students catch a bus from their neighborhood, get dropped off at school, board a bus home, and repeat the cycle for 12 years, traveling nowhere, being exposed to nothing but what their neighborhood has to offer them.

And yet, I want them to become successful members of society. To me and most of our world, success looks like an executive, a lawyer, a business owner, an accountant. My students' versions of "success" look like a man dribbling a ball or spitting a rhyme or a woman who can sing.

And maybe me, a teacher. But I'm just another familiar authority figure telling them what to do, so I don't really count.

I am a teacher who has never had to worry about a roof over my head or choosing which bill to pay this month. I've never hadto choose between clothes or food. And yet, I ask them to become successful members of society.

How does someone like me rip down the curtain? Steve Harvey's interpretation of breaking the cycle of poverty can be summed up in a word: exposure. It worked for him. His mother sacrificially bought him travel magazines to expose him to exotic places beyond the streets of his "hood," as he called it. For me and teachers like me, the method may look a lot different.

I think it starts with acknowledging potential in our students. Perhaps along the way, little third-grader Steve Harvey didn't look the part of television host. His neighborhood probably wasn't conducive to creating a popular stand-up comic. But someone along the way saw something in him and exposed him to his own potential. For us as teachers, it may be as simple as counterbalancing the world's loud message of "you can't" with the truth of "you can." And then, we just place them before the buffet of possibility. We expose them to what the world can offer them, and more importantly, what they can offer the world.

We give them a problem they can solve and rejoice with them in their success. We give them a topic they can write about, and then we read the paragraph with pride. We give them a skill they can master, and then we watch them use it. Our kids may not become a Steve Harvey or a Spike Lee, but they certainly can walk beyond the curtain if we just show them what is on the other side.

Sheryl Green is an independent contractor. Contact her at