September 30, 2014

You're not invisible

I live in a depressed area of the midwest. In 2011, our city had the highest concentrated poverty rate among core cities in the United States’ 100 largest metropolitan areas. Driving through the town, it's not uncommon to see dilapidated houses, homeless people, and abandoned cars. Where I live is outside the core city, but often have to drive through the city.

Yesterday, it was a lovely 75 degree fall afternoon and I was on my way to a meeting. My sunroof was open and the radio was tuned to my favorite station. I mentally cursed as I saw the light I was approaching turn red, slowing my journey. I grumbled even more when I spotted the far-too-familiar person on the corner with a cardboard sign asking for money.

My mental inventory was rattling off a course of action, while I rolled up the window on that side of my car as I came to a stop. I kept telling myself not to make eye contact, "don't encourage him", the typical narrative we tell ourselves when we see someone who makes us uncomfortable.

In the periphery, I saw him standing still on the corner, not approaching any of the cars, just hopefully holding his sign, willing someone to open their window, or maybe their heart.

I had just stopped at the ATM, put some cash in my wallet, and it was tucked into my purse, laying on the passenger seat. Something hit me in that moment. All I needed to do to get money was drive through a magic window, punch a few buttons and it popped out of a little slot. I never would know what the indignity of standing on a street corner in an economically decimated town with a makeshift cardboard sign, hoping for the kindness of a stranger. I knew I could do better than avert my eyes. I could do something.

In that split second I reached into my wallet and grabbed one of the crisp bills I had just gotten from the ATM. I rolled down my window and motioned for him to come over. It was broad daylight, so I wasn't worried for my safety, in fact if anything, I wanted him to know that I didn't meet the stereotype anymore than maybe he did. I didn't want either of us to be invisible to each other.

He was polite and graciously appreciative and told me not to be scared, he'd never hurt a woman. The light was about to change and so there wasn't a lot of time for chit-chat. I don't know a thing about why he was begging or homeless. It didn't matter. He didn't know a thing about why I had a luxury car or a crisp $20. We saw past the stories we tell ourselves about others and only saw two people helping each other. Yes, he helped me. He helped me soften my heart. I wished him luck and told him to have a nice day.

My friend with the cardboard sign smiled broadly and he must have said "thank you" 10 times. The light changed as I drove off and he waved and then resumed his quietly dignified stance, as dignified as I imagine a person who is begging for money could be. But he was smiling. Someone saw him and someone cared.

Now I'm not suggesting we throw money at every person who asks for it, without wondering why they need it. Or maybe I am. Maybe it doesn't matter why they are asking. Really, think about it. That bill I handed him meant so much more to him than it would to me. In fact, I've even gone into a forgotten pair of pants or done laundry and found a $20. I'm pretty sure that's never happened to someone like him. I had it to share, so I did.

Maybe I am suggesting we take off the blinders and remind those in need that they are not invisible. They exist and they need to be seen. We exist and we need to be seen. We share this planet. Let's see each other as neighbors.

September 17, 2014

Trouble Maker

Last year, after my firstborn child started college, and my second born was old enough to drive, I realized my nest was half full. For years, I've felt that I was meant to be a teacher. I mean this with no immodesty; I am really good with kids. I like them and I convey that. Because they know I like them, they respond.

I learned that I am not meant to be a full time teacher because I don't like planning or paperwork or tests. I like getting in and getting my hands dirty. I'm grateful for the carefully arranged lessons and statistical measures that each teacher must do. Me? I get to come in for a day and be a rock star. I read the lessons, ask questions and watch young eyes and minds come to life.

Sometimes. Sometimes, I see a child who is either struggling or beaten down.

Yesterday, I became reacquainted with some of my students from last year. My heart tugged as I saw a young man I met last year. He had been identified as a trouble maker last year and actually accused of crimes that were later proven he didn't commit. He seems to have found a comfortable place as the trouble maker and that saddened me. I don't have the arrogance to suppose that he isn’t as bad as he seems, but boy, I sure hope that I can give him a glimpse of someone believing in him.

He’s a bright young man. I read his work and it’s as good if not better than anything his peers produce. But he’s labeled. Last year, he was accused of stealing, and even under intense scrutiny, he denied the theft, explaining that he was allergic to peanuts, and that there was no way he would steal a Reese’s. The aide at the time nodded to me knowingly, explaining, he may not eat it, but he could probably sell it.

I actually understand why such a young man would fall under scrutiny. He is a behavior problem. The part where my heart breaks is that our egos don't give us the chance to let go when that scrutiny fails. We continue to accuse and suspect, even when we don't have a rational reason.

He was allergic to peanuts. He did NOT steal the Reese’s peanut butter cup, and in fact, a teacher came into the room later that morning and asked, did you find the money I left last night when I was here for conferences? The case of the missing candy bar was solved, but the cloud of suspicion hung over that young man.

The story stuck with me from my day as a sub. As someone who comes in and out one day at a time, I don't purport to know more than those who are there daily. But I see things differently. Yesterday, I saw my young friend again. We smiled knowingly at each other.

The work was assigned and he balked. He found one excuse after another to avoid doing it. The aide again told me, “All he does is get into trouble”. I remarked that sometimes things like that are self-fulfilling prophecies. He gets in trouble because that is what expected of him. I went over to him and said, “You need to stop stalling and do this or you will have to stay in for recess and work on it”. He began, albeit 20 minutes later, and wrote what I consider a very age appropriate and persuasive essay. I do not get to grade the essays, and honestly, I'm probably not even supposed to read them, but my personal fascination with this young student got the better of me. I had to see if he wrote anything of substance. He did.

My anecdotal evidence is simple. He is smart. But he is labeled. I don't see him daily so I can ignore the label.

But I also see the writing on the wall. This smart young student will not surpass his label. He will not be encouraged to reach further than his life. My heart cries for him. My heart cries for the thousands who are in cities around the nation, who are labeled and not listened to. A trouble maker he was labeled and that is who he will become.

Doesn’t seem right, does it?


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