This Is What Poverty Looks Like

A young child sits hugging their knees and covered in dirt.
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I recently came across the moving story of Sonya Romero-Smith, a kindergarten teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who helps her young students that are living in poverty. Each morning, she asks them two simple questions: “Did you eat?” and “Are you clean?”

The story went viral, and it shocked a lot of people in the process — but not me.

I happen to be one of those educators, working in a Title 1 middle school in a very high-poverty area. And when I say “poverty,” I’m not talking about families with a parent who’s just been laid off from their job, or whose mom and dad are embroiled in a costly divorce. I’m not talking about a sudden, temporary, or even long-term kind of money shortage.

I’m talking about families who have lived in poverty for generations. Families who don’t know anything but poverty.

Generational poverty is very different than simply falling on hard times or getting through a few lean months. Kids who grow up in a cycle of generational poverty experience the world differently than those who don’t, in a myriad of ways. For starters, they view education as a stressor, and school a place they do not belong, making it extremely difficult to end the cycle.

The poverty my students face affects every aspect of their lives, and helping these kids can be a grueling challenge. Not only do we teach them, but we oftentimes find ourselves trying to meet their basic needs, which just aren’t being met at home.

What makes things even more difficult is that the kids who need love the most ask for it in the most unloving of ways.

I didn’t coin that phrase — it’s actually a saying that several of us teachers have propped up on our desks, as reminders. We even email it to each other as encouragement on tough days.

It’s challenging to care for someone who’s defiant and disruptive. It’s a challenge to remember the struggles our students face every day and keep that in mind when they’re fighting in class. However, it’s a challenge that most of us eagerly accept because we know that we can make a difference and that we do have the power to change lives.

Whenever helicopters fly above my school, I instinctively tense up. On the third day of school this year, we were informed of a dangerous situation a couple blocks away. An armed man was barricaded in a house and the area was surrounded by a S.W.A.T team. The principal immediately put the school on lock-down, and we remained there until 5:30 that evening.

The following week, we had to hold back a bus at the end of the day because another hostage situation with an armed perpetrator was taking place in the apartments by the bus stop. Every week, we hear of another crime in this neighborhood — the neighborhood in which our students live.

This is what they walk past every day. This is what they go home to.

Every single kid in my school gets free breakfast and lunch. We make every student go through the breakfast line and take a tray of food. Those kids who don’t want to eat put their trays on a designated table and we collect that food because there are always, always kids who are hungry throughout the day, and that way we have something we can give them.

I stand in the cafeteria every morning and monitor the kids during breakfast. Not a day has gone by when there haven’t been kids who go to that table to take seconds and thirds. I’m talking about kids who didn’t have dinner last night. I’m talking about kids who barely ate over the weekend. When we have leftover cartons of milk, we deliver them to the homeless shelter where some of our students live.

At the beginning of the year, I used to say things to my students like, “At least it’s Friday, right? You’ve got to love the weekend! Do you have any plans?” I said this until one too many students told me, “I’d rather be at school.”

I was incredulous at first. What kid would rather be at school instead of at home on the weekend? And then I learned.

A kid who doesn’t eat over the weekend would rather be at school. A kid whose dad is back in jail. A kid whose mom will spend the days off somewhere leaving that student to care for his four younger siblings with no food or diapers in the house. A kid whose mom’s drugged-up boyfriend will yell and hit.

My students don’t look forward to days off school, they dread them.

The kids who need love the most ask for it in the most unloving of ways.
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I have students that stay at my school for only a month or two and then they’re gone. We have a mobility rate of 40%. That means that nearly half the kids who start the school year with us won’t finish it. Parents may only be able to come up with a deposit and one month’s rent. When that runs out, they move in with relatives, or into a hotel room, or a homeless shelter.

A couple years ago, I had a student who was living in a car with his dad, who had taken him away from his mom. I’ve had kids who were living in a hotel, sharing a bed with four other kids, or in foster care because their mom was taken to jail. Students living in poverty oftentimes have little to no stability at home.

There was a boy who wore the same shirt to school every single day for a week. The stain that was there on Monday was still there on Friday.

There are other ways we step into help, though. We have a classroom dedicated to housing the donations we’ve collected. We pass out not only notebooks and pencils, but deodorant, toothbrushes, clothes, coats, and backpacks to our students, but the demand is always greater than the supply. We even have a washer and dryer on campus to wash the donated items or to wash a student’s clothing.

Once, the person responsible for taking in donations and making sure the neediest kids get supplies told me a story I’ll never forget.

“A young lady came to me today for a backpack,” she said. “I asked her if she needed supplies. She did, so I loaded her up with everything I had. When she reported to her next class, she walked in, sat down, pulled out her things, and went to work. Her teacher said that was a first. She is one who spends a lot of time in In-School Suspension.”

Earlier this year, a student complained of tooth pain. He ended up having an abscessed tooth. We alerted his mother, but it was weeks before she got him into the free clinic. By then his face was extremely swollen because of the infection. I’ve had an abscessed tooth before. The pain is worse than childbirth if you ask me. If I’d had to wait weeks with that kind of pain, I would have completely lost my mind. To make matters worse, the student got arrested during this time. I’m not saying the arrest was due to the infected tooth, or that it wouldn’t have happened otherwise, but no one should have to suffer through pain like that for weeks on end.

There was another student I always had to tell to pull down his pants. Yes, I meant to write pull down his pants. Oh believe me, I tell boys to pull up their pants every single day, too. But this one student would regularly wear jogging pants and the elastic around the cuff would ride up his leg, revealing his home arrest ankle monitor, which is why I frequently had to remind him to pull his pants down over it.

He’d stolen a car, along with several of his friends, who were all in a gang. He was in middle school.

The amount of junk and filth in the house was enough to make you cry. People were sitting around, among the debris, with little babies.

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A couple of years ago, a student had to be transported from school to the hospital via an ambulance. His parents didn’t get to the hospital for seven hours because they had no transportation. For seven hours, this student was sick and alone without his family there.

We dropped off a bag full of cartons of milk collected from breakfast to the needy family of a student. When we got to the house, we saw there were no doors or windows on the house, just wide-open rectangles. The amount of junk and filth in the house was enough to make you cry. People were sitting around, among the debris, with little babies.

Another teacher at this school once told me that a student admitted to him he couldn’t go to college because “it would be disrespectful to his family.”

“He would be trying to be better than them … and that is considered disrespectful,” the teacher said, explaining the student’s logic.

Another teacher who was with us agreed, saying: “I had a student at a nearby high school who earned a free ride to college. A free ride! And he turned it down because his family didn’t want him to go.”

It’s so hard for many of us to wrap our heads around this way of thinking, especially if you’re armed with the knowledge that education is the key to breaking the cycle. But sadly, this attitude is all too common in families stuck in the well of generational poverty.

When you consider the fact that more than half of U.S. public school students are living in poverty, you might think that these kids just don’t have a lot of money. But it goes so far beyond a lack of money. The effects are remarkably pervasive, creeping into every area of a student’s life. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to learn when basic needs aren’t being met. And it’s hard to care for a child who acts out, swears more than Eminem, disrupts your class, tells you off, and starts fights.

The educators who take the time to talk to, listen to, sympathize with, and understand their students’ situations are the ones who make a difference. The ones who remember that the kids who need love the most will ask for it in the most unloving of ways, change lives.

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