I recently attended a professional development opportunity whereas the topic was poverty. The speaker had just attended a "Poverty Summit" and wanted to bring back the information she'd gained and discuss ways we can help our students move from one class to the next.
It should come as no surprise that the difference between classes is much greater and divided than the difference in race. What I mean is that a white person and a black person both living in poverty have more in common than a poor white person and a rich white person or a poor black person and a rich black person.
As she began to speak, I began to feel the that familiar uneasy feeling take over. My eyes became shifty and I refused to look around me, instead focusing on the printed handouts she gave. That's my defense mechanism because obviously, if she's talking about poverty everyone must know that I come from poverty. That's apparently what my mind thinks.
But here's the thing.
I did speak up. She gave examples of how middle class communicates because our world is made up of middle class businesses, offices, schools, etc. However, when communicating with someone from poverty, the rules are different. Basically, a child might say, "I don't want to." A parent might say, "Well, you have to." And adult might say, "Okay, what are our options?"
The lay person may believe the best way to communicate is with the adult example. Makes sense. However, body language and tone of voice are extremely important because even that sentence could be viewed as an attack.
And then she talked about what people in poverty find important compared to people in the middle class. One of the biggest differences is in relationships. Those poverty cling to their relationships because it's all they have. And that's what makes getting an education so damn difficult.
You see, you're not asking the poverty student to give up his or her relationships temporarily. You're asking them to forever alter those relationships and possibly lose them. And that's asking a lot. To be viewed as "better than us" is a hard pill to swallow. And even if they're proud of you, the gap continues to grow the more successful you become. Because you see, at some point, you decide achievement is more important than relationships. And what's left behind are the people who have known your entire life. You'll build new friendships within the middle class world, but none of these people are ever going to know or understand you the way your parents, siblings, friends and neighbors did. And those people you left behind will never fully grasp who you've become. The chasm will grow and isolation can be a bitter pill to swallow.
There are times when we drive by homes or apartments where several people living in poverty have congregated--sitting on the porch, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette--and I envy them. I envy them because they have relationships. And I wonder what it would be like and if it would be simpler to live like that. Now I know that it's not because I was there. I know that while they may be smiling and laughing, they probably made their kids go without something so they could have that beer or that cigarette. I know that they worry about how they're going to pay the bills or make it to work the next day because their car ain't running. I know they might be numbing that tooth ache because they can't afford to go to the dentist. I know it's not a picnic and I know I never, ever want to live like that again.
When she asked, "what can we do in our classes?" I said, "pay attention. Recognize these students and listen to them. They're trying to latch on to a new relationship and what you and how you react to them could make a lasting impression. Something they will keep for the rest of their lives."
Someone asked, "but how do you recognize them?" I don't know how someone in middle class could. I can see it on their faces, I can hear in their voice. But more that, I try to treat all of my students, even the ones that make me crazy, with the same level of respect, kindness, openness, and responsibility. And if they want to tell me about their life? I let 'em.