Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Feed me 

By:  Kate Sacco

Ten years ago a tornado of a girl whirled her way into my classroom. She was a tiny wisp of a child, all sharp angles, black braids and colorful barrettes.  She arrived full of swagger and attitude.  On that first day, she brought with her a backpack, empty of the requested school supplies, and wore pants so large on her small frame that she had to hold them up.  Immediately Raven (not her real name) set out to control both the classroom and me.  

Raven challenged everything I knew about teaching children.  She was demanding - of my time and attention, like no other child I had ever taught.  Raven knew no positive ways of gaining attention so she sought out every negative way possible.  She was disruptive and defiant.  She refused to cooperate.  She was stubborn and naughty.  Gradually, we came to a semi-truce.  It took lots of patience, more than I thought I could produce some days. 

Raven and her younger sister received free lunch and breakfast at school.  I soon came to discover that the girls would keep one item from breakfast and one from their lunch each day so they would have something to eat for dinner.  On weekends, they would walk hand in hand down the street to the convenience store to buy either cereal or chips to eat.  Often on Fridays, I would send home food for the girls with notes that said "your child won the leftovers from our class party" along with snacks from our classroom, so that they would have enough to eat until school started again on Monday morning. 

That little girl wore many items from my own daughter's closet that year.  My kids and I would shop for new clothes, take the tags off and pass them on to her and her sister.  She never acknowledged it, but wore them proudly to school.  Often her clothes were dirty and stained, especially her coat.  When it got too much to bear, I would take the girls' coats to the washing machine in the school cafeteria and ask them to please add them to the laundry load so the kids would have clean coats to wear home.  

Raven imprinted herself on my heart.  I had spent many years teaching in a school with a fairly low poverty rate and had just joined the faculty at a different school in the district.  The poverty rate was over 50% and slowly growing.  Raven was the first child I knew whose glaring poverty impacted her learning so significantly.  Throughout the school year, I came home and told my family stories about her.  Gradually, she came to trust me and started to behave better and learn to read.  Until the day that she told her mother that she loved her teacher and her mom hit her on the head with an orange juice bottle.  It took months of work to get her to allow herself to like me after that.  

Raven and her sister's home situation was less than ideal.  School was their safety net.  In school, no one beat them and they had regular meals to eat.  Raven hated Fridays and vacations, so her behavior would escalate at those times.  She never knew if she would have food to eat or if she would be safe.  She was always exhausted and would fall asleep if I turned out the lights to show a short video.  During school assemblies she would sit on my lap and nap soundly as soon as the lights went down. 

I had many precious moments with Raven in spite of all the challenges.  She used to sidle up next to me and play with my hair.  I'll never forget the day she was standing behind me with her fingers entangled in my hair and said "Missus Sacco, this be your real hair?"  After correcting her grammar, I told her that yes, that my hair is real.  She responded "No, it must be the weave. It be so long."  I nearly cried laughing.  

The following school year, I had Raven's sister in my class.  Unlike Raven, Moirai was not defiant nor disruptive.  She was not attention seeking at all; in fact, she tried as hard as possible not to draw attention to herself.  She was also tiny and always hungry.  She cried often, sometimes for extended periods of time, and was inconsolable.  Like her older sister, she struggled to learn and hated going back home.  On the last day of school that year, she gave me a card.  On the inside, she had written, "Ms. Sacco, this classroom is a special place."  I still have that card hanging over my desk at school.  

After those two years with those precious girls, there have been many children that have significantly impacted my life, my teaching and my heart.  There was Amir, who was so big in first grade that he was wearing a size 11 shoe and men's large shirts.  He stood 5 feet tall and nearly knocked me over when he came over for a hug.  Amir was also 6 years old and still sucked his thumb.  Every morning, he walked into my classroom and greeted me by saying, "Good Morning Missus Sacco!  I be lovin' you!"  Amir needed boots so I gave him an older pair of my husband's hunting boots and he wore them even to bed.  Amir and his brother and 7 cousins all lived together in one house with their moms and a grandma.  They were all receiving free lunch and breakfast as 3 out of 4 adults were unable to work due to health issues.  Amir's mom took the bus to both of her jobs and did her best.  Those free meals at school made all the difference for those children.

Not long after came Tina.  Another skinny little girl with a head full of curls.  Tina's family were refugees from a war torn location overseas.  The second week into school, I discovered that she had been stealing milk from the cafeteria in the mornings during breakfast because her family had little food at home.  She continued to steal whenever she could but mostly it was from my snack drawer and supply bins.  As a former refugee, she tended to be a hoarder and we had several discussions about not taking and keeping things that didn't belong to her.  Hunger was just one of the many issues that she struggled with daily.

So many of my littles over the years have been recipients of our school's free meal programs.  While I doubt I could provide numerical data on how those meals impacted their test scores or academic performance, I know that I could tell the impact it had on their lives.  Those free meals meant and continue to mean that many children are better able to concentrate during the school day.  They don't feel hunger pangs or suffer from headaches.  They aren't distracted by thinking about food.  Free and reduced lunches allow the kids to fit in with the other children by leveling the playing field in the cafeteria.  They can sit and eat and talk with friends.  Imagine the isolation a child would feel if they were without food during lunch time.  

What kind of a society are we if we allow our most vulnerable to go hungry?  Is it that much of a sacrifice for us to feed our nation's children two relatively small, somewhat healthy, meals a day?  Aren't we obligated as humans to care for others, especially those who can't care for themselves?

** Names and other details changed to protect the identities of the children described in this post.    

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