Monday, November 17, 2008

Hunger Artists

My mother is a teacher. She teaches high school English at a school for the arts in Northwest Ohio. Her students span the socioeconomic spectrum. And the halls between classes are an artist's palette of colors and hues. Diversity reigns at this school; it is celebrated. These kids can dance, sing and act. (Remember Fame? Yeah, kinda like that.) It is a vibrant place.

And yet, these kids are also facing real inequities, the school serving as a to-scale stand-in for our country as a whole, now chin-deep in recession. Perhaps the most debilitating of these inequities--and arguably the most heartbreaking--is hunger. A large percentage of the students at this school qualify for the government sponsored "free lunch" program. And for many of these kids, especially in this time of crisis in our country, this is the only meal they eat.

I know this because my mother is a phenomenal teacher. She's the teacher whose room the kids want to hang out in after class. She's the Michelle Pfeiffer character in "Dangerous Minds" (only she was never a Marine). She pushes these kids to succeed, to learn for learning's sake. They learn to trust her, to respect her and, ultimately, a few learn to truly trust and respect themselves. These kids, many of them, are brutally honest with her.

But her job is a lot harder when these kids arrive in the morning, with growling stomachs, tired because they haven't eaten. How bad is it really? Well, she has several students this year who, she says, only talk about food. They write essays about it. About mashed potatoes and ribs and biscuits. They write essays about Taco Bell. Many ask her daily if she has any crackers, or snacks in her room, grateful for even a two-pack of Saltines you get free with a salad or soup and often throw away.

Her school does not currently participate in the government sponsored "free breakfast" program that many other schools utilize, but there is some discussion about it. In today's New York Times there's an article, by Javier C. Hernandez, about a new twist some New York City schools are putting on the "free breakfast" program.

That these programs exist is both encouraging and discouraging. It is some kind of relief to know that there are resources available and people willing to help when our most vulnerable citizens are not getting enough to eat. But it is also shocking and sad to know that, almost a decade in to the 21st century, we cannot feed our children.

I know that this issue is complex, that it is a disease with multiple causes. I know that it is politically charged and that some feel compelled to point fingers and place blame. But while this goes on, there are children arriving at schools across the country with empty, growling stomachs. There are children writing essays about eating the kind of meal many of us take for granted on a daily basis.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, we do well to acknowledge every way in which we are blessed, to take nothing for granted, if only for a day. And we do good by making some room at our proverbial tables, for those with less. Charity makes us human and feeds our souls.

1 comment:

Dawn said...

Thank you for writing about this important issue. You are right, there are no easy answers. I am hearing about the same issue up here in Canada!
I had students just like you describe... So bright, full of hope but unable to achieve all they were able to at the time because they didn't have the basics that most of us take for granted.
A huge thank you to your mother for inspiring those kids! I especially love what you said about her pushing her students to "learn for learning's sake." Such an important lesson.