I was a free lunch kid. I carried that label with me for a long time. And even as a small child I knew there was a stigma attached to that label. I knew somehow that it made me less in the eyes of some.
This morning I was thinking about growing up as a free lunch kid and how it shaped my life. Last night my husband cooked a side dish that I didn’t care for and he was concerned about there being enough for me to eat. I looked at what was on my plate and thought, this is enough, this is just right for me. And in that moment I realized that I had arrived at a different place in my life.
I have never been starving AND there were many times that I had just enough to keep me from being hungry. For years when my husband and I would eat out I would always order more food then I could eat. He would get really frustrated. He hated to pay restaurant prices for more food than you can actually eat. Why did I do that? Now I realize that I was afraid, afraid there wouldn’t be enough, afraid that I wasn’t worthy of more than just enough. I had spent too many meals as a child getting just what I needed and being told not to expect more. I wasn’t worthy of more.
I have more choices now. And I can say that this amount, this is enough. And if later I want more I can ask for it. I can ask for what I need and what I want because I am enough. It took me a long time to get here.
Being a free lunch kid, it shaped my life.
I have a colleague who describes herself as having grown up poor. Her parents were migrant workers. She wore flour sack panties that her mother made after they had used all the flour to make tortillas. She started her education in a small school house with the children of the farm owners. She talks about the girls in their beautiful sashed dresses, who knew how to read and count. There she sat in her hand me down dress with one tie of her sash missing, her flour sack panties, knowing that she did not know what these children knew. She went home and told her parents that she had to learn to count. She was determined. You see that determination in her teaching now. She is fierce and passionate with her students. They will learn. Being poor, it is not an excuse.
Being a poor child in that school room, it shaped her life.
There are lots and lots of studies on how poverty affects the lives of children. There is research about the cycle of poverty and how families can become trapped in it. Why do some children who grow up in poverty succeed and others do not? There is a lot of research about all of that as well. The question of poverty and what do we do about it as educators is a difficult one.
These are some of the answers I have seen:
Find the right program, the right framework, the right approach for teaching poor children.
As if poor were a category that defines everything about that group of people. My story of growing up poor is different from my colleagues story as the child of migrant workers. Each child we teach who is “living in poverty” has their own experience of what that means and it shapes each child in it’s own way.
These children can only go so far, do so much and that’s not my fault. I do the best I can.
IS that really the BEST we can do? How far can a child go if we as educators have already limited them with low expectations? When you expect less you get less.
Ignore the poverty and just get on with teaching.
Ignoring the experience of poverty is living a lie, plain and simple. It turns that person, that child into a less person by denying their worth of having a story, of being acknowledged as a feeling, thinking human being. In this way children become just cogs in the educational machine.
I don’t have the answers but I think they are somewhere in the experience of each child, and each child’s story. We have to listen to every child’s story and then do what we think and believe is the next right thing to help that particular child learn and grow.
Does growing up as a free lunch kid define me? No. AND it has had profound effects on my life. With every experience of poverty there is a story and a truth that forms a life.
We have to listen.