Last month, I received something interesting in the mail from my old high school guidance counselor. She’s retiring, and had run across a group photo of students from TLC, an intervention program for at-risk students, who were visiting the state capital. The trip was a reward for TLC students passing all their classes and, yep, I was a member of the group—the dark-headed girl in the miniskirt, fourth from the left in that picture.
Today, I work at an alternative school for at-risk students, and that photo reminded me of how hard life is for poor kids, and why I started working in such a school in the first place.
I remember in elementary school how some teachers would get directly in my face, snapping their fingers and saying, “Earth to Marsheila!” because I tended to daydream. I don’t suppose they knew how much time I spent worrying about what mood my alcoholic father would be in when I got home. I don’t suppose it mattered either, but their comments embarrassed me and gave the other students yet one more reason to exclude me.
I also remember how, on test days, everyone was allowed to bring snacks and, since I had none, I just drew pictures of snacks on scratch paper. I remember spitting into my sweater once because I was so hungry my mouth wouldn’t stop watering; math was the last thing on my mind that day.
I remember one Christmas, during the required present exchange, the child whose name I drew cried because all I was able to bring was a box of used paper dolls. I tried to give her the gift I had received, but she wouldn’t stop crying. That was a terrible feeling—everyone else was opening up new gifts, and she was crying as the teacher attempted to console her. Requiring these present-exchange fiascos is about as unfair as costly homework projects—at least to kids whose parents are either unwilling or unable to purchase supplies.
Later, in middle school, I remember a few of my teachers and one assistant principal shaking their heads when I walked by and whispering things like “pity she’s from Arcadia,” “somebody should talk to her about washing her hair,” or “doesn’t she have a mom?” I wonder if they really didn’t know that I could hear them, or if they just didn’t care.
High school wasn’t any better. Although the teachers were more subtle in their disapproving looks, I knew immediately upon entering a class which teachers looked down on me and which ones didn’t. On one occasion, a school counselor posted a display on her door on which students were asked to write where they wanted to go to school. I scratched down that I intended to go to Wofford College, a small, prestigious private school nearby. To this, the counselor just shook her head and replied, “Now, Marsheila,” as if someone like me could never make it into a school like that.
Although, in retrospect, I know that the counselor was more concerned about the cost of the school, at the time, I interpreted her attitude as if she thought I wasn’t good enough for Wofford. But I ended up taking her advice and attending a two-year trade school for respiratory therapy, a career for which I was entirely unsuited. I transferred to Wofford three years later and graduated magna cum laude. Afterward, I went back to visit that guidance counselor and gloat a little, but she acted as if she had never expected anything else from me.
I have never put these experiences in writing before, and even now the memories sting. Perhaps the reason I feel compelled to give my testimony today is that my students are still being treated with disdain by those who should encourage and elevate them. They tell me so. One student said her regular school teacher told her that she would be pregnant by the time she was 16. I’ve heard about teachers rolling up their car windows when they see a particular student in the parking lot. I’ve heard about others who tell their students they should go ahead and drop out. And I’ve even heard about a social studies teacher who likes to rant in class about welfare and public assistance being a drain on the economy. How do you suppose his complaints make his poorest students feel?
Administrators, district officials, and even school board members are no less guilty. One of my students told me that a visiting board member looked at him “like gum on the bottom of his shoe.” I doubt this educator even realized that his facial expression was being scrutinized and interpreted, and I told the student to forget about the incident, suggesting that maybe the man just had gas. We laughed about it, but I knew exactly how that boy was feeling.
It seems as if some educators are oblivious to how deeply their words and behavior affect the children in their care. There have been numerous studies documenting the obstacles at-risk kids face that are inherent to school systems as they exist today. Compound that with the obstacles they face at home, and then add palpable educator disdain, and it’s no wonder these kids have such an alarming failure rate.
Some teachers and administrators may believe that their behavior is harmless—and it might be, to a kid who has a strong sense of self and a secure, stable home life. But to a kid who has already been chafed raw by life, sometimes words sting badly enough to leave lasting scars.
None of us should forget that our words or behavior could be the killing blow that puts an end to an at-risk child’s education ambitions. It’s something to consider, at least.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week