Equity & Diversity Opinion

Rich in Poverty: The Hope of ‘Poor’ Students in America

By Marilyn Rhames — April 18, 2012 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Sometimes I wake up to the sweet sounds of Cameroonian children singing in my head*. They are singing, “Oh, we thank you for what you’ve done for us!” Then I ask myself, what did I do for them? They have changed my life!

If you have followed my blog for any amount of time, you probably know my story: Grew up poor and in the ‘hood on the South Side of Chicago. I was the 6th of eight of children; my mother stayed home to raise us while my dad drove tractor-trailers across America. Except he didn’t always bring the money home. In my freshman year of high school, my father asked his devoted-to-a-fault wife for a divorce. (Oops, I never told that before!) It was the darkest, ugliest chapter of my life.

But now the way I see my childhood is changing. My fundamental identity—the story I have told myself for years and years—is now becoming more foreign to me. And it’s all because of those marching, singing Cameroonian children from a village in Belo*; because of the orphans from the Helping Hands Orphanage in Bamenda who sang about Jesus’ promise to give them “food right now"*; and because of the singing women of a village in Ndop*, who, after tending to their husbands and children and working in their fields all day, spent the last dim hours of daylight in an abandoned school building trying to learn how to read. Almost everywhere I went to help, people gifted me in song.

I now refuse to say I grew up “poor.” My poor had electricity. My poor had a toilet. My poor had a public library. My poor had free lunch. My poor had pillows on the bed—with pillow cases. My poor had maxi pads that allowed me to go to school every day of the month. I know now that I was not really “poor.”

Now that I have seen African poor, I feel too ashamed to use that word to describe myself or my family. Our food stamps and government cheese were Apple Computer stocks and caviar by comparison.

Travel to places like Cameroon offers the potential for serious professional development for teachers. We need to leave our classrooms and schools from time to time to get some perspective on life outside of our comfort zones. It might impact us personally, causing us to reflect on and question who we are and who we want to be. It might also cause us to re-evaluate the way we view our students. The messages we tell ourselves might change, including the lies we have so effortlessly believed.

For me, I now see enormous hope in the students who have the worst home life. The students who come to school dirty, smelly and unkept are the students with the greatest potential. Why? Because some of the Cameroonian students I met were smelly, too. They have to find a quiet spot in the weeds to use as a bathroom. Still, they found something within themselves to make them keep smiling, laughing, singing and dancing.

They paid close attention in class, for example, despite having 60 classmates in one electricity-free room and no text books. They were thrilled when I gave them a shiny colorful pencil and their own plastic pencil sharpener because they only see yellow lead pencils, if they can afford to buy even one.

I have not lost my mind. I know there is suffering and poverty in America, and some of our students find themselves in desperate situations. We have child abuse, hunger, and abandonment issues here, too. Our fight for social justice must never end. Still, situations in America are rarely as desperate as what I’ve witnessed happening widespread in Cameroon. When bad things happen there, there are virtually no governmental social services available to make things right. People I’ve met in the Northwest Region of Cameroon will tell you that their motto is “Yes, we can!” They go on working, striving in spite of their troubles.

I traveled for 10 days nonstop, and I only saw one beggar. The people of Cameroon don’t beg. They find something—anything—to try to sell or trade. They don’t expect to receive something without giving something back. That would be illogical to them.

We have to empower our students to give something—anything—even when they appear to have nothing and feel helpless. Everybody has something to offer, if only a song. Every student has a gift of some sort, and we have to help them bring out their gifts, without letting them know how much our heart breaks for them. We have to send the message that despite our struggles, “Yes, we can!”

I suspect I’ve always believed this. But before I went to Cameroon I was unsure if my position on education and poverty was truly legitimate. I would avoid debates with other educators who insisted that socioeconomic status determined academic success. But now I know better. Now I have an unshakeable belief that hope and determination are far, far more powerful than our American version of “poor.”

I think my African slave ancestors would want me to believe that. I think Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King would, too. They kept hoping, believing, and insisting that life for tomorrow’s generation would get better. And if I ever forget the legacy of my ancestors, all I need to do is put on the video of the Cameroonian children singing, thanking me for believing in them.

Then their songs will play in my head first thing in the morning.

*Various YouTube videos added on April 19, 2012.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.