Lives on the Edge

For children of poverty, the world of the classroom should be a landscape of promise, but all too often it is a landscape of condemnation

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“How do poor children entering kindergarten and the early elementary years experience their school culture?” asks Valerie Polakow in her new book, Lives on the Edge: Single Mothers and their Children in the Other America, published this month by the University of Chicago Press. “What is their daily landscape like? How are they perceived by their teachers? Are they viewed as children at risk or as children of promise?”

To answer those questions, Polakow, a professor of educational psychology and early childhood education at Eastern Michigan University, visited more than 20 classrooms over a two-and-a-half-year period. In the following excerpt, Polakow presents “neither the best nor the worst of worlds but rather typical daily routines that pattern young children’s experiences.”

‘In my experience of 15 years of child watching in classrooms,” she writes, “I had seen their like before in other buildings, at other times. I have seen worse, I have seen better. Since my intention was to capture ‘dailiness,’ the classrooms I chose documented stories that usually are neither seen nor told.

“The stories told to me by single mothers have sunk into me, the worlds of their children are imprinted portraits in memory, and, as the storyteller of their lives, I have attempted to re-create their voices in the larger landscapes of history and social policy.” The names of the children and their teachers have been changed to protect their confidentiality.


Tyrone is a 5-year-old black child who attends a developmental kindergarten. For the previous year, he attended a Head Start Preschool classroom housed in the same building. Tyrone was placed in the “Young Fives” program as a result of his performance on the Gesell Developmental Screening Test and a language interview. Mrs. Wright, his teacher, explains that “These children are just too youthful, they are just still too impulsive to be in the regular kindergarten program. Young Fives is designed for children who are chronologically 4.9 to 5.9 years by September but who are functioning developmentally on the 4.0 to 4.9 range. The Gesell measures the developmental age of a child. It allowed us to determine Tyrone’s readiness and make decisions about his placement.”

Tyrone lives in a housing project in a school district of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. I notice that the developmental kindergarten draws two-thirds of its 18 students from low-income families. With one exception, all the Head Start children appeared to graduate into the “Young Fives” developmental kindergarten. Mrs. Wright tells me, “We find that kids like Tyrone do better with the extra year; they’re just not ready for the regular classroom.” In the regular kindergarten across the hall, I glimpsed the children seated two to a table, in rows one behind the other. The teacher was standing in front of the room, saying, “Turn your workbooks to page six.” Mrs. Wright’s classroom, by contrast, was divided into activity areas—book corner, arts and crafts, housekeeping, blocks, nature corner—and a daily schedule that included both small-group and large-group activities.

Tyrone was identified by Mrs. Wright as “a problem child—I think we’ll probably find that he’s ADD [attention deficit disorder] as he moves into 1st grade.” Tyrone’s problem, from his teacher’s perspective, was that he came from the housing projects, where “these kids just don’t live a normal family life—there’s drug dealing and constant crisis and their mothers are all on welfare.” Yet she attributes to Tyrone’s mother a strong interest and concern in his school progress: “She does care—I see that she’s real concerned about him, but these people lead such chaotic lives, and none of these women are married, so the boys have no role models.”

Tyrone occupies an ambiguous place in the classroom. On the one hand, he is under constant surveillance by his teacher, who feels it necessary to socialize him effectively for entry into kindergarten. On the other hand, Tyrone is a large, active child who constantly disturbs the order of the room; when he tries to participate appropriately, his efforts often misfire. The following series of observations give a flavor of his day:

During the art project, the boys and girls are seated at separate tables as is customary during Mrs. Wright’s planned activities. Tyrone exclaims excitedly, “Look what I made [referring to a trace-the-dots-to-make-a-bunny activity], look at my vampire,” and he holds it up for all to see. Mrs. Wright, who overhears from the other side of the room, calls out, “Tyrone, I want some nice bunnies, no vampires—Do you hear me?” After Tyrone completes his picture, now corrected, he takes it to Mrs. Wright for approval, saying, “See, the vampire turned back into a bunny.” Mrs. Wright takes the picture, commenting only on the fact that “You wrote your name backwards,” and she returns it to him for correction of his name.

Later, during snack, Tyrone keeps tipping on his chair and twice falls over laughing. Mrs. Wright becomes increasingly annoyed; she glares at him and shakes her head, frowning. Tyrone turns the chair around and sits astride, with the back of the chair facing the table. Mrs. Wright goes over, roughly pulls him up, and turns his chair around the right way, saying, “There, now sit!” Two minutes later, Tyrone tips his chair again and falls over. He begins to laugh but goes silent as Mrs. Wright shouts, “Tyrone!” As the children finish snack, they go outside for recess. Tyrone is punished by Mrs. Wright, who takes 10 minutes off his recess time.

Today, the children have a large-group activity focusing on math readiness. The teacher has several frames with numbers of different-colored dots. The children are asked to count the number of dots of the same color and write the correct number in the frame. Several hands go up, including Tyrone’s. “Me, me” he calls, standing up and waving his hand. “Sit down, Tyrone, and wait your turn,” says Mrs. Wright. She continues, “Who can tell me how many there are here very good Marcy,” as Marcy correctly identifies six. Tyrone by now has moved out of the circle, and Mrs. Wright says, “Tyrone, back in the circle.” “But I want a turn.” “Well, put your hand up and wait your turn.” Tyrone sits down and puts his hand up, but he is not called on. Five other children are, and he is still waiting, now lying across the rug. He notices a little girl having difficulty with number five, and he sits bolt upright shouting, “I know I got it, pick me.” “Tyrone, be quiet or miss your turn,” says Mrs. Wright angrily. Tyrone is now pulling his sweat shirt over his head, muttering, “No fair, no fair,” as the activity is almost over. The bell rings, and some children start moving to the edge of the circle. “That is not what I asked you to do,” says Mrs. Wright. “I am going to wait until everybody sits down, and then you may move on.” “But I didn’t get no turn,” shouts Tyrone. “All right Tyrone, you come up here with me, and the rest of you go to your tables and get ready for gym.”

Tyrone is a marginal child in the classroom, and his sense of not belonging is increased by the time he spends with a special education teacher, who pulls him out of the classroom for remedial activities each day. On several occasions, I observed Tyrone staring at the door and becoming very fidgety as if anticipating that he would be required to leave for a period of time. On one occasion, I overheard him talking to himself, saying, “That lady is here for me.” His sense of not belonging seems to be emphasized in his experience with his classmates:

Today, the children play “duck, duck, goose” in gym. Several clamor to be the leader of the game, including Tyrone, who is shouting, “Pick me, pick me.” He is not chosen and shouts, “I never get no chance.” The child in the center goes around and taps various children on the head, but not Tyrone. After six rounds, Tyrone stands up and shouts, “Pick me, pick me,” but the other children ignore him and choose the gym teacher. When the gym teacher goes around the second time, he taps Tyrone, who is calling out, “Hey, you missed me.”

Three children are in the block area, building. Tyrone hovers at the edge of the area, watching. “You can’t play with us,” says Jim. “Yeah, Tyrone, we already made our stuff,” continues Ben, and Shawn adds, “Yeah, you can’t be our friend.” Mrs. Wright overhears the children. She calls Tyrone over and redirects him to the book corner but does not react to the children’s comments. A few minutes later Tyrone is back in the block area and kicks the road the three boys have made. He is reprimanded by Mrs. Wright and told to ask, “May I play, too?” He runs over to housekeeping and disrupts several dress-up activities. Mrs. Wright calls out, “Tyrone, in five minutes Mrs. Green [the special education teacher] is coming for you,” rolling her eyes at the student teacher and muttering, “I’ve had it with him this week.”

It appears that the music teacher also views Tyrone as a problem and constantly monitors his behavior, anticipating disruption. As the children enter the music room, they are told to go sit on the floor in a circle. One of the children shoves Tyrone, saying, “You can’t sit here,” and covering the spot to keep a place for his friend. Tyrone shoves him back, stomps over to the desk outside of the circle, and sits down. The music teacher, Ms. Clay, tells Tyrone to sit on the floor. He sits on the edge of the circle and lies down, kicking other children with his feet. Ms. Clay walks over, roughly pulls him up, and seats him “the right way,” saying, “This is your last chance, now look and follow what I say.” Noticing that Tyrone has a runny nose, she says in an irritated tone,

“Go over and get a Kleenex and wipe your nose,” and sighs to herself. Several other children have colds and runny noses, but she does not react to them. As the children learn “The old lady who swallowed a fly,” Tyrone asks, “Why don’t she spit it out?” Ms. Clay reprimands him: “It’s not question time now, be quiet and follow.”

The classroom is a lonely place for lively little Tyrone. He is only 5, and yet his childlike transgressions are treated with harshness. Viewed negatively by his teachers and his classmates, he has few friends in the classroom. Although his speech is sometimes difficult to understand, he is certainly a verbal child with no noticeable speech impairment. Yet he is receiving speech therapy, and his teacher says he has “speech problems.” Frequently his questions are dismissed or he is reprimanded because of inappropriate timing on his part. He becomes aggressive when frustrated; an ongoing frustration for him appears to be his sense of exclusion, of never being chosen. To his credit, he is very persistent and complains openly about not being picked. While part of his need to be chosen may be attributed to a kindergartner’s developmental egocentrism, I considered, as an adult observer, that his perception was also accurate, founded in a concrete experience of marginality in the classroom. The teacher’s negative treatment appeared contagious and was passed on to the children. While exclusion behavior may be seen as a fairly typical dynamic in a classroom of 5-year-olds, the teacher made little attempt to encourage inclusion and social cooperation among the other children.

If we consider Tyrone’s experience of exclusion at 5 years, the labels already attached to him—”too youthful,” “speech impaired,” “ADD”—and the fact that he is both poor and black, we see that his place in the world of school is hardly promising. The use of the Gesell Screening is a highly questionable practice currently under severe criticism for its “high-stakes testing.” While its developers claim that it provides reliable identification for children at high risk for school failure, thereby determining school readiness, promotion, and retention, few convincing data support these conclusions. Furthermore, the bias involved in the language-proficiency interview that was also used to screen Tyrone and his classmates raises the specter of cultural and racial bias when children who speak nonstandard English are viewed as language-impaired. The issue of readiness, interlaced with the unquestioned assumption that the child must “fit” the classroom rather than the classroom should be made to “fit” the child, makes for a rigid, formalized curriculum and turns the developmental kindergarten into a training ground for compliance. More significantly, the developmental kindergarten seems to have become a receiving room for poor children whose economic disadvantage marks them as cognitively and socially deficient; they are being acculturated into monocultural, passive learning norms in preparation for formal schooling. What will happen to Tyrone as he moves through an increasingly marginalized schooling? At 5 years old, on the brink of his public school career, his potential has already been thrown into question; his initiative and desire to participate have been restricted. He is scarred before he has a chance to be otherwise.


Carrie is 6, the daughter of a white mother and a black father. She, too, is a child of poverty—the oldest of three, whose mother has been hospitalized twice for a serious illness. Carrie lives with her mother and two siblings in a subsidized rental apartment. Her mother has lost her part-time clerical job at a local company due to chronic illness, and the family is struggling to survive on welfare. Carrie’s kindergarten teacher, Ms. Juno, describes the family as being “in constant crisis” and expresses her concern about Carrie’s two younger siblings, who are waiting to be accepted into Head Start, though all available slots are filled. Carrie, according to Ms. Juno, “has problems, but what child wouldn’t after what she’s gone through?” Ms. Juno describes her classroom as a “play-based kindergarten,” which she runs as a balance between “my planning and their playing.” Carrie appears angry and hostile toward other children in the classroom and does not participate readily in largegroup activities:

The children sit on the rug and listen to the story “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” All are in the circle except Carrie, who sits at the arts-and-crafts table cutting paper. “Ms. Juno, Carrie’s not in the circle,” says one little girl. “I know,” replies Ms. Juno. “She’ll come when she’s ready.” When the story is over, Ms. Juno announces she has a surprise. She goes into the closet and emerges with a large tank filled with sand. “Guess what I have in here?” “A caterpillar,” says Travis. “Right,” replies Ms. Juno, “all sorts of worms and caterpillars.” In twos the children take turns at the tank and fish out worms and caterpillars. Carrie, after watching from her vantage point at the table, slowly edges closer until she is in the circle. Ms. Juno calls her up together with Annie, a child who sometimes plays with Carrie. After the hands-on caterpillar activity, the children are given a choice of painting, drawing, or writing a story about caterpillars. Carrie chooses painting and goes straight to the easel; with deep concentration, she spends almost 15 minutes painting a picture of a “caterpillar family” and then counting all their legs.

After a field trip to a park with a boardwalk over marshy land, the children are once again drawing and writing about what they saw. Carrie takes a black crayon and scribbles over her page while remarking to her neighbors, “I don’t like yours,” “That’s yucky,” and grabbing markers from the center. She says to Jeremy, who is drawing a rainbow, “That’s not how you do it” and scribbles over his picture. He protests and tries to grab her marker, but she throws it on the floor. Ms. Juno comes over and tells Carrie, “I think you need to draw at this table for a while,” taking her over to an adjacent table. As Ms. Juno helps Jeremy find markers and paper to draw another rainbow, she tells him, “I know you’re mad at Carrie for messing your picture—it was a real nice rainbow. When she’s feeling calmer, we’ll all talk about it.” During recess Ms. Juno asks both children to come and sit with her by the fence, and she asks each child to talk about what happened and how they feel.

During small-group time, when Carrie is sitting next to Pat, she takes his colored marker and pokes him. Pat moves away, saying, “I wish I didn’t have sat next to you.” Carrie tries to write on his shirt with the marker. Pat shouts, “Quit it,” and calls, “Ms. Juno, Ms. Juno, Carrie’s writing on my shirt.” Ms. Juno comes over and moves Carrie, saying, “Carrie, you cannot write on people’s shirts, that really makes Pat feel bad—now come over here with me by my table.” Carrie goes to Ms. Juno and pleads with her tearfully, “Don’t tell my mother, she got sick again in the hospital.” “Your mother will be real pleased to hear how well you’ve been doing, Carrie. Yesterday you were real helpful, and today’s been hard for you, but we’ll work on it.”

When Carrie initiates a conflict with the other children, she often frowns and clenches her teeth, and her eyes fill with tears. Ms. Juno handles her aggressive behavior toward other children by removing her from the situation and giving her some time to calm down without punishment. She then uses a conflict-resolution approach with the children, helping them recognize each other’s feelings. It is difficult for the other children in the class to recognize Carrie’s, for they often become the unprovoked targets of her anger. But Ms. Juno tells them, “Carrie is worried about her mommy, and sometimes she feels sad or mad because she’s going through a hard time, and we all need to help her.” Consequently, some children are very solicitous of Carrie and take care of her in class, while others reject or avoid her. Ms. Juno worries that other children will notice her special treatment of Carrie and feel it is unfair, although she tells them, “Anyone in this class can always ask for a special time with me if they feel sad.” Over a period of three months, I observe noticeable changes in Carrie. She begins to participate more willingly in large-group activities and becomes excited about her growing mastery of reading. She begins to spend increasing amounts of time in the book corner. Usually Ms. Juno leaves her alone if she is quietly reading and does not want to participate in a planned activity, telling her she can choose to do it later. If other children request the same option (and two that I observed did), Ms. Juno agrees, telling them they may choose to make the activity up later. And they do. The flexibility in the room allows options that work particularly well for a stressed child like Carrie. Ms. Juno’s warmth toward the little girl is a critical factor in her development, and a strong emotional bond with her teacher carries her through each day.

It is clear that a child such as Carrie does not fit easily into a classroom environment, but with a sensitive teacher, accepting of her needs, Carrie gradually becomes a nontargeted participant in the classroom. In many other classrooms, Carrie might already have been classified as emotionally impaired, and her label would condemn her to constant surveillance. By being granted some time and space, in which she can find her place, Carrie initiates several improvements in her behavior, such as volunteering to be the cleanup helper and the office messenger, as well as a marked decrease in her aggressive interactions with other children. At recess, she begins to play with two girls with whom Ms. Juno has tried to group her. Ms. Juno continues to give her that little bit of extra attention, saying, “If I can give her an extra hug and a little special time when she comes in every morning, I notice the pattern of her day is far more positive.” Ms. Juno also views Carrie as a child with much promise. “She really tries, and I’ve noticed she loves stories, so I try and give her as much encouragement as I can with books.” While Carrie’s classroom world is a caring and positive landscape, it is also a buffer against an increasingly harsh world outside as her family encounters crisis after crisis, including eviction from the apartment and a temporary cutoff of their Medicaid insurance. When Carrie comes to school, she plays out these stresses; yet she also shows signs of a growing self-esteem. She tells me enthusiastically, “I can read real books now, and Ms. Juno said I get to read my book I made to the whole class in circle time.” Carrie has found a place in this classroom—her presence, while problematic, is valued and she matters. As she nears the end of her kindergarten year, there are questions, seeded with meaning, that hover above her: Whose eyes will see Carrie next year? Will she be given the space for promise? Or will she, too, become another casualty, another child at risk?


Seven-year-old Heather was easy to identify as a problem 2nd grader as she sat at her desk pushed out into the hallway. The children passing by told me that they were not allowed to speak to her, neither was she allowed to speak to anyone. She could not go to recess or eat lunch with the others in the cafeteria anymore. What had the child done, I wondered, to receive such harsh punishment? The teacher, Mrs. Mack, claims:

“This child just does not know the difference between right and wrong. She absolutely does not belong in a normal classroom with normal children.” I look at Heather, now being sent to the principal’s office, awkwardly slipping in her flip-flops three sizes too big for her, walking down the corridor—in the middle of a snowy December—dressed in a summer blouse several sizes too small and a long, flimsy skirt. What had Heather done? “I’ve given up on this child—she’s socially dysfunctional—three times now we’ve caught her stealing free lunch and storing it in her desk to take home!”

Heather’s crime was indeed noteworthy. The white child of a single mother, she lived with her sister and mother in a trailer park. The children appeared chronically hungry, particularly when food stamps ran out before the end of the month. Apparently Heather had been caught stealing extra free lunch on three Fridays, knowing that she and her sister would have to wait until Monday for their next free meals. Mrs. Mack has tried repeatedly to have Heather removed from the classroom, claiming, “She’s LD [learning disabled] and EI [emotionally impaired], and I’m tired of having these children placed in my room.” Mrs. Mack is also angry with Heather’s mother, who has refused to have her tested. But Heather’s mother says:

“Yes, I am very upset. The teacher says she does not know her blends, and she wants to have the school psychologist test her because she does not know her blends and because she’s a problem in the classroom. Ever since I became separated and we moved here and applied for free lunches, you know, I’ve had nothing but problems with this school, and now with this teacher—she’s always thinking there is something wrong with Heather. I don’t see it; I told them I’d help Heather if they told me what to do, but they keep insisting I sign the papers. I told them I would not sign those papers, and they said if I don’t sign the papers, they would fail Heather. Now I don’t know what to do.”

Heather eventually is evaluated and assigned to special education, which causes her to be pulled out of class for certain remedial activities each day:

The children are doing math work sheets, and Heather is sitting away from the grouped desks because “she always falls behind.” About 10 minutes into the math period, a teacher walks into the room. “Heather has to go with Mrs. King,” announces Jan. “Jan, thank you, I’ll tell Heather what she has to do,” responds Mrs. Mack, signaling to Heather to leave. Heather is taken out and goes to the special education room for remedial reading. When she returns, math is over, and the children begin a social studies unit about Japan. “Sit down and pay attention so you can make up what you missed,” says Mrs. Mack. Heather stands looking lost next to her desk as the children are busy gathering papers. She has to miss recess so as to make up her lost social studies time and never does get back to her math sheet that day.

Heather is permanently set up for failure in this classroom. She cannot complete many assignments because she is pulled out of class for remedial teaching. Although she can read, she does poorly on her phonics tests and work sheets. She is given no reading assignments in remedial reading and is placed in the lowest reading group in her class, a group that is given work sheet assignments rather than actual reading. When Heather lags behind in math because she is pulled out and does not have time to finish her assignments, her mother is told that “Heather has poor work habits.” She is also labeled by the other children, who know that she’s “a special ed kid” and shun her because “she smells and dresses weird.” Mrs. Mack targets Heather constantly, blaming her for her absence from class:

Today, Heather returns from the resource room to a desk piled high with the morning’s work. Mrs. Mack tells her, “You’ll have to do your work during lunch and recess because going to the resource room isn’t a special privilege.” I stayed in with Heather at recess and looked at her work. Three of the papers were without errors, but the teacher had only written a small “OK” at the top. By contrast, I noticed that the papers correctly completed by other children had smiley faces and “good job” written on them. Heather’s other papers, which had errors, were marked with large check marks and negative comments. Mrs. Mack also sent home a note at the end of that day informing her mother that a conference should be scheduled to discuss Heather’s poor work habits. Interestingly, Heather is an accurate, if slow and halting, reader with good comprehension, which she demonstrated as we read together during lunch. She feels marginalized by her teacher and her classmates and is very self-conscious about her appearance. She tells me that “Mrs. Mack always picks on me, and I hate her. I hate this school, and I don’t got no friends here.”

In Mrs. Mack’s eyes, Heather has no positive potential. Since she is a quiet and rather obliging child, it is difficult to fathom the depth of her teacher’s animosity. Heather rarely misbehaves—she moves almost furtively about the room, as if waiting to be pounced on. Her marginalization is emphasized from every angle. Not only is she a “free luncher,” as Mrs. Mack once described her, but she is also denied full participation in classroom activities as well as recess and lunch in the cafeteria. In addition, she is unable to participate fully in class projects:

The children were instructed to bring four dollars for a rock-and-minerals project that was planned by Mrs. Mack. On the due date, Heather did not have the money, and Mrs. Mack said, “Well, I guessed you wouldn’t bring in the money, so you’ll have to do some other work.” Heather was in tears, being the only child in the class who didn’t make a rock-and-mineral collection; nor did she go on the field trip. On another occasion, the children were instructed to buy folders for their social studies work sheets, of which there were many. Heather did not have money for a folder, so she folded her homework paper and put it in the textbook. When she handed it in, Mrs. Mack crumpled it up and threw it in the basket, saying, “I told you to place these in a folder, not to fold it up like this.”

Not only does Heather receive harsh treatment and emotional abuse in this classroom, where almost 80 percent of the directed teaching focuses on drill and work sheets, but she also is denied equal access to classroom activities that should be part of her public education. She is one of the poor children bussed to Blake Elementary, in a predominantly middle- and lower-middle-income school district, where several classroom teachers express negative perceptions about “those trailer park kids.” One teacher who worked as a substitute in that school commented: “They really look down on the welfare kids. I saw a lot of things in that school that really bothered me; some teachers really have a hard time separating their negative perceptions of the parents from the children—they always see the children as problems.”

Heather’s world, circumscribed by her destitution, is increasingly narrowed in school, where she faces daily humiliation and miseducation. A pedagogy for the poor assigns her an increasingly marginalized place in the classroom. Whether sitting in the corridor, banished for stealing food, or inside the classroom, subject to constant harassment and reprimand, Heather is marked for failure. At 7 years old, in 2nd grade, this little girl is already a condemned child.


George is a 10-year-old black child, a 5th grader, who midway through the school year is transferred from a predominantly black school district to the district of Addington, a blue-collar community with a substantial population of poor Southern whites and a small number of blacks and Hispanics. George is rather small for his age, having been born prematurely to a young single mother. In the past four years, George has attended schools in five different school districts. In two of these schools, he has been tested for special education but has not received services. George is placed in Ms. Donovan’s classroom; she, too, is new to the school and the district. In the following narrative, George’s school experiences are seen through the eyes of his new teacher:

My class consisted of 5th grade students. When I was told that I would be getting a new student in mid-December, the teachers’ lounge reverberated with negative comments: “Now you will have a chance to compare black and white students, and you’ll see how terrible these black students are.” “You’re lucky we only have a few at this school. They can’t read, barely even speak, you’ll see. “All this was said to me before I even met the new student. I was appalled by my colleagues’ comments. I knew racism existed in the teachers’ lounge but not to this degree.

Within this racist school climate, George is assigned to Ms. Donovan’s room and, after being given the standard reading equivalency test, is placed in the lowest reading group, taught by Mrs. Crim. Ms. Donovan is concerned about this placement, for Mrs. Crim has made derogatory remarks to her about students in poverty, describing them as “all the bad low-skilled kids [who] come from broken homes. They are either hillbillies or blacks from the poor section where those run-down apartments are, and that means trouble.” George, however, according to Ms. Donovan, is a warm and friendly child who adjusted quite easily to her classroom routines, though she notices that he lacks basic skills and struggles to keep up with some of the math assignments:

I discussed this with one of the teachers, who said, “It doesn’t surprise me. Why not have him tested? He is probably LD [learning disabled] or Comp. Ed. [compensatory education]. Most blacks in this district fall into one of the two categories.” When I asked the school secretary why the records from George’s previous school were not there, as I needed them to prepare an evaluation for the compensatory education program, the secretary responded, “Karen, consider where they’re coming from. These people don’t care. We may never get them.”

If it were not for his classroom teacher, George would be a condemned student. His dual identity as both a poor and a black child in a school structure that is openly racist and filled with prejudicial stereotypes about children in poverty puts George at the mercy of a forbidding and accusatory adult world; fortunately, he has one advocate who sees him with different eyes. Ms. Donovan also notices that George, despite his low performance levels in reading, has a gift for poetry, which she encourages:

As a group project, the 5th graders were designing and publishing their own book. When George first joined the class, he was somewhat intimidated by the group project. But once the other students realized that he had such a creative sense of phrasing, they asked him to write for the book. And for a class assignment on personification, he produced this poem, which was selected as the book’s opening page:

The willow tree became a harp
in the gentle fingers of the wind.

In passing, I mentioned the poem to Mrs. Crim, the reading teacher, and told George to show her his work because I felt it was very good. He returned quickly and did not say a word to me about what her reaction had been. Since she never said anything to me about his visit, I finally asked her if she was not impressed with his creativity. “Oh, it was nice,” she responded. Then, with her usual cynicism, she asked, “Do you think George really made up that poem or did he copy it?” When I told her that George actually dictated the poem to the other kids in the group, word by word as he was composing it, she said, “I doubt it. He probably heard it somewhere before.”

George is not permitted to succeed in the eyes of his reading teacher. Even when he succeeds, his successes are reduced by suspicions of cheating. As the end of the year approaches, Ms. Donovan is put under increasing pressure to retain George as he has consistently failed in reading. George has also not completed his reading assignments and is now being punished by Mrs. Crim and forced to miss recess. He says he has not done his assignments because he cannot read them—an accurate complaint since the ditto sheets that he has been given are illegible. Mrs. Crim claims that George entered school too late in the year for her to request a new workbook and adds: “What difference would it make? He can’t do the work, and he doesn’t care.” At this point, Ms. Donovan makes several attempts to contact George’s mother, who, it has been claimed, is completely unconcerned about her son’s problems, having failed to respond to notes sent home. Ms. Donovan continues:

I asked George if it would be possible to reach his mother by telephone, and he said, “Yes, but she sometimes works until 9 at night.” I began to call in the evening as late as 10 p.m., but I could not reach her. I asked George if he was alone at home at night, and he said, “Yes, but it’s OK; I’m used to it.” I was becoming increasingly concerned. When I mentioned to another teacher that George’s mother was at work until late, he responded, “How do you know she’s at work? She might be out on the streets. You know what these black women are like—the more kids they have, the more money they get from AFDC.” I tried to explain to him that George’s mother worked, and, from all records, it appeared he was an only child. He simply smiled and said, “I can’t believe you’re so naive.”

Ms. Donovan then approaches the principal and requests that retention proceedings be delayed to give her more time to observe George and to explore the possibilities of additional educational help. The principal reluctantly agrees, cautioning Ms. Donovan that George might not be there much longer, “considering how many times these people move around.”

After Ms. Donovan’s limited but successful advocacy on behalf of George, which includes a plan worked out with his mother, who has managed to change her work schedule to help George with his assignments at home, George is conditionally promoted to 6th grade. But Ms. Donovan is transferred to another school district, and one year of promise in George’s school life abruptly comes to a close. Where is George now? Who cares for him and the countless others who find themselves victims of a continuing educational assault on their young lives? To be black and poor in a condemned landscape—is this to be George’s fate?


Tim is another child consigned to otherness in his educational landscape. His withdrawn and chronically exhausted appearance conjures up images of Victor Hugo’s little Cosette, “the poor lark [who] never sang.” Tim never sings either, nor does he smile much. He is white, 9 years old, and placeless. He has no home, nor has he found a place in his classroom. Living with his 24-year-old mother and a younger sister, Tim has attended four different schools the past year as his homeless family moved from a truck to a shelter, from a shelter to a trailer, from a trailer to a welfare motel, and now to a transitional shelter. His fourth teacher this year describes him as “socially maladjusted with real learning problems.” In the 3rd grade classroom, Tim is also shunned by his classmates:

During social studies, Mrs. Devon tells the children to select a partner and to begin working on their maps. There are 26 children in the class, but Tim is left without a partner as a threesome forms amid whispering. I overhear one of the three saying, “Yuck, he’s an asshole; can I be partners with you guys?” Mrs. Devon calls Tim over and says, “Well, I guess they want to work in a threesome, so you’ll have to do it by yourself after you come back from reading.” At that point, a reading aide comes to call Tim out of class, and he goes to remedial reading. I follow him and find a certified remedial education teacher assisted by several aides, one of whom can barely read. That makes no difference, however, since no reading takes place. Tim is given work sheets to complete. Later, during lunch, I follow Tim to the lunch room. No child sits with him, and he goes to sit at the other end of a large table, hungrily eating his free lunch and looking at the wasted leftovers on other plates. When no one is looking during cleanup, he quickly takes an apple, from which a small bite has been taken, and slips it into his pocket, making a noticeable bulge. On the way back to afternoon class, Tim slips the apple into his locker without being caught.

After school, Tim is particularly upset because two children called him names during gym and made fun of his socks, which are worn, with holes. He says, “They think ‘cos I haven’t got no home that I haven’t got nothing inside of me—they won’t play with me—they won’t be a buddy when we go on trips either and no kids will be my friends. Also they all think I’m so dumb and I hate this school, and Mrs. Devon keeps saying she got no time when I ask her things.”

A week later, on another visit to the classroom, Tim’s name is up on the board; he is being punished and cannot go to recess because he did not complete or return his homework assignments. Mrs. Devon describes Tim as “lacking motivation—he’s always staring out the window, and he has not completed any of his assignments this week.” Tim says, “She hates everything I do—she made red checks on all my work sheets, and anyhow I can’t do homework and stuff in the shelter—there’s always noise and stuff going on.” I notice that Tim seems to fall asleep several times in the afternoon and is jerked back to attention by Mrs. Devon’s voice loudly calling his name.

Tim is a nuisance in Mrs. Devon’s room. He entered late in the first semester, and she has made no effort to assist him in making yet another transition. Although he qualifies for Chapter 1 funds for compensatory education, she believes he should be in special education as “he’s definitely learning disabled.” Tim’s basic skill’s are understandably lacking since he has attended four schools in different school districts with different curricula; it is hardly surprising that he should need some extra tutoring. When he receives a student tutor through a local university tutoring program, he shows marked progress. Because he is chronically tired and hungry, he is often inattentive at school. He describes the best part of his tutoring lesson as “snack,” which his tutor, Julie, brings with her each week. Depriving Tim of recess also takes away the few opportunities for exercise on a playground. After school, he is cooped up in a shelter with no safe outside space to play.

Mrs. Devon’s attitude toward Tim improves after Julie begins tutoring him and taking an active interest in his educational progress. Mrs. Devon tells Julie: “I’m very pleased you’re working with Tim; I just don’t have time for these kids on top of my teaching. They transfer in and out, and we’re meant to educate them, too. It’s just too much of a burden, and their mothers move them from place to place. They don’t have proper records, and Tim’s the third one of them I’ve had in the past two years.”

Tim, as “one of them,” has little entitlement to an education, despite the passing of the McKinney Homelessness Act in 1987. Homeless children are lost in the educational bureaucracy. Records do not follow them, school lunches often take a week or two to activate, and their pressing needs and daily stresses of destitution are compounded by homelessness. Tim is also homeless in school. He exists on the margins of a social world in which his peers discard him, and he has no place other than as a burden in his classroom. It is clear that Tim is an intelligent child. With a little extra attention on the part of a caring tutor, he was capable of making significant progress. Yet his teacher was unwilling to make any effort for Tim; she wanted him out. His selfhood was of no value to her, for a destitute child is a nuisance child, a disrupter of ordered routines. Tim’s diminishing entitlement to an education brands him with the visible humiliations of his placelessness and augments the construction of his at-risk status.


The stories of these five children chronicle the making as well as the unmaking of early educational failure. In these children’s fragile lives, the world of a classroom becomes a landscape of promise or a landscape of condemnation. The well-stocked armory of at-risk labels, which serve as proliferating weapons of exclusion, are part of the language of otherness. To unpack the language of otherness is also to peel away the complicit educational layers that conceal the appalling consequences of a pedagogy for the poor. Neither the scientific neutrality of an educational discourse that consigns poor children to the hem of classroom life, nor the blighted gaze that keeps them clinging to the edges, is much different from the ways of seeing that have long characterized our perceptions of the undeserving poor. The children of the poor, like their parents, and specifically their mothers, are constructed and located in the poverty-as-a-privateaffair myth, where public intervention is premised on deficiencies, not rights.

Teachers do not live above their culture; they, too, are participants in the pervasive poverty discourse that conceals economic and educational inequalities, state-induced destitution. At-risk children are constructed in classrooms that place them at risk for consignment to the other America. Once consigned, they find few exits to the promised land. Having consigned them to the unnamed landscape, we find that poverty, like the plague, spreads across many landscapes, theirs and ours. As Tarrou tells us in Albert Camus’s The Plague, “It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth—in other words, to silence.” Confronting the silence, naming the classroom world with different forms of talk, shifting our ways of seeing, opening up spaces for possibility can shift the tenuous ground on which young children of poverty stand. It is the question of existential value that confronts the silence.

Vol. 04, Issue 06, Pages 34-39

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