One morning in late October I was sharpening pencils at tutoring stations in the first grade hallway of the inner-city school for which I coordinate a volunteer tutoring program. It was a little after 10 a.m. and school had been in session since about 9:20. A first grader walked in, her coat on and her backpack on her back, just arriving for the day. She went to her classroom door where her teacher, Mrs. C*, met her. Her classmates were all in gym class.
Mrs. C asked, with concern, “Sarah*, what’s wrong with your face? Have you been crying?”
“Yes.” Even from half a hallway away I could hear the matter-of-fact, flat affect in Sarah’s voice.
Then, with rising alarm, Mrs. C asked if she had walked to school. “Yes,” in the same flat tone.
Sarah lives with her mother 1.6 miles from the school. Her mom leaves their home early — before Sarah gets up in the morning — for a job she cannot afford to lose but will if she is not on time. She relies on Sarah’s father, who does not live with them, to be there to wake Sarah, feed her breakfast, and get her and her backpack to the schoolbus. Sometimes Sarah’s father doesn’t show up and Sarah wakes to an empty home, gets dressed, makes her own breakfast, and catches the bus.
This was one of those mornings. No one was home when Sarah woke up, so she got up, got ready for school and left. But she forgot her backpack when leaving home, and when she went back to get it, she missed the schoolbus. So she walked. She took the route the bus takes through the city streets, a route much longer than 1.6 miles but the only route she knows. She headed toward school, a place in which she feels safe and looked after, a place where she will be fed lunch, the place her mother wants her to be.
Sarah is six years old. Her mother has worked hard to keep Sarah’s life as stable as she can, but it is not enough. That October day things went terribly wrong, and Mrs. C had to call Child Protective Services.
97% of the students at Sarah’s school come from a household where the income level is so low they qualify for state-subsidized lunches and breakfasts. Many move frequently, and most suffer from one misfortune or another, or a combination of several that plague the poor in this country.
Sometimes teaching one of these students a few sight words seems completely inadequate, like a child trying to hold back a wall of water by sticking a finger in a leaky dam.
*Names have been changed for this account.