At the school for which I coordinate volunteer tutoring there is a support group for the fathers and other adults, particularly men, in the families of the school’s students. The purpose of the group is to encourage these adults to be good role models and to participate actively in their children’s education. Last year the facilitator of that group invited a few of the male tutors in our tutoring program to attend meetings and provide insight and support where appropriate. My husband, Bruce, attended a couple of the meetings and at one, he met Bob* whose story follows.
Bob has a limited skill set, and works in the service industry for minimum wage. He has two children, each with a different mother. He has legal custody of both and is trying to be a good father for them despite the fractured nature of his family and his life circumstances. His youngest, a daughter, attends the elementary school where we tutor. His son is about 17 or 18 years-old and has chronic asthma.
A while ago, Bob’s son was staying with his mother and his asthma flared up badly. He ended up in an emergency room. Neither Bob nor his son’s mother had health insurance, and their son’s medical care was not covered by any government-funded plan. Suddenly Bob was responsible for a few thousand dollars in medical bills. And he couldn’t hope to pay for them. So he didn’t.
Now the state is involved and Bob’s wages are garnished to collect on the debt he owes. On a good week, Bob earns about $220 before taxes. Those wages are garnished so deeply he cannot afford to live on the pennies of his paycheck that are leftover, nor can he afford to provide basic care, let alone a stable home life for his young daughter. So he changes jobs. He works for two to three months until the debt collectors find him again, and his after-garnishment take-home pay leaves him with too little to live on again. And then he changes jobs again.
Bob spoke up at the meeting and told his story because he very much wants to provide a stable home life for his young daughter in particular, and he is deeply frustrated that he cannot. He is not working to ensure that her future is better than his, because he is not able to look that far ahead. He is too caught up in how very uncertain life is for him and his children right now. If he could afford to stay at one job long enough, Bob could build on his skill set, and increase his earning power. An untimely hospitalization, however, has robbed him of that opportunity and he does not know how to go forward, for himself or for his children.
I listened a week or so ago, to a father out for breakfast with his two young children one Sunday morning. The oldest was about 4 years-old, and she was asking her father how to spell “mommy.” He encouraged her to use the sound of the word to figure out what letter starts it, what letters are in the middle, and what letter is at the end, and she did. When she said “Mommy sounds like Molly,” he helped her determine what letter changes are necessary to make the L sound. All while waiting for cheese omelettes. Chances are if you are a parent, you have encouraged your children’s curiosity about letter sounds and word spellings in a similar fashion.
Poverty is a pernicious disease. It cripples more than just the economics of a family. Like fine sand in a wind storm, it gets into every crack and crevice of a family’s life, affecting even their ability to believe that education can improve their lives. The children in impoverished neighborhoods for the most part do not receive the educational support at home that children of less economically oppressed parents provide.
Bob’s daughter’s school is a pre-Kindergarten through 6th grade school. With a Hispanic population of 60%, it is the largest bilingual elementary school in the city. 38% of the remainder of the students are African-American, 2% are white. 97% live below the poverty line. During the 2008/2009 school year, the percentage of 3rd grade students meeting learning standards or higher in ELA is 41%; in 4th grade, 37%.
The tutoring program is primarily a literacy intervention program for the students at the school. We cannot hope to eradicate the poverty that impedes the students’ learning, but we hope to teach as many as we are able that they have value, and that education can improve their lives. It is a Sisyphean task, and yet it is deeply rewarding.
*Name has been changed for this account.