“The poor man wishes to conceal his poverty, and this rich man his wealth; the former fears lest he be despised, the latter lest he be plundered.” – Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
There’s no place to demonstrate the inequality between students than in a classroom in a city like Cambridge. Wealthy parents send their children into the same classes that parents from the projects do. I can’t always tell from looking at them who is rich, middle-class, or poor, but I’m sure they can. Just like when I was a student (and for generations before me), clothes identify wealth. In one Cambridge school, students are required to wear blue and white, because the principal is hoping to minimize the distraction of clothing. Whether it’s successful in keeping class information concealed, I do not know. I doubt it.
One ninth-grade classroom became a microcosm of the world, when a student was singled-out as he walked in, and another student mentioned, “You have an Abercrombie and Fitch shirt? You must be mad-rich.” Remember in the 1980s, when women entered the workforce in great numbers, with their football player-sized shoulder-pads and white sneakers (often, Reeboks), while their dressier shoes lay in their briefcases? Today, poorer students carry their most treasured sneakers to school, visibly resting slung over their shoulders, while they commute to school in cheaper footwear.
As an incentive to get the students to work quietly, I let these ninth-graders listen to their hand-held music players. Technically, I shouldn’t have, and I rarely do, but it was the second day that the teacher was absent, and he didn’t leave plans. Without much time to plan, it wasn’t like I had come up with a scintillating lesson to actively engage them for an-hour-and-twenty minutes. When the natives became restless, I offered to let them listen to their music players. I was shocked when less than half of the students had them, since in my son’s class at least two children have iPhones and I feel like I’m normally catching everyone with electronic devices, like cell phones and iPods. It wasn’t that they hadn’t brought them – they didn’t own them. Some people shared an earbud, while I encouraged others to do the same, and even lent my iPod to a student.
Sometimes, the poor own the items normally reserved for the upper classes. A child without much may still have a decent video game system, a few expensive items of clothing, a music player, and a cell phone, which hardly differentiates him from his wealthier peers. What the families give up to provide status and technology, I don’t want to contemplate. In my years teaching, I’ve had: a student without a television because he lived in a homeless shelter; a student who told me his family was delaying Christmas presents until they received their tax refund in April because his grandmother lost her job; students without healthcare, which I knew because their parents checked off “none” on school forms; students with inadequate healthcare, so when glasses broke or were lost, they couldn’t be replaced for a year, or when they were sick for weeks on end, they didn’t seek medical care; students without adequate winter clothing; and a student whose family was sleeping on the floor because bedbugs infested their mattresses, which they couldn’t afford to replace. Those same students covet the status items when their families cannot even afford the necessities.
Who’s rich and who’s poor is less obvious in my city because the differences between most of the houses aren’t as great as in other communities. The contrast between internal spaces aren’t as huge as between houses in the suburbs, and certainly very few have much property to boast of; and since most places are buildings or converted condos, much space is shared. If someone lives in low-incoming housing, then it’s apparent they’re poor, while if they live in the nice neighborhoods that kiss Harvard, they’re probably rich. But since several years back, the city dictated that each new construction must set aside a certain percentage of units for low-income rentals or purchases, the lines have gotten blurrier.
When a wealthy parent invests children and/or time in a Cambridge Public School, I silently commend them, when so many others shuttle their students to private schools or move to the suburbs. I cannot imagine how strong our school system would be if everyone invested in these schools. Professor J. Lorand Matory at Harvard sent his children to one of our failing (in test scores, anyway) elementary schools. He began a yearly Poetry Slam that has continued on since his children have graduated and he took a position at Duke University. Although the professor probably didn’t know the impoverished backgrounds of some of my fifth-grade students, I did, so when I saw their enthusiasm for choosing poems, writing, and reciting poetry for the Slam, it filled me with gratitude. Imagine if more people in positions like his supported these kinds of students?
Now that I’m a substitute, I don’t know the students’ stories, I can rarely tell if they're rich or poor, and I cannot make a difference in my own small way. When I see children comment on class or worse, belittle someone for being rich or poor, I don’t have the same rapport with them to discuss it. From my experience student teaching in a middle-class suburban school, I suspect that subbing in a suburb would be easier. I’m not pretending that I wouldn’t be hesitant to teach in areas with bad reputations, like Chelsea and Dorchester. Cambridge is not plagued with violence, which I think is in part thanks to the commitment made by the schools, city council, police, and general community. That doesn’t mean these efforts erase inequalities. But there’s a sense of satisfaction when I can get a motley crew of students excited to learn, and those class differences melt away, at least for one period.
“If a free society cannot save the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” John F. Kennedy