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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tales from the Inner City Part 2: When We Fail Our Children

Those called to teach in the inner cities of our nation share a common element: the will to keep going where others have failed, to pursue to whatever extent possible the goal of providing the best possible education for our students that often live in the very worst of conditions.  Unfortunately, despite our best attempts to reach a fairy-tale ending, our efforts sometimes still result in failure.  It isn’t for lack of trying, but often a systemic failure from the bottom to the top of our society, where circumstances often dictate the action we must take, and too often result in our collective failure to care for our children.  This was the case in the life of Michael Greene.

Michael Greene entered my 3rd grade class several months into the school-year.  It is always frustrating as a teacher to have spent months working with a set number of students, to have created a superb classroom environment, and finally managed to truly get into the meat of the knowledge that we are supposed to impart, only to have a new child enter our classroom.  We must then restart the process with the new student, helping them to unlearn the negative behaviors they enter with, and re-teach the new behaviors and expectations.  It is no easy task.

Michael was no different.  He was 11 years old in the 3rd grade, already having previously failed both first and second grade.  During the first week that Michael was in my class, it was readily apparent that he was different.  Michael had never been given the opportunity to be a child, a student, or even acknowledged as being part of our society.  At 11 years old, Michael did not know the alphabet.  He could not read the alphabet, he could not write the alphabet.  Michael, at 11 years old, in the 3rd grade could read less than 5 entire words, and when asked to write a sentence, it was nothing but squiggly lines.  Michael wore the same over-sized black shirt to class every day, evidence of the poverty that he lived in.  And as soon as Michael had finished his first week of school, the attendance problems began.  He would show up late nearly every day, on the days he did show up.  He began to miss one day per week, then two.  After only 2 weeks, it was time.  It was time for me to complete the detailed research on a student whom I knew had been living a dreadful life, a life that no one in our nation should ever experience. 

Michael had lost both of his parents at an early age.  He was currently living with his grandmother and 3 siblings.  His grandmother was relegated to a wheel chair, and one of the major reasons Michael often missed school was due to his grandmother needing assistance to go grocery shopping or complete other errands.  For money, Michael would skip school and wait at the gas station near the local grocery store, offering to pump gas or help people with their grocery carts, just to earn a few bucks here and there.  When Michael finally showed up in my classroom he had already been to 3 other schools that same year, and over 10 different elementary schools since he started going to school in Kindergarten.  In fact, Michael had already been recommended for testing for a learning disability, but every time the process was started, he moved to a new school, the process never being completed.  As a result, Michael Greene, at 11 years old was in the third grade with zero reading and writing abilities, a parentless child that lived in poverty with his wheelchair bound grandmother. 

There is no fairy-tale ending to this story.  The assistant principal and I worked diligently for months to help Michael.  We arranged for donated school uniforms, met with his grandmother, recommended assessments for a learning disability, and did our best to make sure that every day Michael was in our class, was a day that he at least was free to experience school as any normal child.  Our attempts to help Michael were short lived.  After Christmas vacation, we never saw him again.  His grandmother, after being pressured by the State Truancy Board for Michael’s constant absences, chose to relocate the family again.  I don’t know where they went or what happened to him.  All I know is that my efforts, our efforts, failed to truly help Michael Greene.

Today, there is a child like Michael Greene, in our public schools. He is poor, hungry, without proper clothes, parent-less, and unloved.  I spent 3 years working with children like Michael Greene, and now I find myself in Haiti, working with children like him, but of a different nationality.  In a world filled with Michael Greenes, it is only if we work together that we can alleviate the hurt of the suffering.  Trust me, you don’t have to look far to make a difference, but you have to dig deep to put in the effort to be that difference in someone’s life.


Steven M. Kirby, Ed.D

1 comment:

  1. Bless your heart, Steven. I'm sure even in my kids school there are students like Michael. I'm so sorry this happened. God bless you.