Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tomato Sauce Fingers

Harold Pollock writes of his experiences with his brother-in-law with an intellectual disability.  He finds that lower-class restaurants seem more forgiving than those of the well-to-do:
I hate taking Vincent to pricey restaurants mostly filled with my own educational/income peers. People say all the kind things. Yet it’s not uncommon for customers at nearby tables to make us feel uncomfortable when a few chunks of Vincent’s chicken ends up on his shirt or to visibly fidget when he detracts from their elegant dining experience by allowing his fingers to migrate into the tomato sauce.
I was at an IEP meeting yesterday at a largely upper-SES middle school.  So far the child, who suffered greatly from anxiety, was having a terrific year.  The special education coordinator, new to the area, commented at how impressed she was by the tenor of the school: there was just a polite, friendly atmosphere among the students.  In fact, her friend, a substitute teacher, simply refused to take assignments anywhere else.

I was immediately reminded of the experiences I had teaching in various different schools, in various SES populations.  At the "nice" schools (read wealthier, whiter, parents more educated, etc.) one entered a campus of relaxed kids relatively calmly, playfully chatting before hustling up their well-organized bags when the bell rang.  At the "poor" schools (less income, less education, minority), the mood was tense, louder, argumentative, with negative comments and hostility in the air.  You can imagine how this carried over into the classroom.  Often the "best" teachers in the poor schools were those comfortable with an authoritarian, implicitly violent attitude that demanded (and got) obedience.  In the "nicer" schools, the teachers could be jovial, nurturing and compassionate and the students would generally respond in kind.

So these idyllic upper-SES communities are indeed delicate flowers in many ways.  The greatest irony of my life is for all my passion on issues of SES inequality, I send my two kids to upper-SES public schools surrounded by children who come from intact families, who were read to every night by parents who are doctors, lawyers, business-owners or otherwise highly educated.  Yet after having spent so much time in classrooms filled with children who come to school stressed-out, with not enough sleep, and not enough academic, emotional or cognitive preparation, and how this creates a learning environment in which a teacher is so overwhelmed in dealing with students with such need that s/he can only offer a lowest-common-denominator education, how could I in good conscience send my precious angels into such a mess?  I would be sacrificing my childrens' education at the altar of my political morality.

If everyone like me did the same, we wouldn't have this issue; the pain of inequality would be spread evenly.  But it is not.  I would vote for socio-economic integration in a heartbeat, because it would represent a collective will to change the system.  But there is a limit to one's personal political sacrifice, and this is especially true when the sacrifice is one's children.  Morally, I could do much to align my actions with my thoughts: go without most of my possessions, move to a poor neighborhood, volunteer my time for good causes, take in foster-youth, take in more shelter animals.  We could all follow Ghandi and live morally perfect lives.  I don't have the best answer for why I do not, other than to say I do what I can, and try to do more every day.

My children will grow up to be less comfortable with rough behavior.  Yet they will also grow up in many ways stronger for having been nurtured.  My hope is that they will thus be able to leverage their own strength to do better in the world.  In my own work, I deal with families who experience extreme hardship in caring for children with disabilities.  I do my best to relate my children my stories and experiences to impart the wisdom it has provided me - to be compassionate, accepting and supportive to the needs of others; to look past the discomfort, and to the beauty within us all.

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