The little ducklings piled into a room that we shared with two other fourth grade classes. Since it was only primary education summer session and the regular school was being remodeled, we were forced to meet in a local Baltimore church basement that lacked windows or air conditioning. It was hot but my students didn’t care. They enjoyed spending time together doing something educational instead of siting at home alone during the summer.
Primary education in the American education system is very important and for this particular summer, extra funding allowed for added enrichment to the fourth graders. My job was to work with the students to help improve their math, reading and writing skills.
After looking at their educational assessment, I knew this would be a rocky summer. Even though I taught the fourth grade, I had a wide range of students in my class. I had some who could read fairly well. Others had never finished a book on their own. Some behaved as perfect angels. Others seemed to have an array of issues ranging from talking during class to extreme anger management problems. Teaching them altogether was very difficult. At times, it felt rewarding. Other times I felt very ineffective in teaching primary education.
During the afternoons, we exposed the students to an array of extracurricular activities outside of primary education. At times, we managed to find wealthy benefactors to donate various items to the program. On one particular occasion, a company managed to purchase Baltimore Raven’s tickets for all of the children. They were so excited because despite living in Baltimore all of their lives, many of them had never been to a game.
The children cheered as they snacked on popcorn and peanuts during the game. The Ravens were losing but it didn’t matter because they were having fun together laughing and cheering in the late afternoon heat. Suddenly the billboard lit up, showing pictures of the children in their classes. They all cheered, jumping out of their seats.
“Look, there’s Ashley!” replied Tyler.
I looked at them and back at the pictures displayed on the screen. In this case, a picture did not in fact say a thousand words. At most, it said about 50. This picture just showed were some really cute faces smiling, while looking at the camera. It didn’t show the fact that David had the educational reading skills of a 6 year old and the math skills of a junior high school student. It didn’t show how Claire had the common sense of an adult, but took minutes to write the sentence “I love cats”. And it definitely didn’t show the fact that Rodger had extreme anxiety and other social related issues but when given colored pencils, could create a picture with such detail. These children were genius in certain ways and lacking in primary education in so many others. For someone who had attended an Ivy League college, I stayed confused during the entire summer.
The screen on the Baltimore Ravens score board then flashed, “I want to thank the following contributors for supporting educational programs for these talented underprivileged children.” The students finally received the recognition that they deserved. Or, did they?
The next day, Rachel, one of the smartest children in my class came running into the building.
“Ms. Lindsey, I think they made a mistake at the game last night. The billboard called us underprivileged. I didn’t know what that meant so I looked it up in a dictionary. And Ms. Lindsey, do you know what that means? It means they think that we are poor.”
The class went silent for the first time that summer. Then Ryan, stood and stomped his foot.
“I’m not poor! I have a play station at home!” Ryan said.
“I’m not poor or underprivileged either! My mom just bought me a brand new outfit at the mall yesterday,” Claire responded.
“I’m not poor either! My mom works until 10 o’clock at night! She’s a manager at Mac Donald’s. She tells people what to do!” Sean said.
“I’m not underprivileged either! I have my own room!” replied Katrina.
“My momma just bough a brand new Honda!” said Joe.
“My neighbor Ronnie’s mom couldn’t even afford to buy him a race car birthday cake. That’s poor. That’s underprivileged. That’s not me. “
The class was upset and it took a while to calm them down. Not even ice pops would entice Claire to get off her soapbox. They were offended! In their minds, they were not poor. They may not have had fancy new cars. Multiple generations may have lived under one roof at their house. Their parents may not have attended educational fancy Ivy League colleges. They were also well aware of the fact that many in America were more opportunities than many of their families. But to them, they were resented being labeled as poor. And they refused to be classified as underprivileged. And, I understood their argument. Actually, their exchange made me think differently about them as people, their struggles, their accomplishments and their family environments.
During the first year of teaching primary education in the American education system, I worked the hardest I have ever worked. I came in early and worked sometime until midnight, trying to design curriculum that would work for my particular class and their individual needs. And, I really did see some improvements with the majority of my class. But, in the end, I never saw the educational results that I had hoped for. Their high level of intellect was never really captured in standardize scores or exit exams.
However, that conversation that we had about socioeconomics and class could have occurred at my Ivy League college. The insight they provided was truly eye opening and quite rewarding. That summer, I believe that I learned far more from them than they did from me, which was probably not the ultimately goal of the program. And in the end, that just made me cognizant, appreciative but ultimately very sad.