There is a straight route to the tutoring location. A single road between my wooded suburb and the city streets of Cleveland. Along my way I cross an overt but invisible line. On one side of the line there are manicured lawns and flower beds. There are thriving businesses, street-side cafes, healthy food markets. There are people jogging in expensive running shoes. On the other side of the line there are empty buildings, broken windows, roads and sidewalks in disrepair. There are people waiting at bus stops or walking with their bags from the Dollar Store. I see vacant lots of dirt and trash, overgrown shrubs, and rusty fences. There are mostly payday loan businesses, gas stations and nail salons.
As I drive to my destination each week, I wonder what it’s like to look at ugliness every day. What is it like to see the evidence of failure and sense the collective hopelessness in the place you live? I don’t know. When I drive down my street, I see only beauty, unbrokenness, success. The paths I walk for exercise, the places I shop and go for enjoyment are all aesthetically pleasing. When I look out my back window, I see no other structures, just trees and grass, woods and animals who visit; skittish deer and foxes pass through, geese honk above. A heron stalks fish in the pond next door, a variety of birds clustered at my well-stocked feeders.
This is what I learned in a life of security and safety: Your parents love you unconditionally. There is always hope in the future. If you work for something you will succeed. These are the things those on the other side of the invisible line have learned: Parents neglect or leave you. Life is about surviving. Education is a luxury. There is no safe place. No hope.
My working life was spent as a special education teacher of mostly poor children. Now I am a volunteer tutor for adults attempting to earn their high school equivalency degree in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. One of my adult students tells me he wants what I have, but he is not referring to my house or my car. He is lonely and wants to be loved and have a family—something that has eluded him since his father died when he was nine years old. He is indifferent about his mother and says she is indifferent to him as well. He is an outgoing, affable young man with so much potential. Although he is thirty-seven years old, his life seems stunted at the age of seventeen—not yet graduated, seeking relationships, no possessions or accomplishments in life—an impoverished existence has left him behind. His dream is to work with special needs children because he understands them and is good with them. He tells me he was expelled from high school because he was too old and too far behind.
I have quite a bond with this young man. He claims me as his personal tutor and showers me with compliments each time we are together. When Thanksgiving comes, I ponder inviting him to my house, but what would that experience mean to him? To come from deserted streets of abandoned buildings and empty storefronts to my suburban neighborhood. To enter my house and see how much more I have than he does. To meet my family and see I am never lonely. I decided it would be more cruel than generous.
I am truly grateful for all I have been given. I think about some of the people I have come to know through tutoring who have very little of what they need. Those who appear to have nothing to look forward to in life. I know my donations of time and money do very little. My deep and sincere compassion does nothing to help them directly, but I see the appreciation on their faces and hope they at least feel understood, maybe sense a little hope. I taught children with learning disabilities all of my life. Many of these adult students tell me I understand how to teach them, and I recognize that some of them have struggled with unaddressed learning challenges, too.
I have not only what I need, but most everything I want. Yes, I worked all my life as a teacher. I took responsibility for myself, paid my bills, raised my children with love, attended to healthy eating and exercise habits, and developed loving relationships. But because of the life I was born into, it wasn’t difficult. I had exemplary role models all around me and understood what was needed to have a successful life from an early age. I did not have obstacles to overcome on the way.
There is an argument in this country about the personal responsibility of the poor, assuming they are lazy, want to live off of government assistance, or make bad choices. Racial discrimination is not considered in this argument. A white man has never been turned down for a job because of his skin color or unusual name. A white family has not been told they cannot have the apartment they wanted once the landlord has seen their faces. White people have not been profiled or pulled over by police and unjustly accused of a crime, even going to prison sometimes.
Some say if you just work hard, save money, and stay out of trouble, that everyone has the same opportunities to do well in America. I have heard many stories from my adult students, so when someone tells me they worked hard from a young age to buy a car and save for college, that they have earned everything they have, my response might be: “And your parents didn’t take your paycheck to support the family, did they? No one made you babysit at night instead of doing homework. You didn’t spend nights afraid or hungry. No one told you that you were worthless or stupid. You didn’t have a father in jail or a mother addicted to drugs. There were no gangs in your neighborhood luring you or threatening you to join them.” All obstacles to success.
In tutoring adults, I have heard many reasons why they didn’t graduate and most of them were not their fault or even their choice. Some were forced to quit to help support the family. Some were forced to quit to care for younger siblings or a sick parent. Some had unattended learning disabilities. Some had parents who didn’t care if they went to school, and being young, they took the easy way out. Now they are trying to graduate under much more difficult circumstances. Many have been out of school for decades; they have jobs, responsibilities, children, aging parents to help. They struggle with schedules, transportation, and not having the required technology available to them. They are trying to take personal responsibility, but I have seen it become too much for many of these students. Suddenly they are gone from the program.
There can be resentment towards people like me trying to understand the lives of Others. My empathy may be seen as pity or insincerity. What do I know? Yet, I made some mistakes and for a period of time, I too, was a poor single mom. Mostly bad luck led to a great deal of debt. There was not enough money to pay the basic bills. My teaching job was cut to part-time without benefits. I used a home equity loan to buy food for my children for a while (although if I was truly poor, I wouldn’t have had access to an equity loan.) I felt humiliated. I had done everything right, everything society expected of me. Although I experienced desperation, I had support, a loving family and an education. I knew eventually things would get better and they did. I had the foundation for life that many lack. But through that experience I learned that anything that could happen could happen to me, to anyone, regardless of how much they tried or how responsible they had been.
I lost both of my beloved parents in a relatively short amount of time. In my sorrow I joined a grief support group. Although the church where we met was far from the inner city, I discovered that three women in the group lived in the area where I tutor. One woman was there because her son was murdered. Her sister, the young man’s aunt, was also grieving, and another friend was there in support. I felt uncomfortable that I was there because my elderly mother and father passed away after full and happy lives. It was revealed that the woman’s daughter murdered her son. A senseless double tragedy. After some discussion I understood that the siblings had untreated mental health issues. Both victims of poverty.
The effects of poverty impact every part of life, not just food and shelter. Those in poverty often do not have proper health care or help for mental illness. Their hopelessness and lack of guidance lead to drug and alcohol problems. They need quality childcare, good schools, healthy food, safe places to live, stable relationships—all the things some of us take for granted or believe we have earned.
One night I went to bed with a foreboding sense of fear and awoke to the news that our country had chosen a leader widely regarded as an unqualified, attention-seeking reality show personality. Weeks of overwrought analysis followed, and the consensus was that this occurred because of the anger of a lower middle class who have struggled and felt unheard. In my mind many of the Others are not even close to the lower middle class. They are abjectly poor. But the people I know do not seem angry. They expect little and appear to be aware of nothing but the life around them. They are living the way their parents and grandparents lived—generational poverty—often in the same rundown neighborhood. Hope is elusive and fragile. There is too much effort put into simply surviving to be indignant or to pay attention to politics.
Years ago, I read a seminal work that affected me deeply. A Framework for Poverty by Ruby K. Payne, PhD, gives a working definition of poverty as “the extent to which an individual does without resources.” These resources can be financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, physical, relationships, support systems, or knowledge of hidden rules about society.
What I found most interesting are the differences in priorities between those who are poor and those who have what they need. For example, the middle class views possessions as things, whereas in poverty relationships are seen as possessions—meaning the more people (sometimes children) in your life, the richer you are. For the wealthy, possessions are accumulated legacies and pedigrees. For the poor, money is to be spent. For the middle class, money is to be managed. For the wealthy, money is to be invested. Education is valued for many of those in poverty, but it is not a reality; it is an abstract. In the middle class, education is crucial for success. For the rich, education promotes making connections and keeping traditions.
The three driving forces behind those who live in poverty are survival, relationships, and entertainment (a welcome distraction from their reality). The middle class values work and achievement above all. The wealthy strive for financial, political and social connections. Another difference may be on the issue of food. The poor are concerned with having enough to eat. For the middle class, food is about quality and enjoyment. The wealthy focus on whether meals are presented well. Completely different viewpoints on the necessities of life.
The state of our country right now does not look hopeful for people in need. A senator said the poor should pay for their healthcare instead of cell phones, as if those two costs were somehow equal. After-school programs, free breakfast and lunch, and public school funding have all been drastically and ruthlessly cut—programs that are lifelines for the Others.
A billionaire who has no experience in a public school drains their funds for private school vouchers that will only cover some lucky students. What will the Others be left with when public school resources are decimated? Who will help all the children living without advocates or the money it takes to cover what the vouchers do not? If everyone does not have an equal and comprehensive education how can we expect them to do well in the future and contribute to society?
Funding for a healthy environment is also being cut. Children are exposed to lead poisoning in public housing and in their drinking water, causing irreversible brain damage. Family planning clinics are shuttered so millions of young women have no access to birth control or prenatal care, resulting in more unwanted children living in poverty or poor health. The pro-life movement only seems concerned for the unborn. Once they are born, many children are left to live with very little of what they need to lead successful, healthy lives.
One day when I arrived to tutor the young man, he was not there. He never missed a day, and I had a dreadful feeling in my gut. I was told there had been a confrontation with an administrator about how he socialized too much and interrupted other students’ work, and he had left in anger and humiliation at being treated like a child. He had also recently failed his reading test for the third time, although his score was very close to passing. It was too much. The last straw. He came back one day to say goodbye to me and vowed never to return. There had been one obstacle too many. One fragile hope that was dashed.
What can we do about this problem in America? Ruby K. Payne identifies two factors that help one move out of poverty: education and relationships. In my mind, education can only be achieved if we invest in public schools for all children. It is the least our country can do to give many living below the poverty line a chance at a good life. In Ohio, school funding was ruled unconstitutional over twenty years ago, but nothing has changed or improved. Our legislators can’t or won’t figure out a way to make it fair. The poorest children have the poorest schools because of their ZIP code.
Good relationships include mentors, teachers, role models, the nurturing individuals in a child’s life. We cannot control other human beings or make them better parents if that is the problem. But we can provide neighborhood and after-school programs that guide young people in a better direction. This takes compassion and requires funding. But as a whole, America is shamefully unwilling to make the lives of Others better by sharing resources and directing them to those who need it the most.
Is that cost too high? We all pay for poverty. We pay for it in crime and prisons. We pay for it every time an individual is not able to be a contributing member of society. Either way we pay. Would you rather pay for the absurdly high incarceration rate (the worst in the world) and more law enforcers in this country, or to help needy people get on their feet and have a chance at life? At present, it will take electing compassionate leaders and those who will value the common people of this country over the billionaires.
Some would argue that privilege is being a millionaire with a yacht and servants. I disagree. When you have lived a life without fear, hunger, homelessness, abuse, or discrimination you are among the privileged in this country and in this world. Be thankful. When I look out my windows every day, I am.
Diane Vogel Ferri is a teacher, poet and writer living in Solon, Ohio. Her essays have been published in Scene Magazine, Cleveland Christmas Memories, Good Works Review, and by Cleveland State University among others. Her poems can be found in numerous journals such as Plainsongs, Rubbertop Review and Poet Lore. She has two poetry chapbooks: Liquid Rubies, was published by Pudding House, and The Volume of Our Incongruity was published by Finishing Line Press. She frequently does poetry readings locally. Her essay, “I Will Sing for You” was featured at the Cleveland Humanities Fest in 2018. She holds an M.Ed from Cleveland State University. Her novel, The Desire Path can be found on Amazon.com.
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