Thursday, September 23, 2010

On Outrage, Determination, and Faith

Three of my facebook friends posted the same link over a period of a few weeks.  I got a very vague idea of the content by the comments on the first post, and I didn't bother to click and read it.  Second time, same story.  The first two friends were people I really like and admire.  I wasn't in the mood to ponder our differing political philosophies.  The third time was weeks later.  This time it was the sibling of an old high school friend.  I barely know her.  For some reason, when she posted it this past Sunday morning, I clicked on the link.

It was a letter to Obama, or the Administration, or someone in Washington, the exact details escape me.  Written by an emergency room doctor, it told the story of a woman without healthcare who could afford cigarettes, fast food and a gold tooth.  Based on this single interaction, the author suggested that rather than a healthcare problem, we have a culture problem.

The Culture of Poverty.


Where do I begin?

* * *
I found myself furious, sick to my stomach mad, swinging punches and sneering lips and everything I had to say came out in a hiss.  It was all fuck you and fuck this and fuck that, bare feet stomping on the hardwood floors while my husband slept peacefully in our bedroom and my toddler played trucks, bathed in the warm sunlight from the bay windows.  I argued with imaginary critics; I got all up in the faces of the smug and sanctimonious; I lectured like a pissed off college professor in a class full of freshman I wanted to cow; I sighed heavily and explained things laboriously in my most earnest imaginary voice; I threw my hands in the air and gave up, too disgusted to bother; I thundered my righteous judgment down on anyone who dared to disagree with me.

I muttered under my breath while pacing in my pajamas, making emphatic hand gestures that no one -save my child- saw, and no one understood.

* * *
I sit with "the culture of poverty" every day.  I teach parenting classes to (mostly) mothers and (some) fathers in poverty. I read the latest research, ask questions, listen, observe, theorize; I meditate on that shit when I wake up in the middle of the night.

I also come from a childhood of relative poverty.  I always say relative, now that I've been sitting with other people's poverty for all these years.  My poor is not someone else's poor.  But according to the federal guidelines, I qualified for free government lunch.  And because I had the mother I had, who made me sandwiches every morning although I was the oldest of six she had to care for, I never once had to eat it.

So I ask myself every day what poverty is, if there's a culture to it that offers any insight.  My whole life has been spent with one hand empty, and the other hand holding a book, trying to find out what it means to live in the richest country in the world, and still have people hungry.  I haven't ever stopped studying the subject.

And yet, I'm in no position to judge.  No position to make sweeping generalizations, even based on interactions with people I've known for years, people who share the most intimate details of their lives with me, people who trust me to hold their babies and their hands as they navigate circumstances you frankly can't imagine unless or until you have been there.

Or even then, oftentimes.

* * *
I have a tough crop of parents this fall.  We teach them: you are your child's first and best teacher.  But what happens if they don't want the job?  I find them sneaking out before parenting class, texting in the hallway when they're supposed to be teaching their lessons in the children's classrooms, coming up with a suspicious number of appointments requiring early dismissal already in the month of September.

Oh, it would be easy to demonize.  So nice to blame them; damn students don't want to learn.  So much nicer than stepping up my teaching efforts.  So very much nicer than catching them in the hallways with a smile, an open ended question to temporarily trap them, followed by a firm escort down to class while stubbornly continuing the conversation they would clearly prefer not to have, my demeanor too decidedly kind and oblivious for them to confront me, too much faith in their potential to let them slip out the door before I have a chance to peddle my medicine, even though they already think they know I've got nothing but snake oil.  So much nicer to place the blame than to overlook rolled eyes, repeat directions ignored the first time, strategize with my teaching team every day until I'm almost late to pick up my son, and repeatedly remind myself of the virtue of patience.

I don't do the authoritarian, big boss, my way or the highway thing.  It's not me, for one, and for two, I'm not here to force feed anybody anything.  This is not compulsory education.  This is people who ain't buyin' what I'm sellin'.  I take it back to the drawing board.  I step up my efforts at marketing.  I dig my heels deep into what I believe to be true, pull out every tried and true teaching trick in the book, work at it every day, and I wait.  And wait.  And wait.  I believe I will prevail.

I don't go to church on Sundays.  But I have faith so as to move mountains.

* * *
My husband awoke and asked me how my morning was.  I did not rant and rave; I did not rage against the dying of the light of intellect on my facebook page.  I spoke in measured tones, and I told him the story of my morning.  I calmly spoke my desires for fuck you and fuck this and fuck that, and in the open air of my kitchen over pancake batter in a big, glass bowl, the futility of the authoritarian, big boss, my way or the highway approach --even disguised as David rising up against Goliath, for don't we always cast ourselves in the role of David?-- revealed itself in the silly emptiness of my words spoken into the air instead of inside my head.

People believe all kinds of ugly untruths about human beings in poverty.  Sometimes we have to, in order to live with the status quo.  It's also very easy to judge that which you do not know.  And there are sometimes very ugly truths about human beings in poverty, just as there are about all of us.  The world is full of beauty, and still, we are savage beasts.  And time rolls on.

But none of that is really my concern.  I have to get back to work.  I have mountains to move.


  1. Well said. VERY well said. From one mountain mover to another, I can empathize with your daily battles at work. From one child of poverty to another, I can empathize with your feelings too.
    Would love to hear what parenting class you are teaching. I am trying something new next month...a little outside the box.