As yet another summer vacation begins I think back over all the years I have taught. And time and again I return to the boy I tried so hard to save.
It was my first year teaching in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Santa Maria and I was shocked. Our students were a mix of the destitute and working class. Some families were migrant field-workers following the harvest and moving every three months, others were homeless living in cars and run-down hotels on Broadway, and many were laborers working long hours doing construction or gardening for little pay.
Most were very poor, so far below the poverty line that they lacked the basic necessities you and I take for granted. Cleanliness. Clothing. Adequate space. Enough to eat. I remember watching a third-grader running a race over the spotty grass of our playground, wondering why she kept one hand on the waist of her oversize pants. That’s when I noticed that every time they fell down, they revealed that she had no undies on. Another of my students lived in a home that was so dirty she contracted hepatitis A and ended up in the hospital with jaundice. Daily, I saw hungry children greedily eat every morsel the school cafeteria provided because some would get no more meals that day.
Children without backpacks, binders, or even crayons. After Christmas that year I asked the kids to journal about their gifts. One of my students wrote, “I got a pencil.” I went out and bought her a bicycle and toys the next day. When I took my own children to the immigrant family’s converted-garage apartment to deliver the gifts, they had trouble believing that eight people could fit, much less live in such a tiny space.
But worst of all were the gangs. Fathers who bragged about beating their wives to the floor. Mothers who dealt drugs out of the kitchen. Cousins who used chains, blades, and even guns against the rival gang a few blocks away.
All leaving traumatized children who could barely function, much less learn, in school. Like Gabriel. *
*Name changed to protect his privacy.*
Laurie Woodward is the author of The Pharaoh’s Cry, Kidnapped Smile, and Dragon Sky from the fantasy series The Artania Chronicles, as well as the middle-grade Forest Secrets. She co-wrote Dean and JoJo: The Dolphin Legacy and was a collaborator on the popular anti-bullying DVD Resolutions. Bullied as a child, Laurie is now an award-winning peace consultant, poet, and blogger who helps teach children how to avoid arguments, stop bullying, and maintain healthy friendships. She writes on the Central Coast of California.