Exposure, Part I

Growing up among the cows and corn fields of northern Wisconsin (ok, maybe not among  them, but in their general vicinity), I was exposed to plenty of things.  Things like eating grass fed beef and free range chickens/eggs without those fancy titles, watching the life cycle of all kinds of animals, understanding exactly how milk came from cows and feathers were plucked from chickens, and driving on icy country roads from a young age.  My parents outstanding reputation as the honest and hardworking chiropractors in our small town kept me well-fed and happy, and very sheltered from many realities of life.

What my charmed life sheltered me from was racial diversity (though not cultural-- I was taught to love my Norwegian heritage), urban poverty, discrimination, and economic disparity (although many of my friends were farmers' kids or lived below poverty levels, at the end of the day the 53 students in my class stood pretty united and pretty class-judgment-free).

Then this backwards little girl went to college, and her eyes were opened just a crack to the reality of life around her.  The more I heard, the more I wanted to experience urban living for myself.  I wanted to know what it felt like to have neighbors of all colors, and I wanted (naively?) to feel the crunch of barely having enough money to eek out a living.  So I moved to the Phillips neighborhood, the place where I thought I would live just like my neighbors.

And what did I find out?  First, that I will never, as much as I want to, be like the kids I work at school with, not even the white ones.  Why not?  Poverty is complex, and makes my temporary financial situation different from my students' families. I have this network of people bursting with resources who would give their right arms before they saw me go hungry or homeless.  My car tires are bare?  I mention the fact to my dad and he buys me new ones before I have time to decide whether my tiny savings account can handle it.  I have no nice jeans?  Not only can I drive myself to the nice thrift stores to get a cheap pair, I can also wear rich friends' Loft hand-me-downs.  No money to pay bills? Grandpa's birthday check comes just in time.

My students don't have these safety nets to cushion them.  When their parents can't pay rent, they live in a homeless shelter for a month or two.  When their cars break down they walk or taxi to school, and take the bus to buy groceries.  When their clothes wear out they come to school with holes in their pants and their brother's old shirt on.

Their families often have the added challenge of a language and culture barrier.  A parent who could manage a retail establishment in Mexico makes burritos at Qdoba because his control of English is inadequate for another job.  Racial discrimination keeps another parent from moving up in a company.  And a student grows up not knowing whether to identify with her Latino culture or her born-in-America pride, or both.  And I will never know these struggles like they do.

Yet most of these students of mine live in situational poverty.  Their parents have just moved to this country, or they moved to this neighborhood because unemployment forced them out of their old living situations, and they are working two or three jobs to create a better life for their children.  They go without so that someday soon their kids can have new uniforms, or even go to a "better" school.  These families are full of hope for the future.

So the question is, what do I do with this new knowledge?  How do I fit in this life?  Was it even a good idea for me to move here and get this job?  Where does the gospel come in?  I'll think about those questions in Part 2.

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