Our Child of Poverty
by Sarah Smith

From the writer: This paper was inspired by my work on "The Community Child Project" and the book "Amazing Grace" by Jonathan Kozol. The project was a children's literacy initiative that included discussions which pointed to poverty as being a deterrent in children's educational success. I then began to think about perceptions of poverty held by myself an others. I have here attempted to capture those attitudes and identify why I see them as problematic.

From the teacher: Sarah found her project for this course (Writing With Theory) in her work in a service learning course she was taking with Rosaria Champagne in ETS. As Sarah began to write, she thought the differences between her own life and the lives of the young girls she was "helping" were extremely large. As she explored her own interests and the conversations she was having with other SU students, she came to think that the differences were much more subtle.  Her way of describing the differences, then, came in her use of metaphor and juxtaposition. Sarah was the student in this course who was the most dedicated to the writing--process as well as product.

From the editors: This piece addresses the impoverished conditions faced by urban families in America, confronting the issues that many of us dismiss. Smith integrates the novel Push, by Sapphire, with anecdotes of her childhood and reflections upon her experiences with children as a maturing adult. Through application of social theory, textual analysis and literary narrative, this paper demonstrates the author's developing cognition about the hardships endured by the underprivileged and calls for the reader to apprehend these ideals.

As Veronica's sisters drove home in their black Lexus from a day of shopping in Boston they observed a woman pushing a shopping cart filled with bags and boxes of what appeared to be clothing. "I really wish people like that would do something to help themselves," the eldest spoke aloud.

Not too far from the Syracuse University campus is what we like to refer to as the ghetto. The other class lives here, not us, them. Their houses sit close together and there are children on the sidewalks and teenagers standing outside at the corner store. There are cars in the driveways that are older and rustier than most of those seen in the parking lots on the S.U. campus. Some of the houses have chipping paint and broken taped up windows. Most of the faces I see are not white. Veronica locks her car door and instructs me to do the same as a small girl wearing shorts and a winter jacket crosses the street behind my car.

"It's only a novel, not a true story," said Veronica.

We all act, feel, and respond from a specific and determinable frame of reference. This referencing frame is present in all of us and it is hard to realize ways in which it effects our thought patterns, if not impossible. The easiest way we have to define our position is in terms of another. We can define ourselves as privileged and that means that someone somewhere has to be unprivileged.

Diversity is the root of binary possibilities. Diversity is a fact of humanity and is just as inescapable as binaries; diversity is what shapes them. It is much easier for us to defend our position at the top of the socioeconomic if we fail to recognize the effects of our position on another. Often then, it is easier to become overly defensive and neglectful in an attempt to defend our own position as acceptable.

Children are victims. They do not determine where they live, where they go to school, the clothes they are dressed in or how much money their parents make. Not necessarily all children are subjected to bad conditions, however their outside world acts upon them and not them upon it. They lack the voice and the language to effectively have their concerns heard. Children may be listened to, but are seldom understood.

Children are amazing. They can have the strength of a grown man and yet the vulnerability of an infant. Their interpretations are more honest and simple and thus they can occupy the position of clarity in the most difficult situation. Sometimes they are unable to comprehend their situations but have enormous courage to rise above and beyond their deterrents. The potential of children is inherently limitless. There is an irreplaceable importance in looking to children for an understanding of how society operates, who is affected, who is recognized, and who is victimized.

"It's only a novel, it is not a true story," Veronica says to me, "no one person would have all those things beating them down the way Precious did."

I grew up in a very small town in Western New York. There were two trailer parks down the road from me and across the street was a group of run down duplexes. The half circle of houses was called Rose Circle. My sister and I used to ride our bikes through here, but we never played with the children that lived in these homes.

What is a "complete" childhood? Is it trips to McDonald's and other extra treats or is it simply coming home to someone who cares about you? Is having a person at home to support and care for you enough to secure the success of a child?

Within the American culture there exists many places for people to slip through unrealized and unspoken for. Children may have no homes, no families, no safe places. Family may not be reassuringly right around the corner and parents may have to wok long hours to pay the bills.

During the summer Kelly and I would alternate places we went while Mom worked. Tuesdays were spent with Gramma and Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday's were spent at my Aunt's with my cousins. My family all lived in the same town, relatively close to each other. I don't know if it was ever an issue for them to watch us; my mother did not pay them.

"There is nothing predatory in these children. They know that the world does not much like them and they try hard to be good to one another" (64).

The van pulls into the community center and I look around me. I see a muddy playground with a rusty jungle gym and some swings. The group of volunteers that I am part of walks through a broken fence and we walk through a door marked for visitors. The chaos inside is markedly different to the absolute stillness we just passed through outside. Children are everywhere and all talking noisily to their neighbor as some adults yell to get their attention through the noise. Two little girls come fearlessly up to me and throw their arms around me in a strong hug that I gladly return. I am very overwhelmed.

The girls introduce themselves to me and it turns out that will be my friends for the rest of the day. They show me upstairs to where I have been assigned to a cooking group that they are in. I am thankful for my new friends welcoming me with their openness that makes me so comfortable where I was initially intimated.

Children are so simple yet so complex, so naïve yet so knowledgeable, so resilient yet so vulnerable, so unskilled and at the same time so talented. Their untainted observations are refreshing and their minds are open to all things around them.

"If it is true that children often make up fables to explain the things that trouble them or things they fear, then there is certainly sufficient reason for the many legends that some of the children have created in Mott Haven. Month after month they witness shootings and police raids, hear of bodies found in trash chutes, other bodies found in elevator shafts, and always, and predictably, they see the consequence of life-taking fires" (132).

Lorraine is one of my friends at the Community Center and this is the game of the Hare and the Penguin as told to me by Lorraine: "The Hare and the Penguin live in the forest. It is a good forest and there is nothing bad and scary there. You are the Hare and I am the Penguin and they look like that," she points to a picture of a boy and girl pilgrim hanging on the wall. "I am crying now and you ask me if something is wrong." I ask Lorraine, who is pretending to cry, what is the matter and she responds, "I want to pick some apples and I can not find any at all. Can you help me?" I can and I point to a ‘tree' a few feet away and tell her it is full of apples. She walks back and brings back two ‘apples', one for each of us.

"Depression is common among children in Mott Haven. Many cry a great deal but can not explain exactly why" (4).

But, Veronica says that this "is not a true story."

The powerful stories told by children are testament to their loss of innocence. Their frightful awareness of their surroundings and the extreme effort to move beyond poverty is hard for us to comprehend. Even further from our understanding is the potential many of these children have to live a life literally beating the odds. However, reality demonstrates to us that most of them will not surpass the boundaries of their towns, as forces beyond their control are constantly beating them down again.

My friend Lorraine has another game she wants to play. It's called "Guess what I have in my house." Lorraine starts by guessing that I have a dining room table, this is not true and I tell her this. Her next guess is a couch and she narrows it down to the correct color. She goes on to name a sink and a microwave and a counter and then it is my turn. I was feeling a little anxious about this game but I was also aware of the existing stereotypes in my own mind making me anxious. I guessed several "basic" household items like a chair and I bed. These were things I felt comfortable to assume would be in Lorraine's home.

Krista was my best friend. We had the broken heart "best-friend" necklaces to prove it. Krista lived on the lake. There was one room in her parents house called "The Blue Room." We were not allowed to play in here. The room had a nice plush carpet and matching furniture. On the glass coffee table sat a chess game with marble pieces. There was a fireplace at the end of the room and the back wall was lined with windows facing out over the lake.

"Some people are better than others," wrote conservative social scientist Charles Murray several years ago. "They deserve more of society's rewards" (154).

I was thinking about the negative effects guilt has on a person. Guilt is a difficult emotion to deal with and it is much easier to only have the feeling, instead of trying to make it go away. Guilt is immobilizing. It keeps us from acting out for fear of becoming vulnerable to criticism, judgements or emotional attachments.

I know people that associate their own guilt with the situations of those living in poverty. We feel guilty for having, but yet we want. The familiar argument is that what we earn, we deserve and have a right to. Guilt is an internal personal condition; poverty is not the problem of one carrying guilt around. Guilt is an OK feeling to have, but not to maintain. Feeling guilty for not being poor is inconsequential and needless. Feeling guilty for our possessions or privilege is immobilizing.

We respond negatively to being challenged about repressive attitudes and beliefs. By ignoring/repressing guilt we fail to act in defense of our children, yet our children are getting denied opportunities because of the poverty cycle.

"It's only a novel," said Veronica.

As privileged students at Syracuse University many of us may not feel the need to be passionate, or even mildly concerned, about the issue of poverty. After all, they are not keeping us from achieving our success. Most of us living here at college are free of serious financial responsibilities. Recognizing the closeness of the issue of poverty is an uncomfortable experience for us from our privileged frame of reference. Realizing that there are people who live without the basics necessary for a healthy survival can be difficult to reason with, especially from our safe, comfortable vantagepoint. Even more uncomfortable is recognizing that we are in fact in a position to help those living in poorer circumstances. People live in poverty right in our backyards, a few blocks from our beautiful campus.

Veronica believes it is "…not a true story."

Karen, a girl who lives in an off-campus apartment, tells me the story of her encounter with a bum down by the bars on Marshall Street. She had previously told me that she had a hard time giving money to them for uncertainty of what they will do with it. Karen assumes they will buy drugs or alcohol. This night when a man approached her for money she was standing outside McDonald's and instead she offered to go in and buy him a cheeseburger. The man declined her offer, reinforcing her stereotypes.

"When you're on a train…don't give money for any purpose…the best way to end panhandling is not to give…don't give" (222).

One very snowy day after kindergarten the bus dropped me off at the end of my driveway. As I walked to the house I wondered why it was all closed up, my Dad was supposed to be home today. I didn't really believe that there would be nobody there, but as I turned the doorknob I realized it was locked. In disbelief I rang the doorbell repeatedly, he would not forget about me! Dad would be here like always when I got off the bus! I panicked as I looked at the tire marks in the snow on the driveway. Where could he be?

I decided to stop feeling badly, I could not just stand here waiting for the man to come home. I headed down the driveway. I was going to walk around the corner to Gramma's house; she'd be there for sure. I never made it to Gramma's house; my father came along before I reached the corner.

The feeling of abandonment had frightened me. I can still feel the pain of being forgotten. But I was reassured by the fact that Gramma was right around the corner.

In my life it is often easier to deal with a passing problem by not dealing with it at all, by denying its existence. I feel totally in control of my studies if I neglect to remind myself I have three hundred pages of reading to do in the next two days. The illusion of control is present when we prevent ourselves from realizing the direness of any situation.

"Many of these children," says the Priest, "get literally nothing in the way of ‘extras'. There are many children here who don't get birthday presents, who never had a gift at Christmas time, and never even had a Christmas tree, which would not be included in the welfare budget" (70).

There were three times a year when Kelly Jo and I were completely spoiled, Christmas, Birthday, and Back-to-School time. These were the times when Mom spared no expense with us. All the saving that went on during the year was pretty much blown at these times. The piles of gifts under the tree, the new clothes for school that included sneakers and shoes, and the extra special gifts Mom picked out for birthday's were not lost on unappreciative girls. We had no idea of the sacrifice involved.

As Veronica fiddles with the pendant that hangs around her neck she is not concerned for Precious because "it's not a true story."

The places a family living in poverty can choose to live are restricted. These places are characterized by their unsafe streets, infested apartments, polluted air, inferior schools, and the lack of decent well-paying jobs. Children's resources are limited and their environments unsafe. They are the unprivileged other. They lack safe playing areas like nice playgrounds. There is high exposure to drugs and violence, and an insufficient exposure to positive role models and good teachers.

The children living in the environment determined by their poverty are experiencing the cruelest and worst that life has to offer. These children could be anyone, they could have been born in a different place at a different time and we could have been born in the ghetto. They demonstrate to us how easily one can get denied and how easily one can die, the fragility of life.

"No libraries are open in the evening. Few recreational opportunities for children. Many abandoned houses and abandoned people and abandoned cars" (30).

Even though my house was somewhat surrounded by not-so-nice houses it was what we liked to think of as the friendliest house on the street. My house was a green two-story home with a white fence along the driveway. My sister and I each had our own room and we had both a living room and a family room. In the front yard were two tall trees the perfect distance apart for a soccer goal. We had a huge backyard with a swing set and a slide and a sandbox that my dad built for us. We had a big pool with a big deck for jumping off that we repainted every year. My mom grew lots of vegetables in the garden in the back of the yard that we helped her plant every spring. We could walk through the woods at the very back and if we went far enough we would get to Gramma's. Mom would watch us as long as she could see and Gramma would meet us on the other side.

The Community Center I volunteer at is an after school home to many children that I have learned are not too well off financially. Their playground is muddy from the rain and the slide is rusty. But the kids here slide and swing on their playground as if it were new. The halls of the building are painted with murals of famous African-Americans and some collages that might be considered graffiti if they were painted on a bridge or a building. There is a recreation room that has a few old couches along the walls but the focus is around the tables where construction paper and scissors are brought out to make Thanksgiving turkeys. There is also a small kitchen, a pool and a gymnasium. The children choose where they would like to spend their time until 5:00 when donuts are passed out to everybody.

Veronica still tells me that it is "not real."

I think that sometimes we do not think of poverty as having a face and a body. Children who live in the cruelest environments life has to offer have feelings and are more aware of their plight than we like to admit. Their feelings of neglect are not different from the ones we have as children. The difference is that we were relieved of our sadness when somebody came to comfort and console, "It's ok. Daddy didn't forget you, he was fighting a fire. He was saving peoples lives and their homes." Nobody is going to come out and say to a child living on a street lined with drug pushers and glowing alters in memory of the dead, "It's ok. You will get out of here someday. You will not die here. There are people who care."

Children are not blind to what goes on around them. They know; they see the same things adults do. They recognize the visible effects of poverty on hard working parents. But they often do not possess language or status to tell us what they see and how it makes them feel. Or they do not have anyone who cares enough to stop and listen, the way my mom did.

Our closed views are a big reason nothing gets done to help those living in poverty. I have a hard time understanding the level of humanity we can claim if, even after learning the horrors, we still fail to act in defense of the people there. I can not justify in my own mind being dispassionate about this subject. With no voice those living in poverty will have a difficult time, if not impossible, surpassing their circumstances. They must get their voice from us. We have the resources and the privilege to make ourselves heard.

I believe that when there is no sense of community there is no need to recognize the negative effects of our behaviors on others. This is apparent in classism with what I'll call the "us-not-them" phenomenon. When we are able to separate ourselves from the other, more specifically the other living in poverty, there is no desire to remedy the situation. When we neglect to foster a sense of community between them and us there is no bond, no relationship. When there is no community it is easy to separate our actions from others. It is impossible to realize the ramifications of classism from within a culture that lacks any cohesive community.

We sometimes ask why those living on the streets and in poverty do nothing to help themselves? Let's try to imagine what the reality of their existence is. Try to see what they see.

Veronica reminds me as she gives me a ride in her new Pathfinder, "No one would have all those factors beating them down."


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