Mothers and children stand in a line, waiting their turn at the window to turn in their papers. The paperwork isn't for anything fun; it's not for anything they want to be a part of, but it's something they have found they need to be a part of.
Mothers occupy themselves on their phones, feeling slightly embarrassed to be in this line while using a smartphone -- but the truth is the phone is not the latest model, and they got it for free with their latest upgrade.
For one mom, the parent of three children, having a phone so her kids can reach her isn't just a priority -- it's a necessity. She stares at the screen of her phone, desperately trying to avoid being drawn into a conversation with anyone, trying to pretend she is anywhere but here.
The kids, on the other hand, stand as if they are awaiting the firing squad. Heads down. Eyes averted. Trying to make themselves as small as they possibly can. Hoping and praying they don't see anyone they know, and more importantly that no one they know sees them. A few hours ago they were happily playing a video game, and now they find themselves here standing in the line no one wants to be in.
The line they're standing in is for free lunches when the school year starts, and a voucher to get a school uniform for free. Just one uniform, so if mom doesn't scrape together some cash quick they'll be wearing that exact same uniform every day of the school year.
As if this experience wasn't already humiliating enough, mom overhears one of the school administrators answering a parent's question:
"What's that booth for?" asks a random parent who is there navigating the confusion that is freshman registration at high school.
"Oh, you don't need that booth, that booth is just for the poor kids," answers the school secretary.
Mom feels her face begin to burn and her eyes start to water. "Dammit, I will not cry while I'm registering my kid for school," she thinks to herself while steeling her resolve to stand firmly in the line.
The kids all heard it too, that innocent comment from the school secretary describing them as "the poor kids" of the school. That's a label they'll carry with them all through the school year, even if their circumstances change.
They didn't realize they were poor, they thought they just didn't have a lot of money -- but now they know they're the poor kids.
The school secretary has no idea she has caused such a pain for these people; she said it without thinking. She didn't mean anything by it, it's just how she thinks of them. They are the poor kids.
She would never say, that door is just for the crippled kids.
She would never say, that entrance is just for the stupid kids.
She would never say, that hallway is just for the lazy kids.
Those things would be too politically incorrect.
We are living in a world where the way we build ourselves up is to tear someone else down. We are living in a world where it is not OK to allow our children to bully one another, but it is still acceptable for parents and other adults to tear each other down for not fitting in, for not meeting a standard society has set for them.
We don't stop to think why these kids are in need of a free uniform voucher, or a free lunch ticket. We just think the parents are failures for not being better financial providers. "They should have stayed in school," we think. "They should get a damn job," we think.
We don't want to think about the sequence of events that has brought them to where they are, because if that sequence of events could happen to them, it could happen to us, too. We could one day find ourselves in the poor kids' line. Maybe there was an unexpected job loss, or an unforeseen health situation that impacted finances. Maybe their happily ever after didn't quite work out, and now mom finds herself providing for the kids on her own income, when she thought she would be a stay-at-home mom instead. We don't want to think about any of that; we just want to think about how we're so much better than the kids and parents who have to stand in the poor kids' line.
During the school year, the other students will have absolutely no way of knowing who is eating lunch for free, or who is wearing a free uniform, because we've taken pains to remove any possibility of kids bullying one another from the classroom. Their lunch money is on a card, the same as everyone else's is, and they'll swipe it at the register just like everyone else will. Their shirt and pants will come from the exact same store as everyone else's does. Because we don't want them to stand out, we don't want them to be picked on or bullied, we want our kids to be safe from those experiences.
And yet, we can't seem to stop adults from doing it. Where do we think the kids are learning how to bully? How to pick on someone just for being different than they are?
Why can't we seem to figure out that different, in whatever form it comes, doesn't necessarily mean bad? Why can't we seem to figure out how to keep parents from bullying one another?
Why can't we seem to figure out how to stop judging one another, and start helping one another?!
This essay is based on an experience relayed to me by a fellow mom.