It goes like this: I get up at 3 a.m. to write lesson plans for my 6th grade class. I feel numb because this is the only time I can get this work done. It’s the only time that I am free. I keep on getting in trouble with my principal because I do not have my lessons on paper, even though I know that the lesson plans are going to change day to day depending on what my students have learned. I like teaching my students to mastery, not just to exposure.
I’ve got five kids of my own. I am a single father. Four full-time and one every other weekend. It’s a struggle. I want to be a good father and give them the attention they deserve. I do not want them to feel lost and alone the way I felt as a kid.
We always have eggs and potatoes for breakfast. The girls make whatever coffee was on sale. Our treat is to have some hazelnut creamer. I am so exhausted. I pack their outfits for each day into the slots in canvas shoe organizers. The week of clothes is set on Sunday. If I am not ultra organized, we aren’t going to make it. The girls are now moms. The kids put themselves together while I put myself together. Everyone learns how to be self-reliant.
I work at a Title 1 school (where, like my own children, forty percent of the students are on free and reduced lunch), the school that I went to as a child. I became a teacher because I wanted to teach the children who looked like me, came from the same streets I did, ran the same school hallways I did, that they could be anything they wanted. I also tell them they are going to have to work twice as hard as everyone else. They are not privileged and do not have resources.
I don’t eat lunch. I call my mom who lives across the street. She brings me two or three bean burritos. I walk into the teachers’ lounge and hear “ . . . those kids do not care about school.” “I love working at a Title 1 school because the parents are not invested in their kids, so they never bother me like the rich parents up north.” I never hear those words from teachers who looked like me.
I think of myself. And how scared I was in school. How much I felt like an outsider in a learning culture that did not relate to me. Where was the Mexican rice? Where were the beans? Where was Facundo Cabral or Vicente Fernandez? How I could hardly write a paragraph when I graduated from high school.
It’s not that I did not care, but that I was too embarrassed to ask for help. Too embarrassed to be seen as dumb. It’s easier to be seen as not caring. At least I keep my dignity, I thought.
Even though I am a professional, I get paid 10,000 dollars below the poverty line. The embarrassment of sitting in the lobby of the department of economic security is almost unbearable. I keep asking myself; Why do I have to be here? I have a degree in education.
When I walk up to the counter, I can tell the people are so callous; they’ve seen so many people, so many excuses. Whatever compassion or friendliness that was in them at one time was eroded by the sheer number of people that were there. I finally sit down with a case worker and receive a battery of questions that questioned my very existence again. The power and the embarrassment. Make sure you don’t use this for tobacco and alcohol. Of course, you can’t anyway, but she made sure to tell me. Shame. A life of shame. It reminded me of being that child that could not access the strength to survive in my classroom.
I go to either Bashas or Frys and, fortunately enough, the assistance is a credit card, so it gives you a little dignity. The person behind you can’t tell if it is a debit card or your food stamp card. On occasion, we have chicken when it is on sale. I always get a piece of whatever meat is on sale. But it still isn’t enough for a family of six.
I get home to take my children to a football game or volleyball match, or a performance of Peter Pan. I have them in those activities to soothe their aching hearts. Hearts that ache because their parents are no longer together, hearts that ache because the only place I can shop is at the Goodwill. But my children don’t blame me, they love me. They tell me they love finding clothes at Goodwill, “Don’t worry, Daddy; the clothes are beautiful.”
I come home after the game to feed them unhealthy, un-organic food because that food, that I truly want to feed my family, is too expensive for my few hard-earned dollars. My kids say, “I really love top ramen, Dad. It tastes good.” Because my children know how much I suffer.
There is not enough food for all of us, so I tell my children I am not hungry ― for them to eat it all, even though I am starving. Onions, bell peppers, garlic and potatoes. There is a potato with every meal. And my children will not finish their food, so I can have what is left. They know I am hungry.
I live my whole year for my tax return. The tax return is what I can splurge on. That’s when I buy the carne asada. That’s when I take the kids to that special place on the beach. I drive to California, but stay with my family because we can’t afford a hotel room. We take sandwiches.
I don’t think about walking on a car lot to buy a car. I pay someone a hundred dollars who has an auctioneers license to auction on a car I liked. I have a finite about of money. My credit isn’t going to get me any kind of loan. In the end, I might get the car, I might not.
It’s 10 p.m. I tuck them in. I sing them a Cat Stevens song, “Moonshadow.” The camp songs I learned when I was a young man. I read them A Thousand and One Arabian Nights because my mom read it to me when I was their age. I make sure I sing to them until they go to sleep because I want their last moments of the day to be something beautiful. My only prayer is that I won’t die until my youngest son is 18.
I turn on the sprinklers on the front lawn and proceed to collapse in bed with my clothes on. I will have to get up at 3 a.m. again to do more lesson plans. When I wake up, I realize I forgot to turn off the sprinklers, and all I can see, illuminated by the street light, is the running water in the gutters of the street, flowing like the Nile. I had forgotten to turn off the sprinklers. All I can think is, “How much money is this going to cost me, cost my family?” I fall to my knees in the middle of the night in my yard and weep. My children hear me and come hug me.
This was my life for many years.
“Those children will never learn. They are too lazy and their parents don’t care about their education.”
Those children, the ones I hear about in the teachers’ lounge, are my children. The parents I hear about are me. My children do not always get their homework done. I do not always sign their agendas. I do not show up to your precious parent conference, not because I wanted to offend you, but because I do not have the ability or will to add one more thing in my impossible life. It’s not because I don’t care about my children’s education, but because I am just trying to live. And those children, my children, arrive at your classrooms unprepared, scared, sad, frightened and angry. Those children, my children, your children, our children.