Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Post #1300: Some Reflections on Poverty

This is my 1300th post on this blog.

My first entry was on October 1, 2006.

I've covered a lot of ground in this blog over the last three years, with the most consistent contribution being my attempts to record Three Beautiful Things each day.

As I look over the last three years, though, it's not really my blog that is most on my mind.

It's poverty.

It's poverty and its impact on my day to day work life at Lane Community College.

When I confront poverty every day in my work place, my immediate response is not about me, but soon the weight of working with impoverished students bears down on me, and the poverty I confront at work begins to affect the way I do my work, how I feel, and my level of fatigue.

All the names I'm about to use are pseudonyms.

Clarence and I are the same age and his appearance is branded with the indignities of poverty. Clarence worked as a laborer for many years until his body wore out and couldn't work on construction sites any longer.

Clarence's teeth are almost gone.

He has diabetes.

Clarence's wife died about ten years ago. Not long ago, his second wife died. Not long ago, his daughter died.

Clarence lives with his twenty-seven year old son.

Under a bridge.

Clarence is homeless. I didn't know he was homeless until he stayed after class one day to ask me some questions about doing the slight amount of research I've assigned the class.

He told me he was learning more about computers at the public library and was getting the hang of it and I asked him if he lived near the library. I know from past conversations I've had with students who don't own computers that it's handy if they live near the public library and use theirs.

That's when he told me, without a trace of self-pity, that he lived with his son under the bridge, but was hoping that when his financial aid came through he'd be able to buy a Jeep or an old RV or something.

It's late October. The cold autumn rains are settling in, with occasional relief.

Somehow Clarence comes to class on time every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 10, showered, with clean clothes, and eager to learn, even after being out of school for nearly thirty-five years.

He can't type his essays. He doesn't know how to type. So far he's kept up in class, but inevitably the time is going to come when he contracts a cold or the flu a some other virus or his diabetes debilitates him in some way.

The ten week school quarter will push forward, with its inevitable and fatalistic and unforgiving weight, and chances are good that Clarence will need more time because the way school is set up assumes good health, an ordered life, and plenty of free time.

I've been thinking a lot about how Lane Community College advertises itself as a place to come and study and earn a degree to make entry into the work force.

Clarence has the will and intelligence to do so -- but his homelessness and illness and role as a father means he's not starting his metaphorical run around the bases of LCC from home plate.

He's way at the end of the dugout.

So is Marcia.

Marcia, too, is branded: her mark is her cane.

Last week Marcia came to my office sobbing.

She was in so much pain she could hardly move and came to tell me she couldn't be in class.

I asked her if she had MS. Her highly compromised gait, her cane, and her pain made me think this might be true.

No, Marcia, told me, she suffered spinal damage from domestic violence and only now were the doctors beginning to believe that she was in severe pain and not accusing her of having it all in her head.

So, some guy beat the shit out of Marcia, repeatedly, and now she's out, on her own, barely able to walk and trying to understand the readings of this course through a typhoon of unmanageable pain.

I can tell Marcia is intelligent. She's articulate. So is Clarence.

If they were well, they would have every chance of succeeding as students.

But they're not well and they are poor.

I'm sure that if Marcia had money, she wouldn't be in school. She'd be recovering.

But, my guess is that she's trying to soldier her way through school in order to move on in her life, and for the financial relief provided by qualifying for financial aid.

I don't see how she'll make it, although, as in the case of Clarence, I'll give every ounce of energy I can to helping accommodate her, giving her extra time for her writing and trying to help catch her up with what we covered in class when she was in too much pain to attend.

You probably begin to get the picture.

I work in a huge educational system developed for the privileged and populated, at LCC, largely by the unprivileged.

When educational institutions were created, they were created much like factories.

Schools are governed by the clock, by time, and the assumption is that students can conform their lives to the way schools govern their time.

For the privileged students of prep schools and private colleges, this worked fine. Nothing outside of recreation competed with the school clock and calendar.

But, for the student without money, for the person trying to extract him/herself out of poverty, life is governed much more by the clock of being poor, by the need to work, by the appointments at the V. A. or at the welfare office or with a person from HUD, not to mention the bus schedule or by the time demands of a broken down vehicle.

And, for the poor, there's always illness.

Brad came to my office with his wife. Her front teeth are nearly rotted out, a mark of their poverty, and Brad is a man in his early thirties suffering from lupus.

They've been homeless. Their family has been torn apart by poverty. Brad hardly sleeps at night, is having a terrible time managing his pain, and is running into barrier after barrier as he tries to secure relief through SSI. He's hoping that after five years, it might come through.

Brad can't keep up with his reading, but he's trying. He is behind in his writing, but he's trying. He's not a slacker. He's determined. But he's poor. He's sick. His family is in turmoil.

Brad sees school as a way to help deliver him out of poverty. He's adept at computers and is enrolled in a program to certify his talents.

I don't see how he'll ever make it.

Will Alice make it? She just got released from the pen after getting herself involved in a meth ring, getting caught, and sentenced to prison.

I think of past students I've had who were poor, crippled, ill, desperate, pushing hard, but always up against the fact that the pressures of poverty often make the demands of school impossible to meet.

This all wears me out.

Jack's out of work after twelve years in the custom coach business, recently divorced, a father of a six year old, trying to change his life, up against great odds.

This all wears me out.

I cannot, and don't want to, be oblivious to the pain I encounter each day in my students.

I'm under professional obligation to uphold certain academic standards. I do my best to uphold them.

In the context of poverty, the academic standards, the way colleges function, often don't make sense. I'm flexible, but with each act of flexibility I add to my own work load. I hear another story. I suffer a little more on behalf of students I work with closely.

It all comes back to poverty.

It's everywhere.

Collectively, we seem powerless and helpless to alleviate it.

I hear philosophical and political arguments about its causes and who is to blame and what we can and can't do.

I don't give a shit about the philosophical arguments or the political ones or assigning blame.

I just care about those missing teeth, that chronic pain, the bad nutrition, and chronic illness, the impotent parents longing to give more to their kids and I try to do what I can in the moment to provide some small relief by slowing down the clock or by listening and being flexible.

I'm afraid it's mostly in vain, though, and, ultimately, it's the hopelessness of what I work closely with day after day that tires me out and makes me wonder why our society and our schools are arranged in ways that help to continue to defeat poor and provide little hope or relief for ever having it better.

It seems hopeless.

I won't and don't quit, though.

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