The thing about poverty is that it slaps all your senses into high gear. You smell it. You taste it in the thick air. You hear it. You feel its grip. You see it, though abject poverty will make you want to look away.
How many of us have actually come face to face with poverty? Seeing images on the TV that we can click away while nestled into our soft comfortable lives is not what I’m talking about. Seeing the faces of children with snot and dirt smeared on their cheeks or the elderly sitting on a patched arm chair amid broken fans and clutter is also not what I mean. Poverty saturates the fabric of our lives right here in the good old U.S. of A. Poverty is not a distant plight felt only within the borders of Sudan, India, or whatever spot your brain conjures up when faced with the jarring reality of poverty. I want to know how many of us have really seen poverty? In the flesh as an open wound.
I have seen abject poverty, both in this country and others. I have admittedly run from it. Turned my heels because clicking them together wasn’t taking me away quickly enough. I’ve seen it in Washington, D.C., Chicago, rural North Carolina, and India. I felt scared, uncomfortable, anxious, sad, angry, and guilty. It’s easy to banish those images from my mind, though I never forget.
I dropped off a load of stuff at a local thrift store last week. I was getting back into my relatively new car, the one that is fully paid for, clean, and never has an empty tank or missed oil change. A car pulled up next to me. A beat up shell of a car that I swear had duct tape on the windows. Out pop a man, woman, an infant, and a little boy about three years old. The baby was wearing a soggy soiled diaper, and the rest of the family appeared to be rather disheveled and out of sorts. The car, the one that the two children just came out of, had no car seats. The man and woman were screaming at each other. The baby, slung on the man’s hip, was crying. The little boy was whining. The adults were counting out crumpled bills and scavenging for coins. Here, at a place where I can throw away my old unwanted electronics and gadgets and ill fitting coats, these people come to shop for basic goods that I take for granted.
And I drove away.
I simply didn’t know what to do to help these people. Would it have been presumptuous and offensive to give them some cash and one of my son’s carseats? Should I have offered at least? Why didn’t I act? I run through the slow motion stills of this brief encounter and can’t nail down what made me leave. It’s haunted me, and I feel ashamed.
What is so upsetting are those children and their plight. Their future looks bleak. As my friend Hugh put it, after I had recounted my story to him, that little boy will never dip his toes in the ocean or write a poem, hell, even read a poem, he will not have a home full of books and someone to read to him. The egregious thwacks to children make them the most heartbreaking casualties of poverty.
No one chooses poverty. It is a plight, a nightmare, a dungeon. Sure, there are those remarkable stories about an inner city kid making his way to Harvard or a junkie coming clean and hitting the big time. And there are those darlings from Slumdog Millionaire that make everyone feel all warm and fuzzy for having done their bit to help. For every success story of breaking away from poverty’s death knell, there are thousands, millions even, of stories that are too distressing to cover on the six o’clock news. It’s the children that always move me.
The children are victims at best, lost causes at worst. It’s the children who are casualties in this war against poverty. Isn’t it our moral imperative to reach out to those weaker than us? Should we not band together to, at the very least, protect the children?
It is this issue alone that drives me to fight the Wake County school board’s deplorable disregard for all the children of this county. School boards are supposed to be non-partisan and represent every student in the county, especially those who have no voice. Look, I’m not in the throes of this battle for Bird and Deal. They will be fine, regardless where they go to school. They have two educated parents who spend a considerable amount of time with them, a house full of books, weekly outings to the public library, full bellies, soft beds, medical care. My sons will be fine. They will be more than fine.
The basic paradigm difference in this county hinges on one point alone – those who want to fiercely protect their own children, and those who want to fiercely protect all children. Poverty and its effects cannot be ignored. It’s time to leave the polished white temples with neighborhood ordinances and vinca blossoms on every corner. It’s time to face the darker side of our county and come face to face with what we so easily brush under the proverbial rug. It’s time to see just what it means to live in poverty. It’s time to see how we can help.
A child who lives in poverty has likely not been to preschool before entering kindergarten.
A child who lives in poverty has inadequate, if any, medical care.
A child who lives in poverty doesn’t get three square meals a day.
A child who lives in poverty often does not have a literate parent or care giver at home.
A child who lives in poverty does not have books.
A child who lives in poverty does not have a stable address to call home.
And the list goes on…
It’s time to take action. While I didn’t do what I could to help that struggling family at the thrift store, I’m taking my mulligan now to do what I can to help so many who face a bleak future without the promise of education before them. Education is fundamental to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Separate is still not equal.