Giggles reverberate off the creme walls decorated with bright posters advertising "Mr. Question Mark has lots of questions" and "RESPECT-give it." The smell of stale pizza and cafeteria milk lingers after a long lunch period in which thousands of children crammed food into their faces in the short amount of time given to eat. Little girls hold hands and skip down the hallway to their classes, little boys shove and laugh at the newest jokes. Kids are kids no matter where you are. But, this classroom, this school, it is different. These kids go to the lowest income school in the county. This school does not have adequate supplies or enough teachers. This school does not have new gadgets. This school has not had heating or air since January even though every other school in the country was checked to ensure comfortable conditions in the classroom. The day I visited it was easily 85 degrees in the classroom and since it sits on the third floor teachers cannot leave the window open for fear of an accident. The air was stifling, no movement or breeze...just thick, humid air. I sit down on a stool in the front of the room and begin to read. A simple children's book filled with bright colors, the theme "grateful to be alive." I hear giggles as I give the characters various voices, the kids enthralled in the random stranger sitting in the front of the room reading. They fire questions at me like little toy guns: "What is college like?" "Do you have homework?" "What's your favorite color?" I answer the questions laughing at the inquisitive nature and enjoying the pulling and shoving to give me a hug, hold my hand, play with my hair. I revel in the little faces that look at me with such beaming pride when I ask if they will be my new friends. They line up and go to recess, pulling me out the door with them and completely ruining my plans for the rest of the day and suddenly I do not care anymore.
"Look around and tell me what you see" the teacher ask me. Puzzled I look around the play ground that resembles more of a beehive "Running?" as that seemed to be the dominate mode of transportation. "You see kids being kids" was her response. I smiled. Recess was the best time of the day when I was little. I remember running, laughing, sliding, climbing, playing tag, being a kid. It is still the best time of the day when I get to behave that way. "Unfortunately most of them will be high school drop outs, drug users, and teenager mothers." The thought made it feel as if someone had dropped a stone into my stomach, my knees felt weak, and my vision blurred. These kids are being forced into these roles by the very society that was supposed to protect them. They are pushed through a system without being able to read or spell their own name and by the time the system catches on they mock them, tell them they are stupid and incapable. These kids feel inadequate, not because they are, but because they have never been invested in, believed in, or told they were capable. THEY ARE CAPABLE. I saw quick wit, deep compassion, laughter, and optimism on that playground-but how long do we have? How long until that is doused?
Children walk by and high five and hug their teacher. They show her their playground treasures of rocks, broken pencils, and sticks and then happily skip away. "I try" I look in her eyes and know she means it. This teacher has a special place in my heart because it is my older sister, and best friend. I hear the stories every night on the phone, I hear the tears when another child is hurts or slips through the system, I see the anger and frustration day in and day out. What the world doesn't know is that my sister stays after school hours, and hours, and hours every day. She works on lesson plans all weekend. She buys hundreds of dollars worth of supplies and books out of her own pocket (and not because teachers make bank either). I cannot tell you how many times she has recruited me to print, cut, or glue "one more project" for her. Teachers like this exist in every level of the school system but they are most needed at this low level-the level of the forgotten. She loves her job but it drains her, it drains all of them. When the last bus pulls out teachers faces wipe clean of the smile they have fought tooth and nail to maintain all day and they turn stoic, exhaustion seeping through in their gait, face, eyes. "I have one year." That is all these teachers have and then the kids are sent on to the next level (sometimes against the teachers recommendation) pushed into a system where they are a number not a face.
Something has to change in this system that is sucking the souls of the students and teachers alike. Redistricting, better curriculum, more money for teachers, smaller classroom size, better supplies, something. Society turns on the news every single night and sees displays of power and rebellion. We see passion, anger, and frustration usually pent up after years of being unheard and forgotten. Many of these children's parents do not actively participate in their lives, and not because they do not care, because they work two and three jobs just to make ends meet. There is not PTA to step in the gap and make decisions, to call the school board when something isn't working properly, so it is time for voters to say something is not ok...it is time we stand in the gap. It is time for us who complain of injustice to stop running our mouths and actually take a stand and do something. These are not numbers: they are children. They laugh, they cry, the long to be hugged, to tell someone about their day who thinks they are smart and funny, they want to play. No matter where you go in the world; no matter the race, income, religion, they are children and that is a universal reality. Kids will be kids, and it is time for us to let them be.