Willie never had braces, but it didn’t impact his brilliant smile. The woman facing me across the table had lots of them, shiny and silver and they made her draw her lips and wipe her tongue across the front of them sometimes when she talked. Her blonde hair and her thirty-something blue eyes flashed as she made her case. She was at my meeting to argue for some of the Title I money. She wanted it for her child’s school. She puled and she whined and she insisted that it was unfair for her child to be so deprived.
I found her attitude of entitlement repugnant. Here was a woman of privilege fighting for the scraps meant for the underprivileged. Here was a woman who measured all children as equal once they were inside the school house door. Here was a woman who probably spent more on her elaborate wedge hair cut than many families in poverty spend on a week’s groceries. Her rings flashed and her bracelets jingled as she elaborated on the flawed federal law that restricted Title I money to the poorest schools.
I wanted her to know what she didn’t know. I wanted to teach her about poverty and about how children aren’t all equal when they arrive at school. So I told her about Willie.
I was a teacher years before in an inner city school and I taught fourth grade the year that Willie was in my class. My school was in the inner city and served children from one of the most poverty stricken areas in California, it was called North Richmond. This is a place that white people did not go if they knew what was good for them. It was a sad, desperate and violent place where drugs and gangs prevailed in a hideous cycle that killed most of the males and enslaved anyone who didn’t find a way out. Willie lived there with his mother and his younger brother and sister.
Willie was a special kid and I pray for him still today. I trust that God saved Willie, because I was powerless to do so. He was a great kid, smart, and a good writer. He was on the school wrestling team and like most of the kids in that neighborhood Willie was a tough guy. But he wasn’t mean.
One day Willie suddenly stopped coming to class. His absences continued for about two weeks and when I inquired at the office about Willie I was told that he had been picked up by Protective Services. It seemed that Willie’s mother had disappeared and left the children. Willie’s mother was a crack addict. I looked into the eyes of Miss Braces as I told the story and she was clearly unmoved and disgusted about the crack habit. I could imagine the valium in her purse tugging at her mind.
I went on to explain that I knew Willie’s mother cared about her children. Despite being an obvious addict, this woman had kept her appointment with me for the annual parent teacher conference, she had come in with impenetrable black glasses and she sat in a chair opposite me. She sat turned away from me, with her back to me, and I imagined that she did so out of shame at her condition. She was skeletal and extremely lethargic, but she came, and she sat and she talked about her son Willie. She cared about his future, but she deeded his future to the school and to me.
Willie was discovered two weeks after his mother left. He and his brother and sister were continuing to live in the apartment alone. Throughout that two week period Willie continued to come to school. He continued to get his younger siblings to school. He fed them and he cared for them and he waited for his mother to return. He did this in spite of the fact that the power was turned off. Willie was an intelligent little boy. He knew that a neighbor had a credit account down at the corner grocery store. So Willie charged groceries to that account to feed his brother and sister, he bought candles to give them light to do homework, Willie knew how to survive. But the neighbor discovered what was going on and why. That’s when Willie and his little family were picked up.
Most of the people in the room had tears in their eyes when I told this story. But not Miss Blonde in Braces, she was merely content to let the topic drop. But she was clearly annoyed that she’d been outflanked by a story about a poor little boy who lost his mother to crack.
It was a powerful truth in the room that Miss Blonde in Braces didn’t feel the story, would not allow Willie’s life to penetrate her arrogance. Willie had to skirt the gangs on the way to school. Willie had to steal to feed his brother and sister. Willie got his homework done in spite of his mother being high or simply absent. Willie was a lot stronger than most kids but he didn’t start at the same starting line as the children born of Miss Braces. Willie started several laps behind her children.
Title I is meant to raise the opportunities inside the school house door for children like Willie. Schools can’t change home circumstances but additional resources can enrich what happens at school. Kids like Willie deserve some help from those of us with enough money for cosmetic orthodontics and expensive haircuts. The Willies of this world didn’t choose their life circumstances. If Willie’s neighborhood got him, if he succumbed to drugs or violence, we all lost someone special.