I used to be poor. OK, I’m still poor, just not the same kind of poor. I used to be the kind of poor that wasn’t just living check-to-check but living way beyond my means just to get my family’s basic needs met. I didn’t have cable or a cellphone or new clothes. There was no place I could cut my spending to make ends meet. Nor was there a single luxury I could forgo to afford those extra expenses that pop up when you have kids… like school supplies and field trips.
So when the long list of school supplies would arrive in the mail a few weeks before the start of the school year or when a permission slip for a costly field trip would come home during the year, I’d cry. I wanted so badly to be able to afford these things for my child. I felt like I’d failed her.
Some people say I should not have had a child if I couldn’t afford to buy everything she needed. They shake their fists at requests from their kids’ teachers for extra supplies, mumbling obscenities between assertions that they work hard for their money. They believe that all it takes is hard work and that even those born into the most impoverished conditions can climb their way out.
They are the same parents who write their child’s name boldly on every box of crayons they buy because they spent a whole dollar of hard-earned money on them (I’m actually surprised they don’t carve their child’s name into every individual crayon) and then get angry when they discover that many teachers just throw all the supplies into a community pile at the beginning of the year.
These are the parents who thought that my child didn’t deserve supplies at all if I couldn’t afford it. And I wonder, what exactly did they want? For me to go to the money tree and grab a few leaves for a box of crayons? For my child to just show up without pencils and paper? To just sit there? Because as long as she is seated in a desk every day, she technically has the opportunity to learn, right? Who cares if she actually has the supplies necessary to do all the work?
To these people, a child’s right to an education in this country goes only as far as there being a building called “school” that they can sit in every day. Everything else — supplies, field trips, band, etc. — is extra and should be provided by the parents. If the parents can’t provide it, they should have never had kids.
But then there are others — the parents who buy extra supplies and contribute extra field trip funds without complaint. They do this often without even receiving a thank-you.
But I would like to thank them.
Because of them, my daughter never got bad marks on her report card simply because she didn’t have the supplies to finish a project. Because of them, her economic class never meant she didn’t get to do science projects, learn to write or make art.
And it’s because of them that all of our children actually got to do some pretty neat things in school, because many teachers won’t put a project on the curriculum if there will be supply issues.
And they don’t complain that their kids won’t get special supplies to lose on the bus or day care or an after-school activity. They happily buy multiple sets of basic supplies to be thrown into the class pile. They understand that the crayons, calculators, markers and paper are tools for learning and that kids will learn whether the crayons are Crayola or RoseArt and whether or not they have a crayon case with their name on it.
The truth is that we, as a society, don’t put enough money into our education system. All of this really should be paid for by our taxes. The United States is supposed to be the land of equal opportunity. But it isn’t. If it were, parents wouldn’t need to buy any school supplies at all. Maybe someday we’ll be the country we always claim to be. Until then, I hope there are always people stepping up and pitching in for the things taxes don’t cover. And if you’re one of them, I thank you.
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