For years, I taught in the No Child Left Behind program in central Connecticut. I worked with underprivileged children in the inner city and went into the homes of every kind of student with every kind of background imaginable. My job was to make sure my students passed their classes so they could move on to the next grade level. The failure and dropout rates in the city were extremely high.
When I first started working in the program, I was reluctant to go to most of the neighborhoods assigned to me. I was warned about the gangs and violence, and before I even left my house, I was nervous and felt unsafe.
To get to the home of my first two students, who were brother and sister, I drove through streets that looked more like war zones. I couldn’t believe some of them were actually neighborhoods where people lived. They were filled with dilapidated homes with broken and bordered up windows. Many had squatters living inside. Some roads had cars that were left abandoned, stripped of tires and anything that appeared to have even the smallest of value. It was early March and Daylight Savings time had not yet begun. My students didn’t get home from school until 3:30 p.m., so I scheduled Carlos’ tutoring at 4:00 p.m. and Maria’s at 5:30. They were seven and nine, respectively. Each was to have an hour and a half tutoring session twice a week. It would be dark when I left their home, which made me feel uncomfortable.
It was warm the day I arrived for the first tutoring session. Several boys were outside playing basketball in the street. Others were riding their bicycles on the sidewalk. And some girls were playing hopscotch just beyond where the boys were playing. I tried to park my car directly in front of the tenement where my students lived, but it wasn’t possible. The only parking space I could find was a block away. Walking to my student’s home at that hour wasn’t too bad, but the walk back already had me feeling nervous. It would be dark at seven o’clock. And the street would be dark and desolate.
Looking around, I had never seen abject poverty like this before in my life. But the children didn’t appear to be unhappy. They were playing with complete abandon. They laughed as though they were the happiest kids in the world. Who knows. Maybe they were.
When I got out of my car, the children stopped playing and stared at me. I was dressed in my standard teaching attire – a casual business suit and briefcase. Maybe too official looking, I thought. Their backs were straight, and no one uttered a word. Totally on guard. I walked up to the boys and said, “Hi guys. Perfect day for a game of basketball. If I was dressed for it, I might like to join you. I’m looking for Carlos and Maria Ramos. I’m their teacher. Do you know where they live?” I didn’t expect the sudden and dramatic change in their demeanor. The boys visibly relaxed. They smiled and talked to me like I was their teacher. I had their respect. It surprised me.
I was welcomed with hellos and smiling faces every time I visited Carlos and Maria. Many of the younger kids anticipated my visits and waited for me to arrive. In the Spring, I often sat outside on the stoop and read stories to them. It took a little while, but I finally eased up and allowed myself to enjoy the experience. These were happy kids – not unlike any other child I had ever worked with. Even the adults were nice. I became friendly with many of the parents. The only difference between these people and the people you’d meet in an average or well-to-do neighborhood in America is that they were poor. Very poor. Other than that, they were the same. What they say is true, money doesn’t buy you happiness. The people who lived in the inner city where I worked were living proof of it.