By: Victoria Bell

In a Spartan duplex in the Arkansas Delta, my alarm greets me with a screech at 6 am. My muscles fight against waking, but I force myself out of bed and jump into a cold shower. I throw breakfast together. This morning it’s an egg over-easy, half an avocado, and a mixed fruit salad. As I’m eating, my mind floats back to last week at the elementary school:

“He doesn’t speak any English,” the teacher cautions me when I walked past a little boy. I visited the art room so I could sharpen my pencils to decorate for ten students who would be in my classroom when Freedom School officially started. The little boy was struggling to understand the teacher as she explained what he was supposed to color on the “C” sheet. He was learning his alphabet in association with words like cat, cow, and cake. I crouched down next to him and said “Hola, Jose.” His eyes widened as he looked at me with intrigue. “Que es eso?” I asked him “What is this?” as I pointed at the gato. “Cat” he whispered as he grinned back at me.

I smile as I recall this and pack my lunch for the day. I collect my lesson plans and walk to the car, but I have to return to the house to lock the door (something I’m not much accustomed to doing in Lexington). As I pull out of my driveway, I wave to a neighbor sitting on her porch sipping coffee. Rural Arkansas has a relaxed feeling to it. No one seems to be in a rush to do anything.

I graduated from public high school in a rural community on the other side of the state that has many similarities to Phillips County. Before arriving in Marvell, I envisioned low-quality houses piled densely into a little community similar to impoverished communities seen in Costa Rica or China. When I first pulled into the city limits, however, I saw the flat land of the delta filled with crops, a handful of posh houses along the highway, and a single Dollar General. The image of the shanty town I had braced myself for was not to be found. As I look out my window, I see vast acreages of corn and soybeans. Agriculture largely drives the local economy. As agriculture became more technologically driven, there was an accompanying decline in need for manual labor in the fields. Unfortunately, many local residents subsequently lost their jobs and were unable to find new ones.

I pull into the elementary school and students greet me as they walk over from “The Manor,” colloquially referred to by the students as “the projects.” Every morning we start out with breakfast and then transition into the opening activity called “Harambee” which means “all pull together” in Swahili. We sing together, do chants, get fired up for Freedom School, and share announcements with the scholars (how we refer to students). This morning, I sit back silently and listen to the kids sing “Something Inside So Strong” by Kenny Rogers. I look at the scholars around me and picture the same group ten years down the road. How many of them would be parents, doctors, teachers, or felons?

In the past, my classroom interaction with students has been limited to an active observer and assistant. Never have I been the one in charge of a group of ten pre-adolescent students. And until now, never have I been the only white person in a room. My meagerly raised voice does little to unsettle their desensitization to daily verbal scolding by their school year teachers.

Today in class, we discussed Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. We constructed Japanese Kimonos, and I wrote a few Chinese characters on the board to expose the scholars to something different. As the class noticed what I had written on the board it was like the room had been sucked free of air. A river of questions flooded me: “What does this mean? How do you write it? How do you say it? Can you draw it on my paper?” This was a powerful moment for me. Not only did some of these scholars have a want for food at home, these scholars were hungry for knowledge.

In Poverty 101, we talked a lot about how most Americans are in poverty for only a short period of time. In Marvell, however, the poverty is deep and intergenerational. No doubt about it: poverty is sticky. Sometimes all it takes to break free of a little bit of that stickiness is being clued into another way of thinking. Poverty most rudimentarily defined is the lack of basic necessities for survival. Yet in this small-town community, there is more at play. From my perspective, a lot of the poverty here is in the limited pool of people committing their lives to expecting more from the young people, rather than defaulting to stereotypes.

A few weeks into the internship, I asked one of my students if she would be interested in riding her bike with me after school. This eleven year old girl, nearly my height and extremely obese, is the same girl who hurled racial slurs in class and threw punches during recess. Yet, she was enthusiastic about spending time with me outside of the classroom on a bike. As our relationship developed, she opened up about her home life, and my heart broke for this little girl. She later stopped coming to Freedom School, but I ran into her and her family at the Laundromat, and we did our laundry side-by-side. When I privately encouraged her to ask her aunt if she could come back to Freedom School, every hope I had was shattered when the aunt scolded her for asking.

In the evening, I return home to do an Insanity workout with my housemates (our form of entertainment on a $14 a day budget) and cook dinner. As the day comes to an end, I collapse into bed physically and mentally exhausted.

For the most part, the youth in this community know no differently than what they observe around them. I saw students come into my classroom and share dreams of aspiring to become doctors, lawyers, and professors only to witness those dreams be smothered by adults, often times unwittingly. In order to break the cycle of this type of poverty, students have to be motivated to develop their perspective of the world around them and know that educating themselves is fundamental to future success.

This is where I believe our current model of public education fails the student. Rather than encouraging creativity, fostering an environment where students can build upon their strengths, and focusing our attention on the individual in the classroom, we focus on numbers and theory. Elliot Eisner responds to this failure by suggesting “what we ought to be doing in schools is increasing the variance in student performance while escalating the mean.” The reality is that each student starts out from a different place. Instead of trying to stuff each student into a cookie cutter model of “success,” I argue that, despite our resistance to doing so, it is time for a serious overhaul in our approach to education as a nation.

In Marvell, I witnessed a combination of a terrible job market and depleted motivation to create and think outside the box. People come and go in this community all of the time, and the students have come to expect these transient relationships. As a result, outsiders’ advice (often times rooted in subjective opinions about a particular population) is not readily trusted. While working with the scholars, I grew to wish that I could be a part of their lives throughout their regular school year so I could motivate them to find a road to creating prosperity for themselves. It’s difficult to see youth think there is only one way of life for them. I entered this internship hoping to make a substantial influence on the community as a whole but now know that deeply impacting a smaller area like my students’ lives has a much more substantial and lasting effect. To deracinate deeply rooted intergenerational poverty, it takes time, hard work, personal investment, and genuinely caring about people.
Victoria Bell is senior at Washington and Lee University majoring in Politics with minors in Education Policy and Poverty and Human Capability Studies. She wrote about her summer experience through the Shepherd Poverty Alliance  and was very generous to share it with Getting Smart.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article!!!! I taught English as a Foreign Language in mainland China for almost 9 years. I am currently in my student teaching (DT) in American public school, and I am experiencing exactly what you’ve written about here. I am so frustrated with public school and what goes on there. I have read a couple of John Taylor Gatto’s books, and I totally agree with him about what is going on and also NOT going on, in public schools. I would like more information about Freedom School.

  2. Jonathan, I would love to hear more about your experiences teaching English in China as well as in American public schools. What kind of differences between the Chinese and American public education systems have you observed? Also, which of Gatto’s books have you read/would recommend? I worked with Freedom School for two months over the summer. You can read more about Freedom School here: http://www.childrensdefense.org/programs-campaigns/freedom-schools/about

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