Our little community of 4,000 is a great place to live; I raised my own kids here and have always been certain that it was the best possible place for a growing family. We have a liberal arts college in our town, which is how I came to arrive, back in 1968, and I chose never to leave. I’ve always liked the added sense of intellectual contributions to the community; teaching the children of college faculty, staff and alumni has helped to raise the bar of excellence, and our K-8 community school has enjoyed the addition of student interns and volunteers in our classrooms.
I taught in two other districts before I landed here, both of which were towns where economics were not easy, and if you’ve read my other blog articles you already know how much I have loved my work here. In this town, our school budgets have always been strongly supported by the community. (In New Hampshire, state funding of schools is minimal and the major portion of school budgets is funded by individual towns.) When I began teaching here, the community always seemed to me to be somewhat prosperous, at least for the most part. The college brought in some great people, many alumni chose to stay here, held good jobs and contributed to the well-being of the town. Life was good for most, or at least that is how I perceived it.
We take our eighth graders on an annual trip to Washington, DC, and in my first years of awareness of the trip (which was when I wore only a parent hat, not a teacher hat), all students were able to attend. Even during the first years of my employment, all students attended, including a few for whom we provided partial or total scholarship funding. But as the years went by, more and more students needed help, and our resources were stretched farther and farther. In recent years we have had to concede that some students just wouldn’t be able to go, because we couldn’t find the money to help them.
At our December faculty meeting our school nurse announced that this year, more than 25% of our student body is in serious financial crisis. The impact of that information shocked me, but didn’t sink in right away. Gradually as I’ve watched kids since that announcement, I have begun to see the ones coming to school with no winter coat even though the temperature was in the teens or twenties, or pants that didn’t reach their ankles because they had outgrown them, or shoes and no socks. I know that some of that is student choice, especially in the middle school grades. But some of it is not an option, and that is hard to see.
I love my students; I believe in being open-hearted and honest, and finding the good in everyone, but there is something more in the mix this year. Maybe it’s because this is the last class, but I think that’s only part of it. Knowing that finances are tough for a lot of families changes the rules. I think it’s also changing me. I can now visualize a different school in the future, where we might not have the latest technology and all the supplies we could want. I am seeing the possibility where the face of our town has a very different profile than in years past, where our median income is at much lower levels and many families have to choose between heat and food, or medicine.
Of course, it’s possible, as my principal recently opined, that because it’s more “acceptable” for people to ask for help these days, there might not really be a change in our citizenry, just a change in people who are more open about it. I don’t think so. I think the increasing numbers of families who need financial help with the trip to Washington, DC is more telling. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter who is right. It only matters that we have a lot of kids who don’t have winter coats.
So my prayers in this Christmas season have changed their focus. I’m asking for better eyesight, that I might see those in need and find a way to help. I’ve given some money to our school nurse, who makes sure that the children in our school have toys, or winter coats, or whatever is most important to that individual family. I’ve watched my own students and slipped money into some hands to help them out when I know they can’t ask Mom or Dad. And I know that after next June I might not have the financial resources to do as much, but I surely can give my time. I’ll find a way. Everyone can do something.