ARTICLE

See the Riches Students in Poverty Bring

I am intellectually aware of Paola’s poverty. Nine out of 10 students at our school come from families whose income level meets the federal poverty guidelines. Paola, an immigrant from El Salvador, is one of them. The first-grader lives in a small apartment with her grandma, mom, sister and uncle. Combined, the adults earn less than $26,170 a year.

Editor’s Note: Last month, Teaching Tolerance launched a new series of lessons called Issues of Poverty. This week’s featured lesson can be found here.

I am intellectually aware of Paola’s poverty.

Nine out of 10 students at our school come from families whose income level meets the federal poverty guidelines. Paola, an immigrant from El Salvador, is one of them. The first-grader lives in a small apartment with her grandma, mom, sister and uncle. Combined, the adults earn less than $26,170 a year.

Her family’s income means that Paola is likely to suffer from poor nutrition, inadequate health care, an inferior education and a bad future. I’m struggling against her life-crushing poverty with all of the compassion, creativity and commitment within me.

While I’m aware of her poverty, today I celebrate her riches.

Today I see her as Paola, first-grade hero, with compassionate eyes, an intuitive mind and a big heart.

Her teacher introduces a new student, Richard.

“Hi,” Paola whispers to him as he sits down beside her. “I’m glad you’re in our class.”

She doesn’t know the story of the suffering that brings him to our school, but perhaps she recognizes something familiar in his taut face, quivering voice and shaking hands.

“This is your journal. It goes in your desk, like this,” she explains. “These are our crayons and markers. You can use them if you want to. Don’t worry. There’s lots to learn. I’ll help you.”

I’ll help you.

I love that Paola reached out to the new student. I commend her empathy. I can learn from her.

Later that day, I sat beside Paola in the lunchroom.

I asked her what had made her help Richard.

“Oh, I remember when I was the new student,” she said. “And sometimes I feel the way he looked when he sat down beside me. I just wanted to be kind to him. It helps when people are kind to me. He’s my neighbor.”

Yes, I’m aware of Paola’s poverty. But today I’m aware of her riches, too. I curse her poverty and will fight like hell for nutritional aid for low-income mothers-to-be and young children, quality public schools, aid to low-income college students and universal health care. But I’m thankful it hasn’t hardened her heart. I’m thankful her heart is soft and sympathetic to the world around her.

And I’ll follow her example and say, “I’ll help you. I just want to be kind to you,” to all of my suffering neighbors.

Thanks for showing me the way, Paola. 

Barton is an elementary school teacher in South Carolina.