I’m dedicating this VEA piece to the parents of the Lower NW DC Education Collective – for their efforts to improve the quality of education in public school, and speaking up for those who haven’t found their advocacy voice yet.
What Luke Didn’t Tell Me
Luke greeted me almost daily, wherever and whenever he spotted me, with “Can I just tell you something?” He was an upbeat, skinny, first-grader with a slight trace of a Vietnamese accent. I adored him, and every little piece of information he had to share with me.
He was in my reading group, and learning rapidly. We saw each other three times a week, for 25-minute sessions. He went out of his way to greet me in the hallways or when I passed through the cafeteria.
Luke was delighted that I always agreed to listen, and told me all sorts of things.
I knew he was excited about the little chicks that were going to hatch in his classroom. I knew which books were on his wish list at the book fair. I learned about an uncle who took frequent trips to Atlantic City; sometimes he came home with gifts, and other times returned in a bad mood.
But Luke never so much as hinted to trouble at home. Or maybe he did, and my intuition was off. It’s the “good” kids that so often get overlooked. Those red flags seem to go up more with students who are misbehaving or not participating. Luke was always so happy, and a hard worker.
So it hit me like a thud when I heard that Mrs. Clark, our PTA president, had seen Luke wandering the neighborhood, “looking through trash bins for food.”
It brought up so many questions.
Was it true? Why was a first-grader wandering around by himself at all? Did an adult tell him to do this? Was the family actually using food from the trash?
Were they really in need, or was it cultural—having recently left a county that so loathed waste and watching their new neighbors throw away perfectly good things. Was this just a case of one man’s trash is another’s treasure?
Though I tried to believe it was a misunderstanding, part of me could actually picture little Luke out and about on his own like that. But I couldn’t grapple with him scavenging for food from the trash.
It’s not what you expect to hear about students in a Fairfax County school, even one that received Title I funding. When we think of poverty here, we don’t think of that kind of dire.
We were all upset to hear this news about Luke. If I am really honest, my first reaction was not how could this be, but rather, why didn’t he tell me? Like adults, our students let some people in, and keep others at bay.
As much as we try, as much as others expect it of us, we cannot possibly know everything about our students. I wish there was another way to say, “It takes a village,” because the phrase has become so overused. But the people at school who jump into action for children like Luke are testament to it.
Really, if it weren’t for Mrs. Clark, we might not have known anything. We sometimes joke about people like her, the uber-involved parent, with her children in the gifted and talented program, her part-time business, her mini van, and those (delicious) homemade cookie bars.
In a different neighborhood, in another era, she might have pretended not to see Luke, for fear of embarrassing his family, or just not wanting to “get involved.” But she did.
When people with financial stability and the knowledge of how the system works speak up for their children’s classmates when something is wrong, they take a step in creating more equity in our schools. They help create a sense of community responsibility.
I always believed my school in Northern Virginia to be a model community for a Title I school. Children of different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds formed close friendships. It was a safe place, with supportive and involved parents, even those struggling to make ends meet.
Yet despite this close-knit community, certain families will always remain more outspoken, and seemingly in control at meetings. To encourage everyone to feel more comfortable becoming involved (and seeking help) we started coffee klatches, one in Spanish and one in Vietnamese.
Though I was tempted to find out more, I never asked Luke about his dumpster-diving. I figured if he wanted to tell me something, he would when he was ready. He was in good hands with the support staff at school, who worked closely with his family, guiding them through available resources.
So I treated Luke the way he probably wanted me to—as if I didn’t know everything.
But I did go out of my way to greet him throughout the day, and I relished his “can I just tell you something?” a little more.