Sunday Reflections: They Don’t Care About Your Test Scores, They Are Just Trying to Survive
Each time I sit in the Teen MakerSpace and talk with my teens, I learn something new. It’s a revelation to have them trust you enough to pull back the curtain on their lives and see the struggles they face. In an ideal world, every policy maker, every politician, every corporation would have to take some time to talk to kids and teens to find out who they really are and what their lives are really like. Maybe then we could change the course of dialogue happening in our country today, particularly the way we talk about poverty.
M leaned over the table trying to make a paper ninja star as she talked to us. For about the 1 billionth time she pushed her glasses back up against her face as they kept sliding down her face. One of the other teens asked if she needed to wear glasses, trying to suggest that maybe she could take them off. But no, she assured us, if she wanted to see then she needed to wear the glasses.
“Actually, you just need to get them adjusted,” I said, “I wear glasses and I can see that they don’t fit you properly on your nose, which is why the keep sliding down.”
It was then that she shared with us all that she got free glasses once a year from a local eye doctor who provided that service for the community and it wasn’t that time of year yet for her to get a replacement or adjustment. This is the reality of her life.
Three weeks ago I was in Ohio when The Mr. called me and told me that Thing 2 had been in a bicycle accident. Just the week before she had learned to ride her bike, a hand me do from an older neighbor kid, without her training wills. I was lucky, I got to be there that day to witness her triumph (I miss a lot because I work in another state). On this particular evening, she had crashed and smashed her nose first into the handlebars and then into the pavement.
“Is she okay?” I asked, full of anxiety, concern and guilt.
“I think she is, her nose is really bleeding and I’m kind of worried that it might cause her problems breathing in the middle of the night. I’m going to watch her closely,” he replied.
I begged and I pleaded and finally he agreed to take her to the emergency room. It was the concern about her ability to breathe that gave me pause. But the truth is, we always hesitate to take our kids to the emergency room because even with insurance we know that those bills are going to put us into a place of financial crisis.
He finally relented and it turned out that she had a minor concussion and a small fracture in her nose. They cleaned it out real well so that she could breathe and The Mr. was instructed to keep her home from school, limit her physical activity to prevent further damage to her nose, and to follow concussion protocol.
And last week – the bills started to come.
Several years ago I sat in a room with a group of thirteen teens who were a part of their local National Honor Society for a program. They began to talk cruelly about another student at the school who had “jacked up teeth” as they described it. “Has it ever occurred to you,” I asked, “that this kid might not have any money and insurance and doesn’t get to go to the dentist?” It was a question that, thankfully, gave them all pause. They thought long and hard about what they knew about this student, what they wore to school, and realized that yes, this kid probably was very much struggling financially. I was proud because in that moment this small group of teens seemed to be open to thinking about their privilege and I like to think it was a small discussion that opened their eyes.
The other day, a teacher friend of mine was lamenting on Facebook the lack of parental involvement in the life of their high school students. Academic success, they reminded us all, is tied in with parental involvement. But let me posit this: some parents – many parents – have less involvement because their lives are structured in a way that does not support parental involvement. Shift work, mandatory over time, multiple part-time jobs with no benefits or time off – these are all factors that make it challenging for families to be, well to be a family. As family values politicians encourage us all to hold the family dinner sacred, they also pass policies which make it impossible for families to have those very family dinners, and then they lambast parents for not being able to show up to a parent-teacher conference.
The way we talk about teens, parents, families and poverty is all wrong. The families I know that are living in poverty or low-income families are some of the hardest working families I know, but they can’t get ahead. They can’t find solid ground. They are losing hope, full of stress and despair, and doing everything they can to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads. They struggle to balance schedules and panic whenever a curve ball is thrown their way. They are the bread and butter of our country and yet our country tramples them every time it passes a bill that benefits business over people.
And then their are the children. These are children born into areas facing incredible challenges and the tools they need to succeed simply aren’t there because we’re too busy focusing on stereotypes of lazy adults and not considering how our actions and policies affect children. It perpetuates a cycle, these kids and teens aren’t given access to the tools and resources they need to survive, let alone thrive. Schools are failing, not because of bad teachers but because of bad policies and a lack of funding. Their neighborhoods are crumbling around them as crime rates and drug use rise.
And then we poison their water, make their parents stay late to work extra hours in a business that doesn’t even pay a livable wage, and send them home alone to fend for themselves in barely furnished homes with empty cupboards. And then we ask why they aren’t doing better on test scores, as if test scores are all that matter. They don’t care about our tests because they are trying to survive.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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