Faces of poverty and trauma

This time of year – this time of year when commercial excess is encouraged and expected. A time when non-stop advertisement reminds us that in order for it to truly be the “most wonderful time” of the year, we need to open those wallets and warm up the charge cards. This time of year is filled with sadness and lost hope.

It is a time of year that is filled with resentment and sometimes anger for some of my students. It is a time when life is just not fair.

I can generally gauge the economy by the numbers of children in my classroom who seem hungry. This year, there’s not much guesswork or hypothesis involved. They don’t just seem hungry, they clearly are hungry.

While these students are generally beneath the radar – free and reduced lunch status is not commonly known among teaching staff – there is no hot list of who pays for lunch and who doesn’t. This year, on several occasions, I have been struck by the matter-of-fact, almost accepting manner of parents who have run out of money and who are falling through the social safety net. And who, in desperation, approach me – the teacher of their child – to see if I have any resources they can tap in to.

If this year is any indication, the economy is really bad.

For these children living in poverty, there is no “most wonderful time of the year”. There is only the reality that there will be nothing under the tree – in fact, there won’t be a tree.

In the last week, I have had children acting out and then melting in to tears because they are hungry (I ask now, no sense in hinting around). For several children, whenever a classmate is absent, we tuck the extra bagel, or cereal or graham cracker package into their backpacks.

My mother knits mittens for my students – I have given out every pair, about 10 so far this year. One child came to school so cold he needed to keep his winter coat on (a gift from a generous school benefactor) for more than an hour to ward of the shivers.

These are not the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps families that some disparage. They were the working poor, have seen their jobs disappear, and now watch helplessly as their family begins a descent through the cracks in our safety net.

And the children? These are children for whom the “most wonderful time of the year” is a cruel joke.