I cried today. And although I often cry, I have never cried in front of the students I teach. But today I cried—for them. For their experiences. For their struggles. For their triumphs. Today I cried in honor of and respect for their personhood.
Today students silently read Jo Goodwin Parker’s 1971 essay “What Is Poverty?” They were required to engage in a 10-minute freewrite response after their reading, and then each were asked to orally share a synopsis of his and her responses. I listened wholeheartedly to each of their experiences, and as I sat on top of the desk at the head of the classroom, I became absolutely overwhelmed with both gratitude and sadness. Sitting there as the head (and at the head of) about 25 college students, I listened to them share their own experiences with poverty, and with each story told, I struggled to deter my tears. My face flushed, my throat tightened, and my heart bashed against my chest walls. “Don’t cry, Kendra,” I repeated to myself. “Do not cry in front of these students.” But with the passing of each students’ story, my emotions overpowered my cerebral demands.
* * *
“I didn’t grow up in poverty,” said one student, “but the author reminds me of myself and my children. I went hungry many nights in order to ensure that my children could eat. And like the author’s children, my kids often took cold baths with no soap, and I had to wash our clothes by hand because I couldn’t afford to go to the laundry mat.”
“I remember being left at my aunt’s house,” said another student. “I told her I was hungry, and so, she told me to go get some cereal. When I opened the cereal box, a bunch of roaches came running out of it.”
Then another student said, “This story reminded me of my mother and made me appreciate her more. I remember wanting markers when I was a little girl. Although markers are not that big of a deal, my mother had to struggle to buy them for me. I was so happy to have those markers that I carried them everywhere I went. I even slept with them.”
“I grew up in Nigeria, and the poverty I experienced there doesn’t compare to what I’ve seen,” said another. “Dead people live in the street gutters and people just walk by them regularly like it’s normal. My grandmother’s bathroom has no walls, so the bathtub literally sits open on the outside.
* * *
While I am fully aware that 99% of FAMU students are on financial aid and that FAMU was founded particularly for the underprivileged and under-represented, I am always taken aback—far, far back—by students’ stories of poverty and homelessness. Their experiences sadden me. Disappoint me. They frustrate and sicken me. How does anyone—myself included—lavishly live in the midst of those suffering in and with poverty? Where is peace and freedom in a world that is fully aware of the poverty that embodies other human beings, but doesn’t do everything in its power to eliminate it?
According to actionagainsthunger.org, global hunger afflicts nearly a billion people worldwide, and every year nearly 3.5 million children die from malnutrition-related causes. And according to trickleup.org, 1.4 billion people live in poverty. In America alone, reports the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 16% of the population is living in poverty—a 2% increase from 2009. And in 2013, child poverty reached record highs with 16.7 million children living in famished households. Also, according to sunshinestatenews.com, Florida is the third poorest state in the nation, with 1 in every 5 Floridians living in poverty; about twenty-two percent of them in Leon County are living in poverty (indexmundi.com). And in my Improving Writing classrooms at Florida A&M University, roughly 98% of students either lived in or experienced some kind of impoverished environment.
I don’t think I can (or even want to) teach another writing class that is not centered on social action. While I have not experienced—ever in my life—hunger and homelessness—I entered into each of my students’ narratives and witnessed their pangs. And it all hurt. Through personal story telling, my students forced me to question my integrity and purpose as a classroom teacher, scholar, and human being. Surely, teaching the research paper, the business proposal, resume, and personal statement—teaching the rules to MLA style and documentation—all have their places in academia and corporate America. But, there’s grace, I think, and loving-kindness, and freedom, and humanity in approaching writing instruction via social action projects.
I wanna save the world. And maybe my effort at doing so is giving students the skill and space to enter into the humanity of themselves and others.