In my classroom at Lancaster High School, I have arranged the seating into six rows with five desks each. This is the only way I can fit all thirty of my students in my 5th block Speech class into the room. The desks face the white boards which span the length of the wall. In the back of the room, there is a cork board about six feet long and four feet high. A sheet of faded blue construction paper is stapled to it. Eight by eleven inch rectangles of dark blue checker the paper, remnants of student work once displayed but since removed. I have placed a table beneath these traces of people from the past.
Years of avoiding the attention of their teachers has taught students to seek out the back of the class, so I establish my presence amongst those least inclined to acknowledge it. I keep my over-sized IBM ThinkPad on the table in the back, along with any pens, papers, and various other materials I aspire to use during class time. From this base of operations, I conference with individual students and simultaneously monitor the Chromebooks of everyone else.
I keep my phone, an iPhone 6s with a badly cracked screen, tucked away in a drawer in my desk at the front of the room. I only take it out during planning and lunch. After lunch one day, I slip it back into my pocket instead of my desk. The bell rings, it’s sixth block Speech now, the last class of the day. The students come bursting in from lunch. I calm them, get them seated.
As I begin teaching, I can feel the thin rectangle pressing against my thigh. The friction irritates me as I move about the classroom. After assigning their daily vocabulary exercises, I pass by my table to remove the unwanted device from my pocket. Then I go about my rounds, stopping at the desk of each student to see how I might help. In truth, if I don’t constantly remind them of my watchful presence, then they forget about me and quickly begin doing whatever they please.
A student in the front of the room raises her hand and calls my name. I go to her, glancing down to read the question on the fill-in-the-blank worksheet giving her trouble. But before I can offer her any guidance, another question comes hurtling from the back of the room .
“Yo Mr. M, if your phone’s broke, how come you don’t buy a new one?”
“Because I’m poor,” I say.
“How can you say you poor?” asks a different student, “if you wear different clothes everyday?”
I look at the source of the second question. It comes from a bulky football player whose considerable build belies his youth. I open my mouth to protest, but no words come out.
“And you wear different dress shoes everyday,” adds a third student, the tall son of a preacher.
“Not everyday. I only have three pairs of dress shoes, and they were all gifts.”
I rarely hold the attention of the entire class for more than a few seconds. Now I see every face in the room directed at me. I have broken an unspoken rule of American culture; never bring attention to the shameful differences between classes.
“But you’re right, I’m not poor. I shouldn’t have said that.”
A few students laugh, soft chatter fills the room, but the focus remains on me.
“I meant that I make a lot less money than people with the same degree of education as myself. I’m not poor, but I still can’t afford a new phone. And I’ve held onto that phone for four years now, the longest I’ve ever gone without losing a phone. I’m emotionally attached to it,” I say with a smile.
More laughter follows and the mood of the room lightens.
“What kinda shoes are those?” asks a girl with a waist-length, braided weave.
She frequently sleeps in class and has yet to turn in a single assignment.
“Oh they’re Izods. These were a gift from my brother.”
She nods with approval.
“I like those. What about those gray ones you wear?”
“Uhh, Mark somethings, I can’t remember.”
“Maybe, that sounds right.”
It turns out Mark Fischer only makes women’s shoes. My shoes are by Mark Nason. But it is the first time I’ve been able to develop any sort of rapport with this girl, beyond asking her to stay in her seat or stay awake. I find some joy in that.
Our exchange about my shoes prompts the students to begin discussing their own favorite brands. We continue on with class until the final bell. After the last student disappears through the door into the hallway, I keep thinking about that question.
How can you say you poor?
I can’t, of course. I have never experienced poverty and I have never interacted much with people who live in poverty. As a result, my conception of poverty and those who live in it is a mere abstraction, construed through the lens of my liberal, middle-class, sensibility. I have since learned that poverty is concrete. Poverty is the student asleep at his desk, the fights in the hall, and insults muttered under the breath. But poverty is poetry written by my students, honoring the hard-working matriarchs who hold their families together. Poverty is food always shared without having to ask.
It is strange that this thing I have never known, that my students have always known, has become both our burden and motivation. I suppose that in the wealthiest country in the world, poverty is a series of contradictions; dark shades from the past hanging over our heads, shaping our perceptions.