Monday, February 11, 2013

Overalls and Wonder Bread

      This is about Jeff, but first I must briefly explain the times we were in. I was beginning my special education teaching career in the early 1970s, just as they were "emptying the institutions" in Minnesota.  Public Law 94-142 decreed that mentally disabled individuals were entitled to a free public education. State residential institutions began closing and group homes for those individuals opened everywhere. I taught at Emerson School, in Minneapolis, where many group home residents attended. End of history lesson; let me tell you what I learned from Jeff, who was a recent transfer into my class from a closed state institution.
      Jeff was short, chubby, and charming. He had rosy red cheeks and a big toothy smile with a gate-sized gap in the middle. His buzz-cut flat top hair was bright carrot orange and he had an enormous crop of freckles. That friendly grin was his trademark. Well, that grin, along with his striped overalls. They were a carry-over from his first fourteen years of institutional living. Jeff wore overalls every day. Underneath, he donned either a white t-shirt or a gray cable-knit sweater, depending on the weather.
      And then there was that slice of bread. White bread. Wonder Bread; according to Jeff, it was called "Wunnerful Bwead". A single small slice was stuffed into his centered bib overall pocket, right under his chin. Jeff had an overall-type body. You know, a stout rounder physique that was better suited to a pair of overalls than to a belted pair of pants.
     Even though I knew he had a hearty breakfast at the group home before school, Jeff would walk around all morning with his hand held tightly against that pocket.
      "Save for later, when I hungry, " he would say, squishing the pocket even more firmly with his pudgy hand and turning halfway around, like he was protecting it from being confiscated. It seemed enough for him to just have it. It was somewhat like a gastronomic security blanket, and it came into play every day around eleven o'clock in the morning. We would be working on telling time or counting money, and Jeff would start trying to unsnap his front pocket.
     "Wait. I eat, I work good," Jeff would assure me. I would wait. Jeff would eat. Then he would proceed to "work good". Every time. Every day. It was only an hour before lunch, but Jeff was hungry. He could not focus on his lessons at all when he had a rumbling tummy. It was pointless. The easiest thing to do was just give him a minute and let him have his slice of bread.
       This happened at a time in special education when rewards like M&Ms were considered a good reinforcement. Jeff did not want candy. It had to be his magical "Wunnerful Bwead".  The bread wasn't a reward for Jeff, it was essential; he was hungry. Trying to interest him in being a student of time or money was pointless when he was hungry.
      Think about it for just a minute. Time and money are two pretty darn important commodities in our lives. If we could have more time and more money, most of us would be thrilled. Jeff had no interest in hearing about either one when he needed something to eat.
       Students have come into my class over the past thirty years and not one of them as been the same as another. Each student has been unique and special. However, there is one common thread: if they were hungry, they were unteachable.
       As a mother, the thought of a truly hungry child is not acceptable to me, and it's probably not acceptable to you either. I never sent one of my own children to school with an empty stomach, making noises with its own gurgling juices. Who would do that? You would be surprised how regularly it happens. These days, many struggling single moms or dumped-on grandmothers are just lucky to be able to scrape their child out of bed and get them to school in the nick of time.
      And there they sit. Stomachs empty. Maybe with a hunger headache to boot. Not the least bit interested in anything happening in my room. Sure there are free breakfast programs, but sometimes the food is all put away in the lunchroom by the time these tardy, sluggish kids drag themselves through my door.
      I feed them.  No questions asked. A bunch of bananas lounge on the front edge of my desk every day. Just take one; you really don't have to ask. Any time, all day long.  They are not slices of Wonder Bread, but they quell the grumbling tummies and are found on the "approved classroom snack" list. They put kids' minds back in the learning mode, and make them teachable again.
      There is simply no point in a teacher trying to work with a hungry child. Jeff taught me this....he could focus on the lesson, but only when his stomach wasn't demanding his already limited attention. Thanks to Jeff and his "Wunnerful Bwead", I also know this: there is a broad spectrum of reasons which might keep a student from being able to learn under my instruction, but being hungry will NEVER be one. For cryin' out loud, just feed the kids! Bon appetit, Jeff.

PS- This has only a tangential connection to this blog entry, but I include it to demonstrate that even after all my years in the classroom, I can still have "firsts". Last week I received a girl in my classroom, who has only lived in Des Moines since June. She came from Chicago. She had never even held a real banana in her hand before. She had never tasted one. She had absolutely no experience with bananas in the first fifteen years of her life, beyond seeing them in a pile at the grocery store. (We convinced her to take one small bite. She didn't like it.) I keep crackers in my desk drawer now, in case she comes in hungry some day. Nope, I can't make this stuff up!