Education featured Poverty

Sometimes you just need to listen: a letter about going to school hungry and exhausted

So yesterday I was subbing at my local high school and during our lunch break, a conversation ensued about poverty, child poverty and students and their families getting by.

The conversation commenced when one teacher, a very fair-minded and sensitive soul, talked about how his patience was pushed when he overheard a student deriding “the folks down at Tim Hortons who were on social assistance.” The student opined that they should have to do a test before they get any financial help.

It brought to my mind the catastrophe in Ireland of the 1840s when we had a famine: over a million people died and a million plus emigrated (thus explaining those who have Irish ancestors and who have Irish last names).

In Ireland (and Great Britain) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were workhouses where paupers were incarcerated and often had to work for their upkeep: laundry and such like for women, rock breaking for the men – the gravel to be used on the proverbial roads to nowhere (there were other physical jobs done, too).

It was a compulsory activity to ensure that you realised that your upkeep in the workhouse was not desirable. In fact, one of the stipulations of the workhouse was that conditions were deliberately worse inside than outside as a sort of disincentive to prevent entering the workhouse for aid.

Back to 2019, the conversation in our eating space/staff room moved to another teacher, this one of grade 9, 10, 11 and 12, telling us of how she had assigned students to do a write-up en francais entitled “My Favourite Space,” suggesting it could be the beach, the cottage, a coffee house or maybe a destination, Florida, Cancun, Cuba, Dominican or wherever. The parameters were wide open, open to imagination, unrestricted and unlimited.

The teacher told us she had received the usual fare: cottages, beaches, holiday resorts and the like. Then she was was knocked for six when she read one assignment which, as she started to read, she thought was probably about being in a bedroom, secluded, with books, magazines, devices, music etc.

Imagine her shock when she realized it was the attic, and the reason it was the student’s favourite space was because power was turned off at nightfall. The room had an attic window that let in streetlight and moonlight (free of charge!)

The teacher was startled by the fact that such deprivation existed in small-town Nova Scotia (sorry if that adjective seems offensive, but that is where I live).

The first teacher articulated that he wasn’t that shocked (saddened yes, surprised no). I concurred with him; he went onto to say that he had solid evidence that the biggest concerns among students from lower socio-economic spectrum in our county were poverty and drugs

I agreed, saying that is why one of our colleagues (yes I am a substitute, but still a teacher) was spending her lunch break manning the school pantry.

I grew up in a family of six children with a father who worked as a plasterer among other manual jobs, and a mother who worked hard as a nurse (until she was laid off due to health cuts in 1980s’ Ireland – sounds familiar).

I know what it was like to get by: with a mother who worked hard, valued education and tried to budget for everything on a low (and hard-earned) income. This was a time when it was the husband’s name on the bank account and a woman’s place was if not in the home than the second of the two names on any accounts (and that was not an alphabetical occurrence).

I can relate to those children who come to school hungry or at least not satiated. And we all know or should know about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And if you are a non-teacher who perhaps has the eye or ear of the provincial government and/or the Liberals/PCs/NDP/Green etc, you can search it online.

My point is that those students who come to school hungry, exhausted, cold, poorly attired will find it difficult to learn, study and excel academically (and socially).

As a sub, I see students coming with devices of all kinds and none, the latest fashions and brands and generic Frenchy’s hand-me-downs (and this is NOT a dig on thrift stores and the like). Some students come to school in such a state of fatigue, you have to wonder (again there are other reasons why including gaming etc) how they function.

Life is not easy for kids in 2019 Nova Scotia, and our provincial government is not making it any easier; a hungry stomach accentuates resentment and a sense of frustration; why worry about equations when your stomach is grumbling or you can feel the wind tug on your sweater, climb down your spine with every breeze (don’t talk to me about punctuation. Period).

Now I am not (thank God) in a parlous state financially, although I wouldn’t exactly say I am minted. I get by and I have an income. Watching CTV Atlantic, I see the care workers in New Brunswick fighting for the right to strike on an income of about $14 per hour. These people serve the most vulnerable of society, and to my mind, they are heroes of the healthcare, the bedrock upon which many are reliant. In education, we have EAs who work hard and provide invaluable help in the classrooms, the halls, the cafeterias and (depending on the needs of students) the washrooms.

Sometimes, I think we forget the struggle that many in this education system make; how thousands of dollars dropped on Glaze (for example, so much money for such a short duration with almost preordained – or scripted – results) and the like. Things like $2 million on ferries and border guards of other countries, etc could serve our students so much more effectively.

I know, I know: provincial and federal governments are supposed to be separate, but we need to ask our politicians of whatever political stripe what kind of Canada and Nova Scotia do they want to see post-2019?

It one that truly serves all people, the have-nots and the haves, the poor and the not so poor? Remember this and do your duty: ask politicians the important questions.

The politicians need to listen.

See also: As poverty and child poverty decline Canada–wide, Nova Scotia bucks the trend

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  1. This is a great article and child poverty is on the rise in this province….

  2. A very thoughtful and accurate article on the conditions in public schools in Nova Scotia. There are many pockets of “hidden” poverty in this province that need attention. By hidden I mean not obvious to many people but astute teachers pick up on it. They see it, they feel it in their hearts and often do whatever they can to address any needs they possibly can fill – through various community based organizations and from their own funds. If only the government would actually listen and spend money wisely instead of hand-picked specialists – we could all make a difference together. Our students need direct support ; not misconstrued information to try to make the public believe they made improvements and most certainly not programs that were not desperately needed. We are an intelligent bunch in this province – far too complacent at times intelligent.

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