Class Questions

By Brigid Schulte
Sunday, August 6, 2006

PRETTY, SLEEPY LEXINGTON, VA., IS A TOWN OF CROOKED STREETS, quaint coffee shops and charming old wood-and-brick houses. Nestled side by side among its magnolia trees and azalea bushes are two historic universities, Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University. The Lylburn Downing Community Center is just a few blocks away but in a different part of Lexington -- what's called the black part of town. This area also has narrow streets and rockers sitting on front porches. But it's across an unseen border -- one that students from nearby Washington and Lee, which is nearly 90 percent white, have little occasion to cross.

On an April day, though, seven young women from Washington and Lee arrived at the center bearing food shortly after 3 p.m. They wore short jean skirts and flowing, flowery blouses. Painted toenails glistened under jeweled thong sandals. Up the front entrance stairs they went, carrying industrial-grade stainless steel containers filled with orange slices and roast beef. Their destination was an after-school program for low-income kids. Its director, Tammy Dunn, a short black woman of 41 with an enormous smile, stood on the front stoop, cellphone in hand, waving them in. She stopped the last young woman, the one wearing bluejeans and a gray T-shirt that said, "Teach. Reach. Feed. Lead."

"My buddy!" Dunn said. "My darling!"

Ingrid Easton, a senior, broke into a smile and put her arm around Dunn. She asked about the older woman's family. The two had met the previous year, when Ingrid had volunteered at the center. They'd been friends since, meeting for lunch when they could, catching up on the phone. At first, Dunn assumed Ingrid was just like her, someone who had struggled through poverty and come out on the upside. It took several lengthy conversations to learn that Ingrid is instead a child of privilege: a doctor's daughter who attended exclusive, nearly all-white private schools in Charlotte. Dunn marveled that the girl showed no white guilt, none of the discomfort of the haves around the have-nots. Ingrid, she says, is simply a natural. "It takes a gifted person to be able to sit wherever she goes," says Dunn, who refers to herself as Ingrid's "mother away from home."

Inside the community center swirled the chaos of 15 children cooped up on a nice day. One girl zoomed around the room on purple Rollerblades. A crowd gathered around three computers that booped and blapped as the kids shot down aliens. Others sat at a table, giggling at cellphone messages. One girl sauntered into the maelstrom and slammed down a giant, 32-ounce bottle of cola from the nearby convenience store. She turned to the college women. "What kinda snack you got?" she demanded. "Ice cream?"

The college students, who by now had all put on gray T-shirts like Ingrid's, stood in a pack at the edge of the room, fingering their hairnets and smiling the self-conscious smiles of well-meaning outsiders.

Ingrid left them there and went to sit down next to two little girls. She asked their names. "That's such a pretty name," she said to each one. She asked about school, what they learned and what they liked. Then she asked what they'd had to eat that day.

"Nothing, really," one shrugged.

"I stayed at a motel with my cousin last night," the other said. But before Ingrid could ask anything more, the two ran off.

Ingrid began to organize the college volunteers and the food they'd brought into an assembly line. They made roast beef sandwiches and handed out the orange slices. Then, unflappable, chewing her ever-present wad of gum, she led the kids in a raucous game of Nutrition Jeopardy, making a point to call on the quiet and withdrawn kids -- "Destiny?" "Sierra?" "Colby?" -- even as the loud ones like LaShawn yelled at the others, "It's my turn, fool!"

When the game was over, Ingrid had taught the kids the difference between good fats and bad -- "Sunflower seeds is good fat? I love those!" one boy shouted -- and that there is no such thing as bad protein. She told them she'd be back the next day with another healthy snack and that they would play outside, maybe a game of basketball.

Ingrid has been on family trips to Europe, to the U.S. Open tennis tournament, on ski vacations out West. Growing up, she never gave much thought to the poor, or even saw many people who were. "Downtown Charlotte was just not a place you would go," she says. In her Episcopal church, she'd heard the priest talk about giving alms to the poor, she'd read how Jesus said, "The poor will always be with you." She absorbed the vague notion that if you worked hard, you would have what you need for a good life. So if you were poor, she thought, perhaps you just hadn't worked hard enough.

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