I have a plan: Let’s not tell poor families about public school opportunities that are affordable only for wealthy families. We need poor folks to keep wearing the contentment mask.
Instead of a middle school teacher spending 30 minutes of class selling a $2,500 spring-break field trip to Florida, we should remove the poor children from the room — perhaps give them a lesson on thrifty shopping. This will keep less-affluent students from going home full of dolphin dreams, only to have a parent say, “No way. We can’t afford that.”
Although, this may delay the important lesson that our society takes much better care of the wealthy because poor children are less important.
This will save me from having to explain to my oldest daughter that the Florida trip costs more than three-quarters of the money we take home monthly. I won’t have to tell her that for the 25 percent of our community living in poverty, the trip will be nearly impossible.
Our daughter’s magnet school in Lynchburg is named for the great Harlem Renaissance poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The school’s mascot is the Poet, and the school caters not only to its low-income neighborhood but also to the most affluent areas.
At an informational meeting for the trip, we learned that even though it was presented to students as a field trip, it isn’t an official school trip, and the trip isn’t given the same guidelines and oversight that are required of official trips. In short, the school isn’t liable, and nobody is keeping track of how many low-income families have gone on these trips.
I’m glad teachers want the best for students, but schools need to consider the implications of using school time and resources to support a trip whose biggest lesson is the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Dunbar’s most famous poem, “We Wear the Mask ,” speaks for and to African Americans about hidden suffering and disguised truth. The problem with trips such as this is that they get masked with “school field trip” and “millions in scholarships.”
Trip organizer WorldStrides told me that my family of five’s lower-middle-class income, bouncing in the $50,000 to $60,000 range, qualifies us for a $120 discount. I laughed. A family earning about $38,000, Lynchburg’s median income, would garner a $360 scholarship.
More than the token discount, these scholarships, and their accompanying fundraising suggestions, allow WorldStrides (and similar groups) to appear as though they’re providing an equally accessible opportunity. The local teachers, who often get free trips, become a motivated sales force, providing contact to students and credibility for the trip.
One mom at the meeting suggested that trips like this should be presented to parents, and maybe the PTA, long before they’re marketed to students. When the local teacher discussed finances, he freely compared the trip to official school activities, and when discussing the governing organization and oversight, he insisted that the trip was not connected to the school and that the teachers were not acting as school employees.
This was problematic and confusing, and our shared responsibility to ensure equal access for students in our public schools becomes even more complicated.
Dunbar, in his novel “The Sport of the Gods,” writes: “What Joe Hamilton lacked more than anything else in the world was some one to kick him. Many a man who might have lived decently and become a fairly respectable citizen has gone to the dogs for the want of some one to administer a good resounding kick at the right time. It is corrective and clarifying.”
Sometimes the system is Joe Hamilton, and it needs a corrective kick.
The writer is a poet and professor of English at Randolph College.