I have worked in Title I schools for the past 23 years. I am amazed that I can still be shocked by the conditions in which so many of our children in America live and try to learn.
When I began teaching in Leeds, Alabama in 1982, I found I was totally unprepared for the situations that the children in my first grade class faced. The poverty, neglect, and abuse that many of my students experienced every day overwhelmed me. I wanted to change the world for them. It took me several years to realize I could not make their world magically change into the happy place we would wish for all our children.
The old feeling of sadness and frustration came to me again a few weeks ago, as I realized how many of our Brighton students are children without a childhood.
For the past few months, employees from Vulcan Materials have worked tirelessly to move and renovate our poor dilapidated playground. What little equipment we had was sitting unsafely on a rocky hill. Through the efforts of these generous volunteers, the playground is now located on a beautiful grassy area and for the first time we have swings for our children. The PTA also purchased a new slide. It is beautiful!
After completing the swings, the volunteers asked for a student to come out and try the swings to check the height and safety. The office sent a fourth grade girl. When she came out and saw everyone at the swings, she immediately said, "I don’t like to swing." Still, they encouraged her, and she sat on of the swings while someone gave her a slight push. She said little and returned to the building.
Later, she confessed to the reading coach that she did not know how to swing—that, in fact, she'd never been on a swing before. I was taken aback. Doesn’t every child know how to swing? Swinging is so much a part of childhood that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about it in his Child's Garden of Verses: How do you like to go up in a swing, Up in the air so blue? Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing, Ever a child can do!
We discovered the swings, purchased long ago, stuffed in a school closet. The reading coach told me that since she began teaching at Brighton (12 years ago), our school had never had swings on the playground.
The next day I went out with the Kindergarten and First Grade classes to introduce them to the swings. About half of the students knew what to do, the others stood quietly and watched, but they all got a turn. It was a thrill to watch their faces as they realized what it meant to swing!
You may think I am making too much of the children having the opportunity to swing. But for me, swinging is the perfect symbol of what childhood should be—a time of freedom and innocence, when the simplest pleasures make the world a joyous place to be.
What grates on my soul is what has replaced swinging and playing and laughing in the lives of many Brighton children. We have good parents in our school who want so much for their kids. But we also have many situations of neglect and abuse. The nine-year old girl we asked to test the swings has reportedly been sexually abused. She and others have rarely had the opportunity to be a child. This is why this playground is important. We want our students to have more of those “common childhood moments” they deserve.
When interviewing prospective teachers for our Title I school, I always tell them that teaching here will be challenging not because our children are difficult to teach, but because so many bring some really abysmal baggage with them to school each day.
I share with them my understanding that school is the best place for many of our students, and we have to commit to make each of our classrooms a haven of safety, as well as an environment that will bring joy and learning into their lives.
This is quite a challenge with all the current mandates, but a necessity when working with children from poverty. You have to provide the swings.
Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—
Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!