I am often shocked by the length of supply lists that schools now publish and “require” their students to bring to class. 40 years ago supply lists were not so extensive. A fifth grade list would usually include two pencils, an eraser, a ruler, paper, and 1 ball point pen. I remember that at least one year the request included the demand that every student have a protractor. I was young and not too experienced and one young lady in my class was able to come up with some used pencils, a pen and ruler and paper but no protractor. I eventually bought her one with my own money which teachers have been doing since the beginning of modern education. I remember that even though I bought her one I leaned on her pretty hard about the protractor, in retrospect way too hard, telling her that surely her mom could make the effort to buy her a 5 cent(yeah I’m old) protractor. She replied simply and with no rancor that, “her mom wouldn’t spend the money on anything like that.” I was incredulous and probably publicly, to my shame, questioned her story in an attempt to shame her into bringing a protractor.
Later that fall she missed her bus and I gave her a ride home…… back then male teachers could actually give a child a ride home without fear of future accusations and a potential job loss. I discovered that she lived in a 3 room, asphalt shingle sided, broken back shack with her three brothers, mother and father in the local “wrong side of the tracks” everyone called dog-patch. The shack had a deeply rutted dirt driveway and only two glass windows left that weren’t boarded up. A shattered front door with various pieces of wood nailed to it holding it together and the remains of two junk cars, a graying collapsed garage, and an old refrigerator in the yard. A ratty and torn old sofa sat on the sagging and rotted-out front porch adding to the picture of abject poverty which was completed by a barking mutt of absolutely indeterminate parentage staked out on a way too heavy short chain in the center of a muddy circle in the nearly grass-less yard. An incongruously well-tended large vegetable garden in the back rounded out the picture of rural poverty.
Feeling quite dumb as I observed her living situation I knew she was right; Her mother not only wouldn’t but shouldn’t have spent any money on a protractor. I have never forgotten that lesson and now always try to follow the rule, not original to me, that first of all you must “try to imagine how it could be true,” before, not after you question any child, or adult for that matter, about what seems to be an completely unlikely story.
©2011 Richard Safris