Young lives circumscribed by hardships they can’t control

One bitterly cold day before Thanksgiving, the attendance officer at the high school where I work sent an urgent e-mail to the faculty asking if anyone had an extra pair of shoes. A student signing in late wasn’t wearing any. Size didn’t matter. The student was desperate.

That same day my ninth grade public speaking class recited from memory poems they chose. Jane Taylor’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” was proving to be a challenge for a special-ed student. A shy girl who had broken down in tears the week before and had to be coached through an anxiety attack faced her fear and wrestled John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud” to the last word.

Mary and Storm had no such fears. Both gifted performers, when they recited Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” and AI’s “The Conversation,” the syllables jumped into life and the class let out a collective sigh of pleasure.

But Seth’s choice of Alberto Rios’ “The Cities Inside Us” has stayed with me.

“You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city/Inside us, and inside us/There go all the cars we have driven/And seen, there are all the people/We know and have known, there/Are all the places that are/But which used to be as well. This is where/They went. They did not disappear.”

It’s a potent metaphor for the power of experiences and memories and how we carry them with us.

The poem ends with the warning, “It’s loud inside us, in here, and when we speak/In the outside world/We have to hope that some of that sound/Does not come out, that an arm/Does not reach out/In place of the tongue.”

Monday the same attendance officer who noticed the boy with no shoes sent out the Christmas wish lists from four families that our faculty will sponsor this year. Each Christmas the school district’s social worker vets families with special needs and our faculty collects the items on their wish lists. This year two of the families are especially stressed because the parents have cancer.

The students’ wish lists are heartbreaking in their modesty. Socks. Axe deodorant. Bed sheets. A Bi-Lo gift card.

Not one iPhone or iPad on the list. No Wiis or XBoxes or PlayStations.

Instead, the students asked for a pair of jeans. Embroidery thread. Books. One older teenager asked for gloves and a prepaid phone card. A girl taking our culinary arts class suggested a cookbook or maybe the ingredients to bake something at home.

I wept when I read their requests – the way they reflect the limited scope of their dreams. Not just their scant hope for material possessions, but their lack of faith that life will ever be the way they see it on TV, the way it is lived by people in other places.

“We live in secret cities,” Rios writes, and it’s true. No one fully sees our inner landscapes that affect who we are and how we behave. Our experiences are like invisible planets that pull and push us into certain orbits without our being aware, poverty and trauma and illness and hopelessness weighted with particular gravity.

Only occasionally do I get a glimpse of my students’ secret cities – when they recite poems that reflect their concerns, when they compose Christmas wish lists where toothpaste and gloves and a white button-down shirt are the highest aspirations.

I teach in a school where two students out of three live in poverty. To many people, my students don’t exist – can’t exist – in the context of their own secret cities.

I once told a new acquaintance about my student whose abscessed tooth disfigured his face and made him too sick to lift his head from his desk.

I spent my planning period trying to find a dentist who would accept Medicaid before my own dentist agreed to see him as a favor to me.

“Nonsense,” the man hearing my story said. “That doesn’t happen in America.”

He looked angry when he said it, and I’ve puzzled over his expression ever since – the reason for it, as if he couldn’t bear to have his complacency shaken.

He’s not the one who should be angry. My students are. Their young lives are circumscribed by hardships they can’t control, by willful ignorance of people who should know better.

This isn’t just about my students but about far too many students all around us – children whose secret cities are almost unbearably bleak, who walk to school without shoes, who hardly dare to hope for Christmas gifts.

Reach out to the children you know in need this holiday – and don’t let them become invisible the rest of the year.