Getting Uncomfortable — Let’s Talk About Race In The Classroom

During breakfast, on the final morning of leadership camp, I noticed a chaperone from another group standing near our tables. After a few moments, she walked over and said something to several of my students. By their reactions, I could clearly tell that the conversation was disciplinary in nature.

My first response was to be defensive. My students know how to behave when we’re out of the building. I hadn’t observed any misbehavior. Why was she redirecting them?

Camp Kern runs multiple school programs simultaneously – a leadership program for middle school students and an environmental program for upper elementary students. As is the case every year, there was a second group at camp while we were there. Invariably the other group is always much larger than ours, comprised of younger children, and made up of predominately white students.

My students are adolescents and predominately students of color.

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You Never Know Where You Will Find Angels

 – by Krista Taylor

We say that the best learning is experiential. We say that it’s critical to take students out of the classroom, so they can truly understand the implications of the work.

What if I told you that this was true for teachers as well?

Fall camp is always remarkable, and I have written about it previously.  Each year, this camping experience provides many stories about witnessing the best in our students, and somehow the themes of these stories are always the same – inclusivity, belonging, helpfulness, kindness, generosity, challenge, perseverance, and leadership. While these are things that are difficult to teach in the classroom, they are lessons that seem to occur spontaneously at camp.

I knew this already. I knew that camp inspires students to rise to challenges. I knew that camp provides teachers with the opportunity to witness strengths in students that don’t appear in the classroom. But, for the first time this year, camp opened my eyes to something new. This year, camp taught me about poverty.

Every year we have students who aren’t able to attend our camping trip because of an inability to pay for it. This year, Christ Church Cathedral  provided Gamble with a generous $2,500 grant to help cover the cost of camping for these students. This meant that, for the first time ever, our neediest students would be able to join us. You never know where you’ll find angels.

Ensuring that these students participated in this experience, however, was not a simple process. We first had to set parameters on how the money would be disbursed. It was immediately divided into four amounts of $625 in order to fund students in each of our four middle school communities. But then what? How do we decide who receives it? How much should each family be given? Should behavioral concerns be taken into consideration?

This is a harder conversation than it initially appears. My team sat down together and spent several hours hashing out the details of a plan that felt fair and compassionate. We knew that families should be obligated to contribute some of the money – both to honor their dignity and to ensure their buy-in to our program. We debated the merit of using the funding to support students who were likely to be behaviorally challenging at camp. Did they deserve to go as much as another student who also needed financial support, but was better at following expectations? How much should we give each family? How could we use the money to reach the greatest number of students? Here are the parameters that we ultimately agreed upon.

  • Behavioral issues would not exclude students from receiving funding – in many ways, it is these students for whom the experience is most important.
  • All families would be required to pay a minimum of $20 toward a student’s camp costs
  • We would send out a robocall to all families asking them to contact us if they needed financial assistance
  • We would then contact each of these families individually and begin the conversation by asking how much of the cost they could contribute

It was Jack, our principal, who helped us develop this final piece as a means of determining how much support each family should receive. He advised us to trust our families — to let them know that we were trying to help everyone who needed help, and to trust them to come through with as much of the money as they could. Having these conversations was remarkable. Some families who initially asked for assistance, ultimately were able to come up with the entire amount when we offered them a few days extension for payment. One family who had recently experienced homelessness, divorce, and mental health issues, has two students in our community, and thus, double the cost. They found a way to scrape together half of the money. Other families needed more.

During one of these phone calls, Justin’s mother confided that she didn’t think she was going to be able to make the payment this year. When I asked her how much she thought she could contribute. She quietly said, “Honestly, right now, I don’t have anything.” My heart hurt as I replied, “We’re asking all families to make a minimum contribution of twenty dollars. I paused, desperately seeking words that wouldn’t instill shame. “Can you do that much? If you can, we can cover the rest.” She broke down and tearfully said, “Yes. I think I can find a way to come up with twenty dollars. Thank you. Thank you so much.” “You’re welcome,” I practically whispered. I’m not even sure we actually said good-bye before hanging up. I cannot even imagine the humility that it must take to admit that you have so little that coming up with twenty dollars is a challenge, but I am grateful that she was able to honestly share her reality with me, so that I could help. And I am even more grateful that I had funding with which I could offer the help.

These conversations were uncomfortable and somehow, simultaneously, both uplifting and heart-breaking. We quickly realized that we didn’t have enough funding to cover every student’s need. Beau was casually discussing this challenge with his in-laws, Nancy and Kevin Robie, over dinner one evening. They surprised him by saying, “How much would you need to send them all?”

Honestly, we didn’t know; we hadn’t had financial discussions with all of our families yet. If they each needed the full amount, it would total just over a thousand dollars. When Beau hesitantly shared this information, they miraculously said, “Ok. We can do that.” You never know where you will find angels.

Being able to say yes to every request, and not having to pick and choose between families, was a tremendous gift. Ultimately, it turned out that we only needed an extra $327, and with the support of both the Christ Church Cathedral donation and this private one, twelve students were able to go to camp who wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise. But there were two students who stood out as being the most profoundly impacted.

Unlike Justin, who has an involved parent and has always been able to pay for our field experiences in the past, Micah and Derek have never been able to participate in any of them. Both of these students have uninvolved parents, both clearly come from financially unstable households, both have cognitive disabilities, both exhibit disruptive behavior in the classroom, both struggle with academic content and focus, and both are somewhat ostracized by their peers.

When we considered how to best use our donations, these two students came to mind immediately. However, ensuring their attendance on the trip was no easy task. We sent home our permission form packet with each of them multiple times, and yet the day before the trip, neither of them had their forms turned in. We repeatedly called home trying to get everything in order, but hadn’t been able to reach anyone. Finally, the day before the trip, Micah’s mother came in to sign the paperwork, but she did not turn in the required twenty dollars.

On Tuesday morning, the day of the trip, Micah came into my classroom just before school started – all packed for camp; although with a blanket roll instead of a sleeping bag – and said dispiritedly, “Ms. Taylor, my mom didn’t pay.” I said, “I know, Micah, we have to call her again.” When we called, she told us that she had given the money to Micah, but he had lost it. Perhaps true; perhaps not. We reminded her that she had to pay the $20 in order for him to attend. Finally, less than an hour before we boarded the bus, she came to the school office to pay and noted that she had been at work when we called, and upon overhearing her end of the conversation, one of her customers handed her a ten dollar bill. You never know where you will find angels.

Micah tentatively asked, “So I can go now?” It was such a relief to be able to say, “Yes.”

Derek’s situation was similar. The day before the trip, he had no money and no forms turned in. That evening when we finally reached his mom, she indicated that she had no money to give us, but that we could call his father. We had been teaching Derek for a year, but had no idea that his father was in the picture. When we reached him, he indicated that he’d come to the school and pay the $20 the next morning. In addition, he’d go out that evening and purchase a sleeping bag and flashlight for Derek so that he could come to camp fully equipped. Early the next morning, Derek’s dad was in the office as promised. He paid the $20; the grant provided $119. You never know where you will find angels.

Derek arrived at school with a giant smile. “Ms. Taylor, I get to go! I’m going to camp!”

At camp, we had the opportunity to see these children contribute in a way that they aren’t able to demonstrate in the classroom. imageWhile Derek was canoeing the first day, a canoe flipped over and headed downriver without its boaters, only to wind up lodged in the bank quite a ways downstream. After a teacher spotted it and pulled the group over to try and retrieve it, Derek was the first to volunteer to hike down the bank with a parent chaperone to dump it and bring it back to the group. He did this without complaint and took tremendous pride in his ability to assist the group.

Micah canoed the second day, and we had another swamped canoe. This time it came to rest in a marshy area of the river. When Micah’s boat caught up to it, he immediately jumped out into waist-deep water and started helping to get it flipped over, emptied, and righted. This is no easy task – especially for someone who has never been canoeing before.

Both boys noted that one of their favorite parts of camp was being on cook crew. (Over the course of our four days together, every student participates in cooking a meal for the 55 people at camp.) This is no easy task, and initially I believed that they enjoyimg_1050ed it because it allowed them to contribute to the good of the group. This was certainly part of it. Both boys noted in their journals that they felt good about doing tasks like hauling water from the pump to the campsite, and cooking food such as sausage breakfast sandwiches and vegetable soup.

But it was more than that. At camp, students are not permitted to go anywhere without a buddy; this means that pairings happen frequently and fluently. Both boys struggle with social inclusion at school, but at camp they were overheard gleefully exclaiming, “Why does everybody want to be my buddy? People are all the time asking me if I’ll be their buddy!” Being on cook crew is a group task, and it requires everyone working together, often in pairs or trios. In order to be successful at the task, everyone has to contribute and everyone has to be included. Micah and Derek were wanted and needed by the group, and they felt great about that.

All of this warms my heart. That is not to imply that everything was perfect. It, of course, was not. Derek needed constant prompting to get his packet work completed, and Micah stayed up until 3:30 one night talking in his tent – apparently to himself.img_1064 But at camp, Micah and Derek were also able to shine. Their classmates had the opportunity to see their strengths. Their teachers had the opportunity to see their strengths. But, most importantly, they had the opportunity to see their own strengths. Helpfulness, perseverance, belonging . . . those are beautiful qualities to witness unfolding. You never know where you will find angels.

And yet, this still isn’t the end of my story. On our last day, I had separate, but similar, heart wrenching conversations with each of them. Mid-morning, Derek asked me if we were going to pack lunches again that day. I told him that we were, whereupon he asked me if we had to eat it there, or if he could take it home with him. He was disappointed when I told him that we had to eat at camp.

Later that day when I asked Micah what his favorite thing was about camp, he said, “Canoeing . . . and the food.” I asked him about the homemade vegetable soup that we had prepared the day before. He said he really liked it, and that he had never had vegetable soup before.   Then he said, “Ms. Taylor, are we gonna get to eat dinner here tonight?” When I told him no, he disappointedly said, “Awww, man!”

I smiled and laughed at his response, and then, in the next moment, caught my breath as I understood what he was saying to me. Every other student was over-joyed to get to go home and eat a non-camp meal, but Micah wanted to stay for dinner.  He wanted to have dinner at camp because meals at camp are predictable and nutritionally-balanced, and there is always more than enough.

I wanted to cry.

A few hours later, this feeling was compounded when Derek saw the remaining food that we were packing up to take back to school. He asked, “What are you going to do with that?” We told him that we would send it home with students. He said, “Really? All that bread? Can we take that cheese, too?”

Yes, Derek, you can take the cheese, too.

I already knew that these students had challenging home environments, but I don’t think I really understood what that meant until these experiences at camp. It was suddenly crystal clear that these children simply didn’t have enough to eat at home. They were experiencing food insecurity right before my eyes.

At camp, I had the privilege of being able to provide both Micah and Derek with four days’ worth of the security of regularly-scheduled, healthy meals. This was a benefit of our camping trip that I had never overtly witnessed before. This was the deep learning that was new for me this year, and this learning is equal parts gift and challenge. I know that for four days, these students ate heartily and nutritiously. I now know that this was a unique experience for them. I don’t know how to fix that. I, of course, already knew that poverty is a crisis that impacts many of my students, but never before had I seen or felt it in such a tangible way.

Four days is not enough. I also know that. But it is a beginning, and the provision of food creates a trust that may be more profound than any other. I’m not sure how to continue building on that trust, but I know that we have established a fragile foundation. You never know where you will find angels.