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For the Kids Who Struggle

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Why I'll Never Give Up on Any Kid

My father pounded three things into my brain from the time I can remember:

1. Never rely on a man for your financial survival
2. Education is something no one can ever steal from you
3. Outdoor toilet seats in January are cold.

These three statements represent tenets of an interwoven philosophy derived from poverty, feminism, and hope.

My father’s people were "Arkies" who came to the Pacific Northwest as refugees of sorts—they traveled from Arkansas after the Great Depression, forced into migration by the greed that bankrupted Wall Street and the dried-up farms my grandfather once worked. Grandpa was a hired hand. He and Grandma found their way north, settling the family into a shack in an orchard outside Wenatchee, Washington, the "Apple Capital of the World." Grandpa left shortly thereafter, abandoning his teetotaling wife and five children for the promise of women and wine.

Never rely on a man for your financial survival.

Grandma had a only a sixth-grade education, and so she found work as a domestic servant for "rich folks" (as she called them) at 50 cents an hour. Hers was a life of poverty, but don’t feel sorry for her. She would be the first to tell you that.

The only boy in a house full of females, my father ran wild. He pranked the "rich folks," lit a hill on fire and blamed it on the Boy Scouts, and was by all accounts heading nowhere. My father eventually graduated high school, even if he did earn the nickname J.D.—Juvenile Delinquent—through a short lived career in grand theft auto (Grandma turned him in). He almost failed to graduate high school, but he managed to scrape by, 273rd in a class of just over 300 with a D- Grade Point Average.

Like many poor boys before him, he viewed the Air Force as a place to get three squares, a place to sleep, and maybe some adventure. Vietnam was raging, but he managed to find a safe place inside the guts of airplanes. Being short of stature, he could crawl into tight spaces and fix them. Truth be told, my father wasn't a great Airman. Too sarcastic to follow orders, he never could get over his compulsion to prank authority. Private Second Class he was given, and Private Second Class he left.

Shortly after his discharge, he met my Mom. He was working at Boeing, still crawling into tight spaces to fix planes, and he wasn’t happy. Mom reminded him that he had the G.I. Bill, where he could go to college and do something else, something he loved. But you see, my Dad had always been told he was stupid. Maybe he reminded Grandma of her philandering husband. Maybe he was just too creative with his jokes to be taken seriously. Maybe the school system didn’t have time for a poor boy who lacked respect, one who had little supervision because his Mom was working too hard. For whatever reason, he didn’t believe he was college material.

But my Mother did.

My father loved painting. He was a true artist who saw the world through slightly different, if skewed, lenses. In college, he excelled. Finally, he had stumbled on a place that encouraged students to question everything.

After four hard years of work, he became a junior high school art and English teacher—one with a particular ability to relate to (and reach) the "class clown."

Education is something no one can ever steal from you.

And yes, my Dad was white, a male, straight, cisgender, and could benefit from programs like the G.I. Bill, which excluded people of color. So many in our district have barriers to economic mobility and educational advancement, both historic and contemporary.

I am telling you this story because my father's life experience has embedded in me the belief that, with the right supports and encouragement, a child's beginning does not have to predict that child's life journey. Regardless of where a kid begins, a brighter future is possible. All students come to our schools as full human beings with their own, unique stories of struggle and resilience, each with potential no standardized test can measure. This is why I will never give up on any child in our district, especially those with challenges. 

Growing up in extreme poverty is something my Dad never forgot.

"Your lives can be different than mine was," Dad would tell us when we balked at doing homework. "Never rely on a man for your financial survival. Work hard, because education is something no one can ever steal from you."

He wanted us to feel our family's history viscerally. How cold and hardscrabble it was, and how far we had come. And so he would always end with: "Let me tell you, girls, outdoor toilet seats in January are cold."

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