On Why it is Difficult for Poor Kids to Succeed at School

There has been a lot of confusion about this issue, so I am going to be using my personal experience to illustrate my point. The following is the list of reasons why school was difficult for me, my family and my friends.

1) When you don’t have enough to eat it is hard to learn.

a. This is difficult for people from privilege to understand. The idea that being hungry all the time might impact your learning as a child seems beyond most people. People also read this and don’t understand that I am saying that this is a constant, daily, all encompassing issue. When I got to Stanford, I didn’t know how to respond to the dining hall because I had never had consistent access to that much food. Even my friends who did always have access to food didn’t have access to healthy food. If you do any work with children, then you know that diet matters. I know this because I have sat in coffee shops in Palo Alto and listened to those moms make decisions about their child’s food, so I am not sure why you think the body chemistry of other children is somehow different from your children. If you are still confused about that you can read my post on racism.

b. Some people also read this and do not understand how that might impact one’s learning. Food is a basic human need. When a basic human need is not met, it slows everything down. Think about how grouchy you get on trips where you have to wait to eat. Well that is how I felt all day long as a kid. Your central focus is getting enough to eat. I still plan my days around food. It is hard to remember things, it is hard to perform executive functions, and it is hard to be in a cheery mood when you are hungry. Imagine doing that every day of your life, as a child.

2) Sleep is important and we never get enough

a. I love sleep. I love sleep like a fiend. I will bail on outings to sleep. I will ignore phone calls to sleep. I will spend all of my weekends napping and not feel the slightest bit bad. This is because when I was a kid I never got enough sleep. There were several reasons for this. One is that my entire childhood home was smaller than some of my friend’s dorms at Stanford, and I was one of four kids in the house. Also factor in the drug and alcohol use, the dangerousness of the neighborhood, the PTSD and the untreated physical pain and it makes it difficult to sleep. I had a friend in high school whose mom would pick me up to take me to her house to get sleep. I’ve slept at the playground near my mom’s house. Having a quiet, safe place to sleep is something that my privileged friends take for granted.

b. It was never quiet in my neighborhood or home, and we had no space, I’d have to wait until everyone was asleep to do my homework. This meant that, in high school, I was staying up until three in the morning every night to get my work done, only to go to school and be yelled at by teachers who could not understand why we were all in such terrible moods and/or sleeping through class, not to mention that it slows down processing time (I just want to take a moment to point out that my processing time, in light of these obstacles, is actually slower than it would naturally be, so for those of you who know me personally, you know that I was robbed and I am sure you can imagine how frustrating that was for me).

c. When you do not get enough sleep, nothing works properly. You cannot think clearly. You are in a bad mood. You can’t perform in the way that you are supposed to. I would think this would be obvious to a group of people that brags about their all-nighters. Imagine doing that every day.

3) In order to succeed you have to have a stable, comfortable, safe home

a. We moved all the time when I was a kid. We also lived out of a car for at least two years. There was a point in my childhood where we were living in the projects of Suisun, which had a murder per capita rate that was the highest in the nation. The house I spent the most time in didn’t have air conditioning or heat, Sacramento hits 110 several days of the summer. It was freezing in the winter. My siblings and I would sleep in the living room next to the wood burning stove to keep warm. Our house has been broken into so many times that we have bars on the windows. I have so many examples of how bad our housing situation was that I could literally write a book. These issues made it hard for me to focus on school.

4) It is hard to learn when you are in physical pain

a. I have a chronic condition that would make my life more difficult no matter my class background, but my class background has made it difficult on a scale that is hard to imagine. Between what stress does to your body and the fact that I did not have access to healthcare, my health is a mess. Have you ever tried to go to school with a migraine? I do not mean a headache, I mean a migraine. I did it every day of my school career. Rarely was there an off day. Have you ever gone to school with pneumonia? Asthma? Bronchitis? Have you ever had whopping cough? Untreated autoimmune problems? Have you ever gone to work or school with nearly every muscle in your body strained or pulled? This was every day for me. Have you done it without food or sleep? In addition to not getting enough sleep, I also only get half the healing REM sleep I am supposed to get because of my PTSD (I will get into that below) and the pain I am in, which means my body cannot heal as quickly. Still want to call me lazy when I am tired in class? Still want to call me lazy when I sleep all day on the weekends? Still want to tell me I was poor because I was not working hard enough? If your answer is yes, then go call a doctor, because I am pretty sure that you are a sociopath.

5) It is hard to go to school when you are in emotional pain

a. The amount of trauma I have been through is on the extreme end of the spectrum by any standard in any country. But let’s talk about it for a minute. Most people at Stanford had at most one traumatic event that had a big impact, for better or worse, on their lives. I heard people explain other people’s alcoholism with their parent’s divorce. I have heard people say they went into medicine because they had a sick relative. These are serious and I am not trying to demean them. In fact, quite the converse. I just want to point out that when it is privileged people, we will empathize with this, but when it is the poor their trauma seems beyond comprehension. You have one traumatic day or experience. There is not a single day of my childhood that did not involve some form of trauma. Ever tried to study while having flashbacks? It’s nearly impossible.

b. You might want to say: “Oh Heather, you are extreme, though.” Well yes, I am, but as I take account of every single friend I have from my childhood, they either directly or vicariously experienced some form of serious trauma. I am talking about seeing violence, abuse, oppression, tragedy. Not even the best resourced friend of mine from my childhood can say they did not experience some trauma. If it was not your funeral, it was a friend’s or family member’s funeral, or a friend of a friend, or a family member of a friend’s funeral. One of my friends called me senior year sobbing because one of her cousins had been murdered. It was not the first time it happened. She ended the phone call in a few minutes with the words, “Whatever, I just have to be a soldier.” This was one of three friends I had whose parents had some education, had never done drugs, had supported her through school, and who were still together.

c. Do you have any idea how hard it is to study when you are under that amount of stress? Also, is it even remotely understandable to a people who blamed stress for the suicides of their high school students to understand that all of this might make us depressed and make it difficult to function? Please tell me that I am not that naïve and that the ability to have empathy is not that big of a problem.

6) Even if you manage to overcome all of this by being a ridiculous human being, you will still have to interface with a world stacked against you and designed to keep you down.

a. Oh yes, folks, this is not just a resource question. Y’all didn’t think you were getting off that easy, did you? So at 18, I went to Stanford, and I brought all of this with me. Before the age of 18, the only interactions I had with educated and privileged people were the authorities: doctors, police officers, and teachers. Do you know how many teachers have called me or basically implied that I was trash and not worth educating? No? Neither do I, because I can’t keep track. I’ve had some good teachers and they helped me a lot, but they were not the norm. My doctors told my mom that I was making up my muscle pain when I was seven years old. They called my mom trash and talked down to me as a kid. I have to wear a Stanford shirt when I see a doctor to get better medical care. Our schools also made it clear to us that we weren’t worth educating; it isn’t like we couldn’t watch TV and see what the rich kid schools looked like. My high school didn’t have enough textbooks. We barely had a functioning arts program, and only because of one extraordinarily dedicated teacher. I didn’t have access to AP, college classes, science fairs, AcaDeca, Model UN, on and on.

b. Can you possibly imagine what the culture shock was for me at Stanford? Do you have any idea how painful it is for your peers, for the people you live and work with to tell you that you deserved your suffering as a child? That you don’t exist? Or that you exist because your suffering benefits them and they aren’t willing to give that up? It is painful. It will nearly break you. It will add to your post-traumatic stress disorder. It will make it more difficult to sleep. It will add to you trying to prove yourself, so you push a badly broken body to the brink. It will add to social avoidance. It will add to your anger and defiance. All of these things will make it harder for you to succeed at school. When you fail to succeed at school someone will tell you it is because you are not working hard enough. Then when you are done with that you can live with your survivor’s guilt and spend all day having to act as the poster child for poverty so as to avoid contributing to making things worse for people you left behind.

The problem with poverty is that ALL of the problems exist. Things just got real in here, and I am not sorry. I wish I didn’t have to lay it out this way. That I managed to somehow make it through Stanford twice with 3.5 GPAs both times is nothing short of miraculous and is something that a very small group of people can lay claim to, and if you can’t you don’t get to tell me what my experience was. I have a voice, thanks. I always assumed that the question was that people didn’t know how to distribute resources, but being in education the last few years has shown me that we have an elite so disconnected from the people they are purportedly serving that they didn’t even know that there were resource questions. If you managed to overcome this, I applaud you. You are a straight baller, but if you are inclined to jump on the bandwagon and sell your own people out, let me ask you this: Even if I was able to overcome this, why should I have had to suffer that much? And are you willing to take a time machine and tell 8-year old me that she deserves what she is suffering from every day? If you didn’t go through this, and if you have never known this kind of life, you really need to sit down, shut up, and start listening. Your view on how to get out is invalid because you have never done it, and if you were serious about helping people you would stop making this about you and start listening to other people. Your privilege does not make up for your lack of knowledge or experience. It frustrates me that I had to say all of this. This isn’t rocket science, folks. If you didn’t know this, now you know. There is no longer an excuse for ignorance.


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