Too Poor for Their Own Graduation

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Senior dues: $65. Prom: $50. Money for hair, nails, dresses and shoes for graduation and school dances. Money for senior trip, and for all of the other trips that the kids are taking in these last weeks of school.

Add in money to pay for lunch on trip days, which the students usually get free at the school but have to pay for when they are out of the building. The end of the year gets quite expensive.

This time of year always illuminates the financial struggles that some families face. Throughout the year there are clues: kids who wear the same clothes day after day, or who are hesitant to offer to bring in food for a potluck. But on a daily basis, there are not a lot of times when money matters.

“Who wants to go to graduation? It’s just eighth grade — why is it a big deal?" Ella, one of my strongest students, answered when I asked her why she hadn’t yet handed in her senior dues. "When you graduate high school is when it matters," she said. "I’ll go then instead.”

I can’t argue with this. The pomp and circumstance attached to the eighth-grade graduation rites in my school are a sad reminder of the statistics for this neighborhood, where eighth-grade graduation is often the last graduation that half of my students will have. They have a full-fledged prom, and are referred to as "seniors" all year.

Still, Ella’s been a great student all year, and I am mystified as to why she wants to pass on graduation, a yearbook and the class T-shirts.

“Is it money?” I asked gently. “If it is money, just let me know, and we can take care of it. That’s not a reason to miss out.”

“No, I just don’t want to go.”

Every year I am surprised by how many kids are unable to afford these events. Typically my co-teacher and I will organize a collection for those students who have earned the right to go, but are unable to because of financial constraints.

My co-teacher’s brother’s barbershop will sponsor a fund-raiser, and my neighbors and friends will chip in to sponsor a senior. After the event, the kids write thank-you notes to the people who helped out, and we send pictures of them enjoying themselves at prom and graduation.

Later on in the day, Ella whispered to me that her family was moving to a shelter at the end of the month. I was surprised, but she said that her mother had been unemployed for months and couldn’t find a job, and that they were being evicted.

“The landlord said that he don’t want us there anymore, so oh well, we leaving.”

“How do you feel about it?”

“Whatever. If he doesn’t want us, we will go. I don’t want to live there, anyway. A man got shot on my block last week, in his head and his neck, and he lay face down on the sidewalk from 5 o'clock to 10 o'clock before they took his body.”

The image makes me cringe, but I know that this type of sight is not as shocking to my students as I imagine it to be.

I took Ella's act of revealing this to me to be her way of saying that the problem with attending graduation really was money, but she had been embarrassed to tell me.

I called her mother, who I like a lot, to see why Ella wasn’t going. Ella’s mother is a woman who shows up for all parent conferences and smiles with pride at her daughter the entire time. She is invested in her daughter, and it is clear in every interaction that I have with her.

“I’ve been having financial and housing problems, so she won’t be going,” her mother responded.

I told her that we could cover Ella’s senior dues, if it was all right with her. She was grateful, saying that things had been very hard, and that she would be very happy to see her daughter graduate with the rest of her class.

I am happy to pay for Ella, and very happy each year to take up a collection for my students. I’m always amazed by the generosity of people, who are consistently eager to help when they hear about a student who will miss out on senior events.

Two years ago, a family friend made a generous donation, and when I wrote to thank her, she wrote back saying that she was grateful for the opportunity to "balance the karma" in the world. It is a message that has stuck with me — that people want to help out. For all of the bad that we see in the world, it is nice to be a part of some of the good.

Every spring, I am surprised when people ask: “Are you doing the sponsor-a-senior thing again? Let me know; I’ll donate!” I feel silly sometimes, asking people to help send kids to prom. Surely there are much bigger problems in the world that they could put their money toward. I always feel the need to justify the "cause" to myself. Why, really, is it important that kids be able to be a part of these activities?

“It’s so great, when you donate to some big organization, you don’t know what your money really does. But with this, we get to see exactly who we helped and how,” one of my friends said last year as she handed me a check that I hadn’t even solicited.

She’s right. These kids are not a "cause" or a "fund." In this small way, you can immediately see the way that you have made their year a little bit brighter — given them a memory to hold onto, and something special to look forward to.

My students don’t have it easy. But every year I go to prom, and I see them at graduation. They are happy, looking their best, feeling successful, cheering for themselves and for one another. I see their parents snapping pictures of them, and hugging them, and smiling proudly. And I realize that for many kids, that is a rare occasion.

In the struggles of the day to day, just trying to get by and support a family, often the things that get lost are the little intangibles that mean more than we realize.

As they grow up, there will be fewer and fewer formal celebrations of their personal achievements. Adults have to find their own ways to remind themselves that they are special. But every spring, it’s nice to watch that occasion be created for them.

Feeling for one day that they have done something worth celebrating is a cause worth investing in.