In these hunger games, kids lose

Janusz Maciuba is a local writer.

It’s not just lack of academic preparation by the parents that makes for poor student outcomes. It’s the lack of competent parenting in all levels of the student’s life.

In my short time of teaching English to the seventh grade at Stone Mountain Middle School, this was most evident in the lunchroom. Every day there would be several students who had not brought a lunch, had not brought any money to buy lunchand whose parents or guardians had not bothered to sign them up for free lunch.

Nobody went hungry, though, as the other students at the table gathered up enough food to feed their classmates, showing the purity of adolescent hearts. Some teachers would bring two sandwiches and a lot of teachers had giant loaves of white bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly in their classrooms.

What does it tell the student about his self-worth when the adults in his life cannot provide food, money or the simple documentation for a free lunch. I am worthless. Nobody cares enough to take care of me.

This, of course, does not translate into a student on the honor roll. If I’m worthless, the student thinks, what is the point of school, of reading for pleasure or of striving toward any goal? All the intentions of education, from turning out productive students to fostering critical thinking skills, cannot overcome this psychic hurt. In a fictional Disney life, the student would take charge, find a job, find a mentorand embark on an autodidactic education. Odds of this happening are pretty much zero for 12-year-olds.

On top of that, television displays lifestyles that to poor students are completely out of reach. Caring Mom, jovial Dad, nice cars, nice shoes and clothes, food so abundant that characters fuss over insignificant details, like which restaurant to patronize that evening. It’s tough to see, if your living room furniture consists of one hard kitchen chair.

And, if some adult, relative or teacherhas actually voiced the opinion that the student is worthless and won’t amount to anything in life, the dharma of that person’s life becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Things are done to the student not the student does things. Life becomes passive and no choice becomes the path of least resistance, generally in the direction of down. Worthlessness become self-hatred as a student strives for love and attention by behaving badly, which is much easier, at least, in getting attention than doing something good. If an adult is yelling at you for misbehaving, you have someone who cares, someone who sees you.

In the student culture obtaining an iconic item, one that is endorsed by an athlete or celebrity whom the culture reveres, is an instant mark of status. The Air Jordan shoes, a Sean John T-shirt, a rapper’s hairstyleor a trip to Disney World are held up as tokens of adult love for the lucky student. A number of students spent more time cleaning and ironing these talismans than actually studying.

I suppose this is where I come up with a solution for this sometimes destructive search for affection. I don’t have much. Pull kids out of the classroom and praise them for doing well and encourage them to keep learning. It’s hard to save 150 students but there are students who are so bright it would be criminal not to show them some attention. The payoff can be an educated person who will have a chance to show his or her children the affection and competence they need to see.