On a hot, humid Wednesday in July, I tag along with a group of 100 second- and third-grade students on a field trip to the University of California, Los Angeles. The students attend 75th Street Elementary School, located in South Central Los Angeles. I spend a lot of time at this school, conducting research, making friends, and learning. Some teachers thought it would be a good idea for the students to see the campus, life outside the walls of South Central.
More than half of South Central’s 60,000 residents live below the federal poverty line; most who attend 75th Street live at or below poverty. Unemployment is close to 20 percent. Single mothers raise close to one third of the children. More than a quarter of the mothers have less than a ninth-grade education.
Almost as soon as the kids bound off the bus, a group of students start peering through a fence. I follow them.
“What are we looking at, Emily?” I ask.
As if in unison, five students answer, “the grass!”
“Oh, Miss Becky, have you ever seen so much grass?” Emily asks me.
“Really green grass,” Kevin adds.
“I ain’t never seen so much grass in one spot,” exclaims Angela. I pull them away, since we have other sites to see.
Though it is morning, it’s sweltering. I suggest that we stop for a water break.
“No kid brought a water bottle, so we have to find a fountain,” says Miss Suarez, their teacher.
As if on cue, the children start complaining about the heat and their thirst. We assure them that a drinking fountain is close.
As we walk to the “big steps,” as Ariel calls them, I quietly ask several students why they didn’t bring water bottles. I am hoping to turn the conversation into a discussion about how the body works and its need for water. Instead, I learn about economics.
“We don’t never buy water in them bottles,” one student tells me.
“I see the teachers with the bottles, but we don’t get them; my momma says they cost too much,” adds another.
Johnnie, a student from another class, tells me, “Oh, we buy water from the store, but we buy it in them big bottles.”
“So your mom and dad don’t like the water that comes from the sink?” I ask him. “No, Miss Becky, we live in a garage, we don’t got water.”
He slips his hand into mine and, for some unknown reason, we both look up at the sky. On this day, it’s so clear and blue without a hint of smog or clouds.
“Pretty sky,” Johnnie says.
I concur, but even then, reality does not escape me: I am holding hands with a sweet, excited boy who lives in a garage. He has no running water, no electricity, and no money to buy a bottle of water.
We round a corner as we head off and pass a construction site. The area around it is surrounded by yellow “caution” tape. Several students run from the group to the tape. Kevin yells, “a dead body!” and several more students join him.
“Whenever you see that tape, you know somebody is dead.” says Ariel.
The students are surprised to get to the yellow tape and find that there is no dead body, just construction.
Los Angeles County is one of the best illustrations of the massive gap that exists between rich and poor in this country. In Beverly Hills, the average home price is well over a million dollars, and the average income exceeds $160,000. It’s only a 20-minute drive to South Central Los Angeles, one of the most densely populated areas in Los Angeles County. Alfredo, who is on this field trip, lives with nine other people in a one-bedroom apartment.
The community is plagued by violence. In the 12 square miles near 75th Street Elementary, there are at least six active gangs. I wonder about these children’s futures.
Our government’s education policies don’t take into account that Johnnie lives in a garage, goes hungry most days, or hears gunshots most nights. Instead, politicians are concerned about his standardized test scores and at what age he will be reading. According to state standards, Johnnie should be able to “focus in identifying and recalling main ideas and supporting details in expository text . . . and have complex comprehension strategies . . . Furthermore, he should be able to distinguish between literary forms such as poetry and fairy tales.”
I want Johnnie to read. I want him to find joy in books, but I know he won’t do it as quickly as a child with access to an abundance of books (one of the best predictors of how well one reads), a light to do homework, and a full belly when he goes to bed. When Johnnie does not do well on standardized tests we blame him, his teacher, or the method with which he was taught. We don’t blame the fact that he is hungry – or that we compare him to a child that lives only miles from him but is worlds apart.
We are so concerned about the standards we have set for Johnnie to meet that we have forgotten to set some for ourselves: All children should be safe. All children should have access to a quality education. No child should be hungry or want for health care. Every child should be able to play and roll in soft, green grass.
When the current administration leaves office, we will have new standards for Johnnie to meet. The grass will still be green and soft at UCLA. And I wonder if Johnnie will still be living in a garage.