I got a chance to go back to one of my community high schools and perform poetry. One of the poems that I performed in the national poetry competition was about a women being barren. When performing this piece at the high school, one of the girls—no more than 16—started to cry. After the program, I approached her and started a conversation.
“Are you ok?”
“No”, she exclaimed trying to dry tears in what seem like embarrassment.
“What’s wrong?”, I asked.
The girl was silent.
I told her “I might be able to help.”
She said, “I don’t think so.”
After a couple minutes of probing, she dumped her life onto my shoulders. And I welcomed every word. I wanted her story to be my burden, so possibly, even for a second she would feel that her life was a little easier.
She started by saying she wishes she could be the barren women in the poem. She went on to say that she was 16, pregnant, and the 19 year old father of her baby just went to jail for armed robbery. She finished her story by saying she doesn’t want to go home because her mom (who is only 15 years older than she is) cares more about her boyfriend, who recently was released from jail, than she does about her own children.
I don’t know if the similarities between her and her mom can be called a generational curse, the cycle of poverty, or just a coincidence, but I know the different aspects in this situation are not rare to hear in my neighborhood. As a matter of fact, in East Cleveland (AKA EC) stories like this are quite normal. I’m not a fan of phrases like “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” or “everyone is just a victim of their environment,” but when this girl was sitting in front of me crying in a room full of screaming students, both of these phrases were regretfully stuck on my mind. All I felt I could do is encourage her to be strong.
Anytime a baby is created, I consider it a blessing from God, but this girl considered it to be a curse. I can only imagine her thinking how much her life would change with this baby. How the baby would be born into a world surrounded by graffiti walls, boarded up houses, and a broken home. Inherently born into poverty.
I never want to pretend as if I understand what a woman goes through when she is pregnant, but seeing this girl’s tears and pain unveiled from her face forced me to think about the whole process. Nevertheless, primarily I am concerned with “this cycle.” It starts with grandparents in poverty, producing children that remain in poverty, who produce grandchildren who stay in poverty. In a world where education is usually the only way to break out of this cycle, it is just our luck that usually those of us who live in poverty have some of the worse education systems in our neighborhoods.
This is my plug to stress the importance of teachers in our inner city school systems. The teachers that go far beyond their obligations because they care about the students they encounter. The teachers who see potential in the 14-year-old student that is starting to sell drugs and skip school. The teachers who encourage the 15-year-old gang members to join their after school debate practice to keep them off the streets, and the teachers who give hope to the 16 year old pregnant black girl who is afraid that she is going to turn out like her mother. Teachers like this are rare, but in a world that throws kids away, they are pivotal. When parents can’t, good teachers get students out of poverty. This is the story of my life.