Saturday, 22 September 2012

What Divides Us

On the way to Vancouver
As I write, I'm listening to the chatter of 50 teenagers travelling on a whirlwind 10-hour bus trip to Vancouver. Our goal is to watch what will likely be a rousing and inspiring performance put on by the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare production company. Though the DVD player is not working, and for some reason none of the students happen to have any cassette tapes (yes, cassette tapes) on hand for the cassette player, the positive energy is infectious. This is a good day. The Bard on the Beach company truly values the opportunity for students to experience live Shakespeare and graciously reduces their regular $40.00 ticket prices down to $15.00 for a series of student matinees. We cut further costs by reducing the trip to one day, but that means we must charter a bus with a professional driver, and the tickets plus bus costs for the 50 students will run us in the area of $3000.00. Though our P.A.C. generously contributes each year, we still need to charge the students $50.00 each (plus food expenses) for the trip. 

The result is that we have students who can’t afford to go.

I’m lucky that I work in a (relatively) small school where I know most of the kids, and if I don’t, there is likely another staff member that has a connection to them. If I see a student that showed initial interest (came and got a permission form and parent letter) but never ended up paying the money, then I feel comfortable discreetly asking them if there is a reason that they changed their mind.  Some kids are extremely adept at covering up and quickly provide a reason such as they have to work, or they have other commitments. Sometimes these stories are authentic, but I know there are always students who lie because they are embarrassed to admit they simply don't have the funds.  I spoke with a number of  students this year who owned up to not having the money.  I was able to convince them to come if we waived their fees but the conversation was obviously awkward and uncomfortable. 

When I was in grade 10 my school offered a three day hiking trip to Mt. Robson for all students in my grade. I went to the initial information meeting (as did most of my classmates) and immediately got excited as the teacher sponsors described everything we would experience. Later in the meeting came the cost breakdown. The trip was going to cost $90 in straight fees and each student would need hiking boots, an actual hiking-grade back-pack, a sleeping bag and food for three days. While I was by no means living in poverty,  my mom was a single parent,  and the $90 plus new hiking boots, sleeping bag, back-pack and other expenses just weren’t going to be affordable at the time. I started convincing myself that the trip wasn’t such a big deal. I didn’t like hiking much anyway…I was too busy…I would miss too much school…the whole trip was going to be lame….except I knew none of these were true. It was going to be an awesome trip and many of the grade 10s (including all of my closest friends) were definitely going. I never went back to the next info session and I tried to put it out of my mind. 

I'll never truly understand why we equate lack of money with inferiority and shame but there was no way I was going to admit to anyone that I couldn’t afford that trip. I was absolutely mortified when a teacher approached me and asked why I had stopped attending the trip meetings when I was so obviously excited initially. She asked me point blank if money was the issue and I (never having the skill of lying on the spot) admitted it was. The teacher explained that the school would cover the $90 and one of the PE teachers would lend me a set of used hiking boots and they would round up the rest of the equipment. I did go on the trip and it ended up becoming one of my favourite memories of my high school experience-not just grade 10. The trip was so memorable that it spawned a lifelong love of hiking and led to other adventures including the West Coast Trail and the Bowron Lake chain. When my own son turns 12 I am taking him and my husband up Mt. Robson.  The trip that I couldn't afford turned out to be life-altering.

Talking to students who can’t afford to pay for something always reminds me of that experience. I can see them hesitate about whether or not it is worth it to tell me the truth. I can see that they truly want to participate in the activity but accepting charity is awkward at best and most of the time downright embarrassing no matter how gently I try to make the offer.  I also know that their parents are embarrassed as well. No loving parent plans to deny a child the experiences and opportunities that his peers are given. No parent wants to tell a child she can't provide something her child deserves to have. When my mom found out that the school was going to pay for the trip and I was going to borrow second hand hiking boots she was devastated, and then trapped by the decision to either accept the help or deny her daughter a great experience.  I’d also like to point out that poverty does not equal laziness or poor character.  Yes, we have families in our school who have never paid a cent of school fees, but chances are they aren’t living the high life from the money they are saving by cheating the school system. Chances are the majority of them are struggling everyday to make things work for their families and it could be any number of circumstances that have put them in a current position of need.  I will speak for the students who couldn’t pay for this particular trip. They are inspiring, hardworking and ethical young men and women. Their character is a testament that their parents have succeeded in the ways that count the most. 

We cannot forget that it is possible for someone to be working as hard as they can every day and still not have enough. Some parents may be struggling with substance abuse or mental illness and the last thing we should be doing is making their children pay the price.  These are the students that need these opportunities the most and we must continue to find ways to provide them; education must continue to be the great equalizer.   Every student should have access to amazing drama performances, trips to the wilderness, participation on sports teams or in specialized programs. Financial circumstances should never separate a child from experiences or opportunities that will enrich their lives.