Archived Opinion

Lawmakers in denial about plight of poor

By Dawn Gilchrist-Young

Of the 120 or so 12th-graders I teach each year, about two-thirds have jobs outside of school. Of those two-thirds, there is a large number who work 30 to 40 hours a week. Their jobs range from bagging groceries and stocking shelves, to cleaning motel rooms, to chopping, splitting, and delivering firewood. As I included in my first column about the teaching I do at Swain County High School, the per capita income in 2011 was $19,506. For 2012, the projected income was $19,089. Of the county’s 14,000 residents, 3,000 live below the poverty level, and of those, almost 1,000 are children, including my students. For most readers, these are merely numbers, but for me, as a teacher, they are numbers that have faces.


Their faces are those of the boy whose moped broke down, so he walked home from Bryson City to Alarka from his work at a fast-food restaurant, and this was on a school night. They are those of the straight-A girl whose income as a cashier helps pay for rent, for groceries, for gas, and for childcare for her infant son. They are those of the thin boy whose shoes have busted fronts, whose jacket is already too thin for the cool mornings, and, because he is proud, refuses help from the social workers. They are those of the 17- and 18-year-olds who come to my classroom and listen closely when I tell them that the primary importance of knowing grammar is to keep people from unfairly judging them as stupid when they communicate in nonstandard English. They are those who are astonished when we read a cell phone contract, and they see where Verizon uses tricks of rhetoric to make customers relax and merely scan a contract instead of reading it carefully. They are those who tell me they want to be able to write an essay because they want to do well in the required college English courses and get a degree so they don’t always have to bus tables, stack rocks, and change tourists’ bed sheets.

I tell them, not joking, my now worn line about the essay I wrote that won me a white trash fellowship to the Ivy League school where I earned my masters. I tell them they should never lose their dialect or accent, but should make their subjects and verbs agree when speaking to those who can influence the outcome of their lives. I tell them there are many ways to increase their options, to break the poverty cycle, to earn the comfortable lives they see both on television and in the expensive ridgeline developments where they mow grass in the summertime. 

When I tell them all this, I can see I have their attention. I can see the hope, anxiety, and, sometimes, fear that is on their faces. I want to offer them more, to offer them facts about how they can bring about this change, so I bring in the wonderful people from agencies like Talent Search and Upward Bound, who, in turn, tell them of the importance of grades, of hard work, of applying early to colleges, of applying exhaustively for scholarships. And, again, many of them listen. And they begin to look specifically at schools and tuition rates, at room and board costs. They begin to do the math, to ask teachers for reference letters, to stay after class to ask me if I think they are college material, if I think there is any way they can get the money to go to Western, to Duke, to Southwestern, to Haywood. 

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I tell them that if they want it enough, they can make it happen, and a decade ago there was no doubt in what I said. But in October of 2013, I am no longer certain I am speaking the truth. I look at the cuts to funding for state colleges, at cuts in grants to students, at increasing interest rates for student loans, and I hope, again and again, that what I am preparing them for is to live the lives they want, not the one that is forced on them by legislators who are clear sighted regarding corporate profits, but who are willfully blind to the dreams of poor children throughout the state, to the dreams of the poor children whom I teach.

(Dawn Gilchrist-Young can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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