Students in America used to bring a ripe red apple, and place it on the teacher’s desk while entering class as a thank-you gift for the day’s instruction. Today, however, many students receive apples – and much more — from their schools rather than give them, because they are homeless.
For those of us who ate breakfast and dinner at home when we were young and were given lunch money to eat in the school cafeteria, it’s hard to imagine having kids in the class who had no home. You can’t ask, “Can I come over to your house after school to play video games?”
Unfortunately, 1.1 million American school children call homeless shelters, vehicles on the streets, and even the streets, home. They certainly won’t be bringing apples to their teachers. The barriers that homelessness imposes upon school kids are significant.
How would I cope as a seventh grader living in a 100-bed shelter?
“Make sure you finish your homework tonight!” shouts the teacher when the end-of-the-day bell rings. Finish my homework? Yeah right. My home is a shelter with a hundred other adults and kids, in a warehouse with bunk beds.
It feels like an emergency evacuation center, except all of the people are poor. I sit on the bed at night trying to do homework, with screaming and groaning all around me. My lap is my desk, and the lighting is a blinking fluorescent bulb high up on the ceiling.
Can I finish my homework at night? Sometimes.
“You want to go to McDonald’s after school?” asks my classmate as we pack our books in our backpack at the end of the day. Are you serious? McDonald’s? For me, that’s like going to some fancy, white tablecloth restaurant in the rich part of town.
My meal at the shelter is on a plastic plate, cafeteria style. Food isn’t terrible, but when they’re serving a hundred starving homeless people at one time, it certainly isn’t a candlelight dinner. And it’s not McDonald’s.
“No thanks,” I tell my friend. “Gotta go home and study.”
“You better go home and get a good night’s rest!” shouts my track coach. “The track meet is tomorrow.” The words “good” and “rest” just don’t fit into my typical night. You try sleeping with a hundred other people in one room. The noise, the lights, the people walking around – I might as well be sleeping on the side of the freeway.
The only “good” in my nights is when my mother tells me “good night.”
“Stay safe!” shouts the friendly security guard at the school exit gates, as we all file out of the campus on our way home. He is the big, almost cartoon character-looking guy who serves as our protector during the day.
I wish I could bring him home at night to guard my family. Darkness is when the feeling of safety goes away. The strange noises. The feeling of helplessness. I worry about my mom and sister. There’s no way they can protect themselves. Violence is the nightly ghost that haunts me.
Being homeless and going to school at the same time is tough. How am I supposed to make the grades? Maybe I could bribe my teacher by bringing her an apple every day?