Black Friday has passed, and Cyber Monday has limped away from us. I can’t judge the bargain hunting mass consumerism, because I’ve been in the herd getting up at 2 a.m. for promises of doorbusters. No more, though. My wife and I agree that our kids have more than enough.
We are blessed.
What hasn’t changed is that every year at this time my heart softens and my sympathies swell. The red, green and blue lights of Christmas hit me with nostalgia and sucker me into creating holiday magic for my children like my family did for me years ago.
Invariably, my thoughts turn to less-fortunate children living in the margins of our cities and towns. Children who depend on schools for meals and nurturing support, in addition to a solid education.
This is why I cheer for stories like this one where a principal in Tampa Bay, Florida set up an in-school store, the Treasure Chest, to ensure students who need clothes or personal hygiene supplies can have them.
I’m also moved when I see stories of public school principals who add washing machines to their schools so students who are shamed for having dirty clothes can do their laundry during school time.
I’m also moved when I see NFL player Richard Sherman pay off $27,000 of student lunch debts at Cabrillo Middle School in Santa Clara, California. Paying lunch debts isn’t just for famous footballers either. Good citizens across the country have done the same. One Florida man with no children of his own paid off the debts of 400 children across nine schools and then set up a community fund to continue paying future debts each quarter.
These stories warm my heart. They also hurt my soul and make me think we’re sticking insufficient fingers into enormously unjust dikes.
Allow me a brief tangent here. Over the past year, I’ve watched this video about charity by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg a good number of times. In it, she offers Judaism’s view of three levels of charity: Chesed, Tzedakah and Tzedek.
Chesed, as she explains it, is a voluntary act of loving-kindness that helps the less fortunate. As an example, that could be paying for a child’s lunch because you see they might be “lunch-shamed” for not having the money.
Rabbi Ruttenberg says the next level, Tzedakah, describes the obligatory portion of our resources we give to help others become self-sufficient. This could be setting up a fund like the Florida man to make sure students and families aren’t burdened with lunch costs in perpetuity, in the hopes that they will eventually be economically secure enough to return the favor for others.
At the highest level is Tzedek, and that’s where we ask the most important question. Why are there hungry children in our wealthy country? What structures contribute to them being hungry? How can an obese country have children without food? This is the level at which charity becomes justice.
So, how can we get to the Tzedek level in the fight for solutions to inequities in education?
For some, it means advocating for the education of “the whole child” by providing well-resourced schools.
For others, it means reminding everyone that “the whole child” includes the ability to read, write, think and compute.
All would agree that it is harder with a grumbling stomach.
I don’t know how reformers who range from racial justice hippies to free-market zealots can overcome their deep disagreements about social welfare programs, entitlement spending and the state’s role in curbing poverty—enough to produce broader and more compassionate policies. Still, we’re not off the hook.
What I see in many successful schools that create an advantage for students is an “it takes a village” mentality among parents and neighbors. They volunteer, raise money and pool their talents to ensure the school does well.
Not every school has parents who have the time or money to do what middle-class families do for their schools, but collectively people of all economic levels, all talents and all social positions can make school support a key part of being a good citizen. As Dr. King implored, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.…You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Yes, I’m an unreconstructed believer in the movement for better schools, for improved pedagogical practices, great teaching and outcomes-based education. I also believe a child-saving school support movement would make it easier for educators to get the results we all want.
If we can get up at 2 a.m. and trudge through the snow for a low-tier flatscreen television on Black Friday, I think we can show up for schools and the people in them.
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