We teach. They learn (or not). But how deeply do we know the students we’re teaching? And how many of us have a snapshot of what they’ve taken from us for their journey, and what they’ve now become? Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ compulsively readable memoir of her childhood has given me that gift.
Small Fry (public library) is a clear-eyed narrative of a precarious childhood with a larger-than-life, complicated and imperfect father. Compassionate, but unsparingly honest, Lisa reflects on the “village” that raised her: Bryna, a teacher who sensed the potential in a lackluster student; Tess, whose home and friendship became a refuge during high school; and Keven and Dorothy, neighbors who paid her college tuition when her father wouldn’t. They furnished lifelines and temporary stability as she shifted and rebalanced within a flawed and unpredictable family.
One vivid story takes place in her school library. Fifth- and sixth-grade classes, along with the rest of the school, met weekly in mixed-grade “Literary Club” groups of 8-10 to discuss a book they’d chosen together. To seed their choices, grade-level classes came to the library right after lunch to browse and read. I would usually begin with an enticing read-aloud to ease their transition from a glorious lunch recess on semi-wild terrain with an alarming descent on a steep butt slide and the shaky catwalk called Billy Goat Bridge. Their afternoons would consist of intensely, sometimes relentlessly, social learning activities, a function of the school’s inquiry-based program. To provide a respite, as Lisa accurately remembers, I was very protective of sustained silent reading in the library.
She picked a book at random and moved away from her friends. Fortuitously she had selected a perfect book. The “What’s Happening to My Body?” Book for Girls (public library) spoke directly to the central curiosities of her emerging adolescence. She explored changing body images “in exacting detail,” at first quietly on her own, and then with Elena, a good friend. Both the book and the renewed whispers felt intoxicating and even dangerous. The moment of reckoning, when Lisa assumed I would again right her course, surprised her:
“I didn’t notice Debbie until she was so close her skirt blocked light. This book was proof that she was right about me. She leaned down from her waist, not smiling. I thought she would deliver the damning speech about my character, or move me, again, into isolation. Instead, she held out another book about sex and changing bodies, with pictures of naked people. Like there was nothing wrong with looking at books like this. When we were close to having finished that one, she walked over and handed us yet another, smiling. Her smile was kind, but her eyes glinted, as if this might be a trick. She continued to feed us books; there were at least six of these books in the library, although I had never seen them before. We pored over them the next few days, sanctioned by her, as if this subject was plain and right and necessary, like history or math” (172)
There’s more. Perhaps a story that Lisa herself will now recall. Early in her middle-school years, we took a group of students to a San Francisco museum. Just next to the parking garage, a homeless man lay on his side with his belongings next to a steaming vent.
"I had just begun to ask questions"
Unnerved by his wretchedness and muttering, students unloaded questions – some simplistic, some fearful, some outraged – when we debriefed the trip back in our “safe” suburban Peninsula school. Later, in written reflection, Lisa recalled that she had been angry at first, blaming government incompetence:
“I wanted to know why the homeless are so hidden away? Why couldn’t I see homeless children and their families? Why is East Palo Alto next to a beautiful neighborhood with beautiful houses and beautiful people who have too much to spare? Who built the wall around East Palo Alto so that we cannot see the houses that crumble with age and poverty? Why is my stomach full when my neighbor’s is empty? Why am I scared to peek over the wall that separates me and you?
…I had just begun to ask questions.”
As educators, how could we not respond?
Lee, the Humanities teacher, and I dumped our preplanned research unit. Instead, we would focus on the causes, problems and possible solutions of homelessness. In response to the intensity of their feelings, we fused community service with cognitive inquiry from the beginning.
During Internet research (we’d recently pulled Cat 5 cable to wire the school ourselves instead of waiting for administration) a student found a Stanford study on homeless families, children and youth. Ray, a statistician and parent, taught us how to question the data to recognize that this seemingly unbiased research study came with its own unwritten assumptions. After watching excerpts from The Shadow Children, a documentary being filmed locally, students argued over lunch about whether it would be better to return runaways to their families or provide them with shelter and education.
Some pored over the words and images in Fly Away Home (public library) and Anyplace But Here (public library), precursors to what would become a flood of children’s books on homelessness. Having read Rachel and her Children (public library), we went to the Commonweath Club to hear Jonathan Kozol speak. I played the Phil Collins’ single of “Another Day in Paradise” and we read and discussed the lyrics after I read an teacher’s account of using it in a “predominantly white, largely middle-class, junior-senior English class” in a Florida public school (66).
Students began to interview people working in successful programs – a low-income housing developer, a public school principal whose school served children from a local shelter and a representative of a nonprofit that provided housing and support services to homeless families. They collected donations for food pantries, knitted hats for Samaritan House and worked in a soup kitchen. At the same time they investigated specific aspects of homelessness that interested them, including local demographics, family structures, maternal health care, runaways, jobs and education, mental illness, veterans, welfare and substance abuse. Firsthand service experience tempered their initial judgments of “bad” and “undeserving.” Again, Lisa wrote:
“I began to see the interconnections between the sub-topics of homelessness. In order for me to understand the burden plight (sic) of homeless children I also had to understand the consequences of drug abuse and alcohol, the family and individual psychology of the homeless child, the education barriers that a homeless child encounters, racism and the concept and importance of home. I made charts and diagrams of how the problems of homeless children interconnected with the other sub-topics of homelessness.”
At the end of the year they collaboratively created a proposal of negotiated solutions to present to our senator Tom Lantos, a champion of human rights, accompanied by an individually written I-Search Paper (public library) filled with insights from students and for us. The dual roles of community service activists and academic researchers necessitated both doing and analyzing in tandem and resulted in emotional struggles and learning strategies, heartfelt challenges and uncomfortable growth. Lee and I recognized how different this experience had been from the teflon impact of our previous research projects. Here’s more of what Lisa wrote:
We are the Homeless Children of America by Lisa Brennan-Jobs (1992)
“As I began my study of homeless children, I believed in the homeless problem as clear cut, and easily defined. To me they were a group of individuals that had no homes. I saw their problems in a statistical form and made stereotypes that fit the statistics. Looking for stereotypes because they are so easy to understand, I believed that the population of homeless children could be easily defined. Now I realize there is not just a category called ‘homeless children,’ there are many more subcategories of homeless problems. It is not just being without a home that causes unrest in the homeless population. It is the problems that are caused by not having the stability or privacy of a home…
…the homeless are permanent in America until we help them solve their problems. We have grown in our attitude toward the homeless population, we have gained legislation to aid the homeless and we can now see, by the progress that we have made in the past, the immense job we have ahead of us to solve the homeless problem. American must salvage its future by saving, supporting and investing in our homeless children and their families. I can identify with the homeless child.
My struggle for life is not the same as the survival of the homeless child, yet I can somehow empathize with the pain of not having a place to call home. I have moved 26 times in my life and each move is just as painful as the first. It is hard to establish new roots and it takes a long time. I have lived longest in the house I live in now and I feel more stable and happy than I ever have in my life before. I can remember the times when I felt I had no control of my life. No roots to hold me from blowing away. It is scary for me to think of how large the homeless population is and how much of America’s future will depend on these lost children. They are slowly writing our nation’s future in collaboration with the rest of the new generation.”
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect the freedom to read. It also secures the freedom to choose what to learn. It’s not easy for educators to allow student choices. Ideas are nipped in the frost of required curriculum topics, instructional convenience and school board governance. We narrow our own horizons when we avoid risk in excusing ourselves from doing what’s not deemed “developmentally appropriate” or when we blame “the powers that be” for our own inertia.
Let’s be humble and recognize that we don’t always know in the moment why “small fry” ask questions. But, as Lisa’s words make stunningly clear, we owe them our commitment to help them seek answers and our courage in defending their First Amendment right to ask.