A bright pink stack of stapled papers caught my eye as my son, Lynden, unloaded his school bag. He smiled as I read the perfectly preserved note, announcing the school trip:
“This year 8th graders have the opportunity to attend Gradventure at Universal Studios in Orlando. The cost will be $148 … Money will be collected in the cafeteria next week or until sold out. Tickets are on a first come first serve basis and they are limited to the number of spots. There are NO REFUNDS for this event.”
You could imagine Lynden’s wide grin. He excitedly burst out, “I can’t wait! Universal Studios with just my friends until 2 a.m.! That’s SICK!”
As you’d expect, I was pleased for him, too, and started to write the check. As I handed it over, though, I began to imagine: What if I didn’t have the money to send him on this school trip?
I imagine my options would be scarce.
Option #1: Wait on the charity of others
I could check with the school for the availability of sponsorships. I would undoubtedly be told we would be placed on a waiting list for less-fortunate families whose way would be paid for by other parents who contributed to help out. The risk, of course, is that given the limit of available tickets for this school trip, attending from the waiting list would be a long shot.
Option #2: Put off a bill
I might figure out a way to delay another financial obligation. But, let’s face it, that will be tough given the few days’ notice I’d been given to come up with the cash. I may not even get my next paycheck until after the deadline.
Option #3: Ask others for financial help
I could ask the grandparents or close friends to help, promising them repayment when our financial well-being stabilized. In doing so, I’d have good intentions but possibly no clue how to promptly repay their generosity.
Option #4: Sorry, kid
I could simply tell my child we can’t afford this school trip. While not surprised, he’d be shattered. I’d apologize for his having to endure hearing the excitement in the voices of his friends for the next two months as they plan their Universal visit. I would shed tears over the idea that, even at a subsidized price, my middle-school graduate would be left watching a movie with the other “poor kids” in the guidance counselor’s office that day. I’d feel the embarrassment for him (and myself) about not being able to provide like other families. I’d hear him make excuses for skipping the trip like: “I don’t want to go” or “The rides are too scary anyway.”
Yeah, I can only imagine.
And, then again, I really can’t.
Grateful, embarrassed at same time
Poverty may not often enter discussions in our homes, but it silently surrounds our neighborhoods. In our school district in suburban Tampa, Florida, the rates of free and reduced lunch subsidies hover between 20% and 35%. If nearly one-third of local families cannot afford $15 per week for lunch, they sure as hell cannot send in a $148 check on three-days notice.
While solving poverty in our communities is a broad issue, the idea that school systems are inadvertently ostracizing (and ultimately excluding) poor kids is unacceptable. This problem does not pop up only for fancy school trips. What about:
- The massive school supply lists at the beginning of the year?
- Schools charging students admission to attend school functions like sporting events and dances?
- Even if schools provide students with free computers to take home, what about the cost for high-speed internet at home?
- The cell phone plan required for parents to download apps to stay abreast of our kids’ assignments, tests and grades?
Often there are options to help. Typically, though, these solutions involve a burden of time, access or bureaucratic procedures that families cannot bear or may not know about altogether.
Poverty, in any context, is sad. When applied to school-aged kids, though, it is heartbreaking and shameful. As an active parent seeing these inequities, I should make my voice heard and help in any way I can. I wish I could donate a huge sum that allows for all to attend, free of the financial hardship doing so might provide. But I can’t.
Instead, I write my check quietly.
Certainly, this is a happy silence as I hand the school trip money over to my joyful son — a far different situation than his less privileged classmates sitting in anguish after reading that same, bright pink paper.