Ivan of Camden, NJ

February 1, 2007 at 9:25 pm Leave a comment

Tonight I watched a 20/20 episode that I TiVoed last week; Diane Sawyer spent a year with children growing up in Camden, NJ, a.k.a. “Murder City, U.S.A.” According to Camden’s mayor, it’s the poorest city in the nation, even though New Jersey is the wealthiest state.

There were several children profiled, but Ivan captured my heart. He lives with his mom and his little brother. They’re homeless. His mother is 25 and has no job. His grandmother is 44 years old and addicted to crack. And all this child wants to do is learn how to read. If you watch the video (and it’s worth watching), you’ll see that he sits down with the school district superintendent on his first day of kindergarten. He proudly displays his knowledge of threes (i.e., there are three wheels on a tricycle), but is completely baffled when the superintendent asks him how many meals he’s supposed to eat every day. (The answer, if you haven’t caught the pattern, is three.)

All of the children the show profiled were struggling in school by the middle of the year. Seven-year-old Moochie, bright-eyed and reveling in science, art, and straight A’s in the first days of school, gradually slips into B’s and C’s. Her countenance is noticeably dimmer. She gets migraines when her resentful mother and alcoholic father argue downstairs. Migraines. At seven years old.

Seventeen-year-old Billy wants to be the first person in his family to graduate from high school. He works five hours a day, five days a week. He makes $32.50 a night and doesn’t get home until after 11 pm. Then he does his homework and goes to bed, only to start over again the next day. His teachers tell him that in order to pass his English class, all he has to do is do it.

It’s a conversation I’ve had so many times. You’re perfectly capable of doing it; you just have to actually do it.

My school district isn’t as rough as Camden, but some of my students come from very similar situations. For many, their only guaranteed meal is the free lunch they get at school. Still, I saw something in the Camden kids that I don’t always see in mine: dreams. The Camden kids want a better life – maybe it’s because theirs couldn’t get much worse. Last week, I sat in a parent meeting with a student who had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. And I don’t mean she was struggling to find a perfect-fit career; I mean she honestly didn’t have any plans for after high school, and when pressed to name an area of interest – any area of interest – it was like pulling teeth to get any kind of response out of her. It’s not uncommon. Many of my students seem to be content with just barely scraping by…and I’m not really sure why that is.

Billy got his diploma.

And I’ll be praying that little Ivan has the strength to hold onto his dreams; they’re his ticket out of Camden.


Entry filed under: Education, Television.

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