Sunday, October 17, 2010


I've been struggling with this topic internally for some time. Actually, it began a year or so ago when I began researching for a grant I was writing for Fortress Youth Development Center, a faith-based nonprofit org whose main emphasis is providing literacy training and support for children who don't seem to be getting in their "at-risk" schools. It escalated recently when I began hearing about a new film called "Waiting for 'Superman'", a documentary exploring the state of education in America. I saw that film tonight, and it made me cry. My heart hurts for kids I know personally, kids I saw in the movie but will never meet, and kids who haven't even been born yet. I don't say that lightly. My heart is heavy. I physically ache.
When Darren and I were finally ready to buy our first home after 13 years of marriage, we had two criteria: close enough proximity to Fortress that we could use our home in our ministry there, and be in a good school district.

I did exhaustive research of the area's high schools, public and private, and learned that Paschal's honors program left every other school in the county in its dust when it came to National Merit Scholars. (Click here to see the most recent NMS scholars from Tarrant County. The trend continues.) Paschal is seen as "the school of choice" for hundreds of academically-minded families in Fort Worth, and parents who live outside its boundaries camp out for up to 5 days in frigid weather each year to have a shot at transferring in. I felt confident that Paschal was the district we wanted. Next, I looked at elementary schools. Two of Fort Worth's best are in the Paschal pyramid, which narrowed our home search further. We ultimately chose to buy in a neighborhood served by Lily B Clayton Elementary. We've been wonderfully pleased with our choices. Paschal offered everything Dani ever wanted and needed in high school, and Sweet Lily B has been a serendipitous experience for our boys and for us - even better than we'd hoped it would be. We couldn't be happier.

But we're the lucky ones. We had a choice, and were in a position to make that choice a reality. I thank God for it on a regular basis - for our house and how it became our home, for our neighborhood and it being everything we didn't even realize we wanted, and for the schools which so wonderfully nurture and support our children.

And yet, my heart still aches. Why?

There are children in our city - in fact, children who live a mere three miles from my front door - who are born into abject poverty. They are born to drug-addicted parents, mothers who are in and out of jail, fathers who are never seen nor heard from, fathers who don't even know they're fathers. They are brought home from the county hospital to live in tiny apartments with 11 other children. They are raised by aunts and grandmothers and cousins who are living in poverty because their parents did, and their parents did before that. They are raised by loving, gracious, practical, hopeful, supportive parents who make sure they attend school and do their homework and ache with the knowledge that they can't catapult their children out of this cycle. Generational poverty is an ugly thing. It's heartwrenching. It hurts. It feels hopeless.

And because of our country's educational system, it IS hopeless.

Think about it. How many times have you seen a homeless person, or a poor person, or a bunch of troublemaking hoodlums, and thought to yourself, "If they'd just get a JOB....". No really, think about it and be honest. You have. *I* have.

Now think about this. In Fort Worth, and in every other city in America which houses an inner-city, urban poor neighborhood, big or small, there is an epidemic. It's called illiteracy. Surely not in America, you say. EVERYONE has the same opportunity in America. I tell you, they do not.

The kids whom I love and cherish at Fortress Youth Development Center certainly do not have the same educational opportunities that my own children have. Three miles and an interstate highway seperate them, yet they are world's apart. In neighborhoods like the one Fortress is situated in - across America, not just in Fort Worth -illiteracy is a very real problem. In this demographic, 50 percent of graduating 8th graders will drop out of school before they finish high school. Of the fifty percent who DO graduate high school, half of those will read on a 3rd grade level. HALF OF THOSE WHO GRADUATE HIGH SCHOOL READ ON A THIRD GRADE LEVEL. And we think that "if they'd just work", they wouldn't be poor. Tell me - can an adult who can't read Harry Potter or find words in a dictionary or properly fill out an application ever land a job that might pull him out of generational poverty? "If they'd just get a job...". If only it were that simple.

That adult raises a new generation of children who grow up in the same abject poverty, attend the same schools that failed his generation, and the cycle continues. And continues. There is little PTA support in the inner city schools. There is no money to fund PTA programs. There are no PTA boosters to supply the schools' needs, much less extras. There are no fundraisers, because the parents of the students can't support them, and besides - in these neighborhoods, no one dares to go door-to-door to solicit sales. No one can go online and donate $40 to a walkathon. And so, there are no wonderful art programs, or chess clubs, or fancy new playground equipment, or new laptops for every teacher, or RIF days, or visiting authors, or Career Days.

But the children? They're alike. JaVunte has the same dreams as my own sons do. He wants the same things for Christmas. He likes the same music. He, too, makes fun of Justin Beiber. He loves the Cowboys and is excited for the Rangers. He loves recess, turns his nose up at cooked carrots, struggles with his multiplication tables, thinks about what he wants to be when he grows up, has big dreams for his life, believes he can do ANYthing, loves to play Connect Four, daydreams about buying out Toys R Us, watches the clock inch its way toward 3:00 every afternoon. In every way, he is the same as Aidan and Ian.

In every way except one. He was born into a circumstance that he didn't ask to be born into: that of generational poverty. It's not his fault, but it's his fate. And if something doesn't change in America with the way we teach our disadvantaged children, it will be the fate of HIS children, and of their children. And the cycle will continue. That, my friends, tears at my heart.
There was a quote in the documentary tonight that grabbed me by the throat.
"What is our obligation to other people's children?"
My children have it made.
Your children have it made.
What is our obligation to OTHER people's children?

Friday, March 19, 2010

home invasion

I had just rolled over for a few more minutes of snuggle time when both boys marched into our bedroom and announced,

"Mom, the cat has been BAD."

I imagined mounds of cat yack on the bottoms of my curtains, piles of cat poop at the base of the stairs, and other bad-cat shenanigans.

"She took a loaf of bread to the family room and it's all over the place. Aaaand, she tore into her cat food and ate the whole bag!"

Darren and I looked at each other and both said, "That's not the cat."

I was scared of what we'd find. Mice? A rat? A squirrel. Remember the bird? The possum story flashed across my mind, too. Darren headed downstairs to see if we'd left the back door open and something had walked right in, but a quick check assured us that wasn't the case. It was latched and locked.

As I worked my way (timidly) down the stairs, I immediately realized that strange things were afoot at the Circle K; the cat was not on my heels, nor was she underfoot herding me to her empty food bowl as she does every morning without fail. No, she was cowering in my bedroom, budging nary an inch. Weird.

The first place I looked was the family room. Sure enough, there was a bread wrapper with a large hole chewed in it, and bread crumbs strewn about everywhere. I ambled to the kitchen, where Darren was staring curiously at the wall high above the refrigerator; it was covered in muddy paw prints. A bifold door that we'd taken from the entry to our laundry area and stored between the fridge and the wall was on its side in the middle of the kitchen. I have no idea how we didn't hear it come crashing down in the night; our bedroom is situated directly above the kitchen.

The cat's food dish was empty, which isn't unusual, but her water bowl was full of dirt, which IS. Also noticeable was a bag of cat food, torn open and EMPTY. We couldn't figure out what did it, or how it got in.

Suddenly, Darren remembered something he'd read recently. "Raccoon!" he shouted. "Down the chimney!"

When I opened the door to the front room, the stench of animal urine greeted me. Sure enough, there were puddles on the hardwoods. Pictures, a plant, and books were knocked over on a table. Across the room, we discovered more paw prints, this time on boxes and rugs and other piles of garage sale stuff I've been collecting from closets and cabinets and storing in the corner of this room. There were also prints on the window sill.

These prints were much clearer than the muddy prints in the kitchen, and from my recent Crime Scene Investigation escapades at Fortress (I never blogged about that, did I?), I recognized immediately that the intruder was a raccoon, and that it had been tromping through fingerprint powder. Or not. Perhaps it made more sense that is was soot.

And sure enough, it was. Newly fallen sand, leaves, and pebbles dusted the logs in the fireplace.

I snapped a few pics, cleaned up the urine (which was ORANGE. Disgusting.), got ready for work, and left Darren to handle the rest. As I left the house, the cat was still cowering upstairs. What a waste of an animal that cat is. She acts like a guard dog when we have invited guests, and yet when a raccoon invades at night, she cries like a girl.

Or maybe she protected us. After all, there was no evidence that the raccoon ever made its way up the stairs. Whatever the case, Ashlie the Cat was a fraidy cat this morning.

I only hope that when the raccoon perched its paws on the window sill to look out over Magnolia Avenue, there were no neighbors jogging by, or walking their dogs, or heading to work in the predawn hours. "Those Kocurs are a bucn of riff-raff. First Naked Guy, now a pet raccoon."

Never a dull moment around here. I can't make this stuff up.