“I have a $140,000 budget just for the wine!”
I asked her to repeat the number. That couldn’t be right. And it wasn’t right, but it was correct.
It wasn’t right because my students don’t have their own textbooks, so I can’t assign homework problems unless I manage to get copies made for them. And it’s never promised that the one copy machine our school has will be working when I want to do that. It wasn’t right because in order to take my students on a field trip to look at colleges, we had to fundraise over $700 just to pay for the bus. And it’s certainly not right, when I look at the amount of money I spent in the last month alone on food, notebooks, and pencils for my students whose parents couldn’t afford them. It’s not right because instead of being impressed by that number, I spent the rest of the conversation thinking about what that money could buy; what $140,000 could buy for students instead of rich businessmen. And it’s not right because she was impressed by that number.
It’s definitely not right that she makes more money planning parties for rich people at a big bank, than I do teaching kids in the inner city. But I get how capitalism works, so I’ll accept that. But what I can’t accept is that $140,000 could pay for at least three more teachers at my school so that my kids could have the opportunity to take extra-curricular classes like music or psychology. Or it could pay for a sports program at several inner-city schools, so maybe schools like ours could stop playing flag football on the paved park across the street as a substitute for real football. So maybe, just maybe, some of our amazingly talented kids could go to college on a sports scholarship. Or maybe $140,000 could make the school food my students get actually edible, so they aren’t forced to eat questionable food since they may not be getting food that night at home. $140,000 could pay for air conditioning, so I don’t have to stop my class again because of a student fainting due to the blistering heat. All those glasses of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay could really add up to something.
I’d like to think that we are a logical society. Yet no one really questions why it’s okay that we stick with the status quo that industries that make more money are inherently more important and have greater status. I recently read an article on Huffington Post that said CEO salaries have increased 1000% compared to their workers. Those workers are college educated, high-level people within their corporation. Then, you need to consider the lower level workers- the janitors, the maintenance people, the food service workers who are making even less, minimum wage. Those workers, many times, are my students’ parents who work two jobs to be able to afford rent and food. They said that CEO’s have moved from asking, “How much is enough?” to “how much can I get?” I know that human nature is self-serving and we protect ourselves (and immediate relationships) before we consider helping others. When CEO’s spend time asking, “how much can I get,” it follows logically that they are really saying, “How much can I take from the workers?” But when did we decide that it was okay to spend the equivalent of a wealthy person’s salary on wine for other rich people, while other people scramble to make a living; while other people fight for an education that others take for granted?
I am a teacher not for the money, not for the accolades (for which there are almost none, by the way), and certainly not for the status. I teach inner city kids because I need to wake up and make a difference every day. I teach special education students because I want struggling students to know that there will always be someone in their corner who knows they are smart, capable and important. I teach these kids because I want them to know there is always someone who will be there for them.
I don’t have a solution for how to fix this. All I know is during that conversation with my friend, all I could hear was that my students were worth a whole lot less to our society than her rich client’s choice of wine. And that is something I don’t quite know how to accept.
So for now, I’ll imagine the world, for a second, where no one is impressed by a wine budget of $140,000. I’ll dream of a world where any organization that can afford such things for their rich clients, would be equally generous towards the less fortunate only a few miles away. I can dream of a world where, heaven forbid, these big businesses could practice an ounce of austerity and think of the difference they could make in the world around them. And at very least, maybe we can stop being impressed by obscene budgets for rich people’s parties while education budgets continue to get slashed. Please don’t take this the wrong way and call me a socialist. I believe in capitalism and profit and making earnings for your hard work (despite the fact that I chose a career that doesn’t allow me to do that). I’m not arguing that teachers should make more money, either, because that is a whole other can of worms. Society doesn’t value me, and I’m okay with that. But my students should not be growing up with the implicit knowledge that they aren’t valued either. They are keenly aware of the world around them. They see what others have and what they don’t. Even down to what the schools outside of their area have and what theirs doesn’t. While you can make the argument that it’s okay for these large corporations to spend their money on wine and parties because they’ve “earned” it, I cannot accept any argument that implies it’s fair that my students don’t have access to the same education that schools just a few miles away have. It isn’t fair; it won’t ever be fair that they don’t have a sports program, art classes or music classes. They are starting off at a disadvantage, and then the job market says it’s okay that they scarcely make a living wage because they don’t have the education needed to make more. We aren’t giving them the opportunity for social mobility in the same way that even I was. And maybe I do the job I do to fight the guilt that I was born just a little bit luckier. There is no difference between who they are as children and who I was, accept that I happened to be born more privileged. I got to go to a school that gave me infinitely more opportunities than they could ever have, and I did nothing to earn that. They ask me sometimes what my high school was like. And I always answer their questions honestly, despite every ounce of me that wants to lie so that they don’t know how much more I had them then.
“Miss, you had your own math text book you got to take home with you?”
“Miss, you had AP classes in ever subject?”
“Miss, your school did plays and had musical instruments?”
What I am saying is that there are people in this world who have the means to make a difference beyond what I can do in my classroom. I’ll never make enough money to fund a sports team, or pay the salary of or instruments for a band teacher. But there are people who do. There are organizations that can. And I hope beyond hope that maybe someone will take that wine budget once in a while and choose to do just a little bit of good with it. And maybe that someone will, by some slim chance, be reading this right now. I know a lot of teachers and students who could really use it.