Christina with her Baph students

I’m actually not hungry. Yesterday, there was longing. I was happy to get out of bed and scoop pap into a microwaveable container I could heat up before school started and on my little lunch break. I proudly toted the container through the hallway and smiled through the comments of “Eww” and “Are you just eating rice?” I got from my fellow elementary school teachers. I was pumped to remind them about my fast to raise money for the children of CHOSA, and even more thrilled to hear that some of them would be donating. By 5 pm, however, the headache and stomach-rumbling became almost unbearable, the pap almost completely unpalatable. Thanksgiving leftovers glared at me from the refrigerator. Chicken and sausage gumbo called my name from the cupboard, begging to be poured over the grit-sy looking makeshift pap. Visions of steak danced in my head. Feeling woozy and unable to work, I went to bed.

But today, I’m not hungry.  There’s no longing.  I have everything I’ve ever needed and more.  And as the fast goes on, my mind is full even though my stomach is empty of everything but tea.  (I actually really am not hungry—my taste buds are rebelling against pap until at least until morning, and my stomach is fine…  I get why the poorest South Africans eat this—cheap as dirt and keeps you full.  Headache and delayed mental functions persist.  Thank you, Microsoft Word, for Spell Check.)  No.  Today, I’m doing that cultural comparing exercise that’s inevitable if you choose to be critical and aware.  The image of the Baph children laughing and playing on the playground, entertaining themselves with puddles and empty bottles, taking care of each other and begging for more time practicing subtraction, has been at the forefront of my mind as I’ve gone to work these past two days.  As a reading interventionist for first, second, and third graders in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, I work with some of the poorest and most disadvantaged children in our country.  In 2008, our students tested in the bottom 5% of all children nationwide.  They come to school at an oral language deficit, providing additional obstacles to their ability to read.  (Comparatively speaking, though, they enjoy the privilege of speaking English as their native tongue, the language with the highest “currency value” in the world.)  100 percent of our students are on the free-lunch program (thank goodness for it!  Two squares and a snack, guaranteed!), and 100 percent of my students are black.  Even our youngest girls have image issues due to abuse and neglect; our boys are extraordinarily angry and violent.  I work with the children who are the most behind and, for or because of that reason, tend to be the most volatile. New Orleans, for the wonderful city it is, falls prey to the microcosm effect… if you allow it to, it becomes the bubble beyond which you don’t see.  The day before starting my fast, however, I had one of those moments that refocuses your perspective: 

I was conferencing with Phil, a third grader two years behind in his reading and an unbearable behavior problem in his regular classroom environment.  Normally sullen, pugnacious, and fully disrespectful, a huge grin graced his face—we’ve been working at improving his reading comprehension, and he passed his test.  When I asked him what his motivation was to keep learning, he had no answer.  He didn’t understand the value of his education.  Desperate to keep the momentum going, I embarked on one of those “tough love” conversations—that third grade matters more that a boy could possibly understand right now; that, in this country, education can change outcomes; that even though Daddy was in jail, it doesn’t need to be Phil’s life, too; that the dirty truth is that the federal government uses third grade test scores to estimate how many jail cells will be needed in the future.  As fearful tears started to roll down his cheeks, I held his hand and let him know that school is the difference, and he’d shown that yes, he can succeed.  The words, however, that truly made the difference: “What a wonderful opportunity that you get to go to school.  Some children in our world don’t have that.”  Khayelitsha sprung before my eyes in all its squalored but proud glory.  The children of CHOSA blessedly receive education, shelter, food, medicine, a warm bed… love.  There are so many more who have much, much less.  As Phil walked out of my room, having pinky-promised to keep his mouth and fists in check, reading certificate in hand, his head held high, his request for more books made, I couldn’t stop thinking about how different our nation’s poor are from those in South Africa.

It goes without saying that in the US, even the poorest Americans live like royalty compared to the children and families we fast for.  We forget our basic blessings which we did nothing much to deserve, given to us by the happenstance of our birth.  The children of CHOSA are serving to remind me of that right now.  Their immutable joy in the face of adversity still leaves me awestruck.  The passion and humanity of the people who saw children in need and answered the call to give them the basic human rights they deserve warrant more than the word “inspiring.”  It’s a reminder to us all to celebrate even the smallest things, but to also to take our blessings and put them to work.  I’m honored to be part of the fast and am fired up for this last day—it’ll be spent watching the videos Alma posted in her blog, putting up my pictures of the Baph kids as my screensaver, harassing everyone I know for donations, and engineering yet another plan to get Phil and the rest of my students on track for the rest of their incredible educational careers.  After all… what’s really stopping them?

Christina Grayson, New Orleans, LA

CHOSA Alum, Baphumelele

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1 Comment.

  • Great article Christina. I’m shocked to hear that the government actually uses 3rd graders test scores to plan for future prison populations….