The little boy, age six, had two silver caps where his front teeth should have been. Speculation was he must have been raised on sugary drinks instead of milk. He had awful, stale-smelling breath, such as I had never before experienced on a child. He could barely read and didn’t care. His attention span was impossibly short.
I was participating in a reading program for first-graders in a public school in a disadvantaged neighborhood. The program took place every day, with different volunteers on a rotating basis. We’d get a 10-minute training session and then meet our kids, one on one, two children, half an hour each.
The trainers asked us to work on specific reading skills each time, but this boy was too easily distracted. He made jokes or fussed. I tried to find out if he knew how to brush his teeth. He said yes but I didn’t believe him. I wondered if he was hungry. He never admitted to it. The school had a free breakfast program, but the teachers told me some kids arrived too late and missed it; they implied this was another sign of chaos in the kids’ homes. I asked the boy gently about his home life. His evasive answers hinted that he spent after-school hours in the backyard with the dog, ignored by grownups, if any were around. Someone told me he had already been held back and was repeating first grade.
My other student, a little girl, was also a poor reader who could not concentrate. From her minimal descriptions I guessed she was in a single-mother household with no father present. Once I asked about other family members. “Grandma does drugs,” she said matter-of-factly, quietly knocking my guts across the room. There probably was no grandpa. She missed several sessions. The teachers said she was often out sick. From what little I learned, she seemed, even more than the boy, to have an empty home life alone in bare surroundings. No guidance, no mental stimulation, too much neglect, and probably very little love.
It was just chance that I got two severely troubled kids; I wasn’t equipped to help them, and I didn’t see much hope for their futures. Other children in the program were attentive and cooperative, and appeared to be benefitting.
This year, the Legislature debated a proposal to tap the state’s Permanent Fund for early childhood intervention programs. The proposal has been defeated for now, but it’s backed by a large coalition and will no doubt be back next year.
The Permanent Fund is such a hot-button issue that legislative debate focused on the narrow issue of the money with less attention on how the money would be used. In the coming months, more New Mexicans should be examining the proposed programs to decide whether they merit as much confidence as the proponents are asking for.
The programs are described on the website investinkidsnow.org. There’s also a detailed booklet, published by St. Joseph Community Health (a leading member of the coalition), that analyzes goals and strategies. The goals are very ambitious, encompassing a broad range of social services to address a depressing and all too familiar list of social problems: poverty, illiteracy, mental health, teen pregnancy, and so on.
These programs go deeper than what we think of as the “education” system that begins at the schoolhouse door. They involve major intervention into the lives of families. And they require multi-agency coordination, something the New Mexico bureaucracy is not necessarily good at.
With so many New Mexico children growing up without education or prospects, we have to do something. Remembering those two children, I hope we muster the determination to do it right.