A Lesson Learned?

I had to stop by the high school in our neighbor town today, and as I approached the front door, I noticed a student sitting on the bench outside. He seemed like a nice kid, he greeted me with a “hi, how are you?” as I walked past him.

I finished my business inside the school, and left the building. He was still there. So I stopped and asked him, “What are you doing out here? Just enjoy sitting in -20 windchill?”

He replied, “I’m sitting outside all day for a class.”

Me: “For a class? You’re just sitting?”

Him: “yeah, I’m just sitting here. We’re taking turns doing it, so we can see how the homeless people feel.”

Me: “oohh kaay. Well, good luck with that.”

And, as my head exploded inside the gorgeous hat that Joy gave me (I promise, I’ve washed it), I walked away. I was in a mad hurry to get Josh’s lunch to him on time, otherwise I might have stayed and quizzed this young man further.

My head was exploding because this “exercise” he was doing is, plainly put, idiotic. His teacher is a moron if she thinks that sitting on a bench for a day is going to help kids understand homelessness.

First of all, homelessness happens for myriad reasons, and rarely is it related to sheer, unbridled laziness. Homeless people do not just sit on benches for 8 hours a day. When it’s this cold out, if they don’t have shelter, they are seeking it out, either by finding a soup kitchen or other public/church funded ‘warm spot’, or by moving to an abandoned building, even into a cardboard box.

But our young friend had none of that. He was sitting on a bench, in front of a brand-new high school, wearing a parka, snow pants, snowmobiling boots, a thermal hat and mittens. He was ready for the weather. A homeless person likely would consider himself lucky to have one of those pieces.

He was not searching for firewood to warm himself. He was not looking for food, nor was he asking me for money – either through a handout or by offering to wash my windshield.

He was not drunk or otherwise addicted, or fighting a mental health condition. He was not trying to find a job. Likely, he would return home to a nice, warm house where his mother had made a nice warm and filling dinner for him.

He was not “experiencing homelessness”, he was experiencing the job of “Wal-mart greeter.”

So how would I change the exercise to make it relevant (since I don’t have a problem with people understanding homelessness)? Take the kids on a field trip for a weekend. Do one of two exercises:

  1. Set up in a park. Assign the kids to set up a “homeless community”, using whatever they can find as shelter. They’d have to find their own stuff to burn for heat, and seek out their own food. I don’t know that this would work very well in a small town like ours, because there are people on every block who would open their hearts and their homes – providing everything from firewood to tents to sleeping bags, and bringing out meals and hot chocolate.

So, plan B comes to mind, one I like a whole lot better…

  1. Take the students to a “real” big city. A place like Chicago, or Minneapolis, which are 4-6 hours from here. Take those kids to a homeless shelter and allow them to volunteer for the weekend, serving in the soup line, or cleaning linens. Actually talk with those people who come through for a meal and a warm place to sleep. Find out how they ended up there, and what they actually go through on a daily basis. How do they survive when it’s so bitterly cold out, or when the temps are excruciatingly hot? Do they see a way out? What are they doing to improve their situation? Or are they like the “hobos” of old, riding the rails, as it were, and enjoying their life “on the outside”?

But don’t just plop your backside on a bench for a couple of hours and say you know how they feel. That’s like putting on a sleep mask and taking your dog for a walk around the block, and saying that you know all about being blind.

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6 Responses to A Lesson Learned?

  1. Joy says:

    What a wasted experience this class is getting. To just sit outside the school all day doing nothing? I SO agree with you Laura and I wish my kids would have gotten to do such a thing. What an experience it would be to volunteer in a shelter for a week. To “really” feel it and get to know some of the reasons people are homeless and to see all the faces. I wish every one could do such a thing.

    When you think of all the dumb field trips……I’d have loved more like this. I know Sue went up and helped the people with those floods in Fargo in the late 90’s. I thought that was a great thing for a school district to do also.

  2. SKL says:

    I was typing a nice long answer to this, and then I lost it, so this time I’ll try to summarize.

    I agree that a kid hanging outdoors in the winter (like they do when they ski, sled, or build a snowman) is not the way to understand homelessness. To understand it, they really need to get to its roots (mental illness, abuse, artificially-accelerated economic imbalance, etc), and frankly, the age to get into some of that stuff is older than some people think. Not because it’s too “traumatic,” but because kids don’t have the depth of experience to really “get” it, without some real hands-on experience (off of school grounds).

    Personally, my focus would be: what can we do about homelessness? “I feel your pain” only goes so far (especially when it isn’t really true). I hope that part of this lesson involved having the kids IN the classroom discussing and writing about what we all can do to relieve the problems. Even better if they all went and actually did something.

    I agree that volunteering at a soup kitchen or the like would be awesome for any kid. Primitive camping for a week or more would also help kids to understand what “basic needs” really are, though that still would not address the “mindset” issue.

    I also think that for kids to really get the message that it’s their duty to look out for the less fortunate, they have to get it from within their families. Not saying that getting the lesson at school is completely worthless, but there’s nothing like seeing your mom or dad get involved in helping people.

    Sorry if I seem to be rambling or fading in and out. I have a splitting headache.

  3. Nikki says:

    Talk about wasting valuable learning time! None of those kids will walk away with a even a inkling of what it’s like to be homeless. They should live it. I liked your option B, Laura. I know what it’s like to be homeless. Thankfully I was in Sacramento and it wasn’t snowy or that cold. When I was homeless in Montana, I was lucky enough to just have rain, not snow. If they really want these kids to know what’s it like, and to appreciate what they have, and to keep doing good in school so they don’t end up like this…they really just need to LIVE it. They need to see it. Not that any of that will make a difference, sometimes shit happens and you’re put in that situation. I like the whole idea. I think *most* kids these days don’t realize what they have, and how little others have. Maybe it would teach them to be kinder, also. So many people judge homeless people. Why aren’t they working? Why are they begging? Until you KNOW what they’ve been through, no one should judge.

    So, all in all, I like the idea. However, the way this teach did it was an Epic Fail! If my kid was in this class, I would absolutely have a nice sit down with the teacher.

  4. SKL says:

    Speaking of a Lesson Learned, I had a talk with my kids’ teacher about a lesson . . . but rather than hijack this thread, I will put it on the “Xtra Xtra” page.

  5. mssc54 says:

    1. Which class was this?
    2. What is the REAL motivation/agenda?

    These students are being made to believe that by them sitting alone on a cold day that they could somehow understand how homeless people feel? Totally absurde.

    • Laura says:

      Unfortunately, MSSC, I had forgotten to send a lunch with Josh that day, AND his school account was dry, so I had to beat feet to get his lunch to him. Otherwise, I would have asked those very questions.

      But unfortunately, it has been my experience with this particular HS that “average” is a pretty lofty goal. I notice that many, many graduates are barely literate… unable to spell, use grammar correctly, or understand many of the basic tenets of math and science. It’s pretty pathetic.

      So, unfortunately, I think they actually believe that sitting outside like that really does give them “the homeless experience”.

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