She came from the poorest elementary school in the district. So many of her peers qualified for free lunches that the school served everyone free lunches to eliminate the stigma. The school even employed full-time staff members to act as surrogate parents, driving to kids’ houses when they didn’t show up for school, taking the kids to doctor or social worker appointments—doing everything they could to provide the support the kids might not be getting at home in the hopes of creating an environment where the kids wouldn’t be too distracted from their studies.
Hers were among the parents who didn’t offer a lot of support. None, actually. By the spring of her fourth-grade year, her teacher hadn’t even met them, despite repeated attempts to schedule parent-teacher conferences.
But despite overwhelming odds against her, the little girl actually stood out as an academic leader among her peers. In fact, that spring she was named the school’s outstanding student—an award bestowed on one child from each elementary school across the district based on a range of factors including intelligence, ability, motivation and leadership skills.
The award included an afternoon away from school for a formal recognition ceremony with the outstanding students from all the other schools in the district. The ceremony was designed to be a Big Deal, and it would be attended by dignitaries from the school district, the city government and even the local media.
Embarrassed that she didn’t own anything nice to wear to the ceremony, the girl walked a mile and a half to Goodwill one weekend afternoon and found a slightly frayed red dress. It cost almost all of the six dollars she had to her name, but she thought it would make her look pretty—elegant, even.
The day of the ceremony, she rose early to shower and wash her hair and try to find a way to make it especially nice. She worked for quite some time, brushing it and rolling it around her fingers to make it curly and bouncy like the women she saw on television. It ended up as flat as it always did, though—so she found an old scrunchie and wrapped a red scrap of material from her blanket around it to match her dress. Then she pulled her hair back into her usual ponytail, carefully packed her dress in her school bag and headed to school.
She kept her dress with her by her desk all morning. Before she was set to leave for the ceremony, she took it to the bathroom to get dressed. But it had never occurred to her to try it on—and she discovered to her horror that it was many, many sizes too small. After a good 20 minutes of struggling and sucking in her tummy and wishing it to fit, she had to admit defeat. She went to get some help, but not even her teacher—always able to work magic for her students who were conditioned to expect so little—could get the dress pinned together for her. So the girl had to wear her dirty old coat over her pretty six-dollar dress.
The girl’s parents weren’t interested in coming to the ceremony, so her teacher drove her there and waited in the audience to bring her back to school.
She accepted her award all alone that warm spring day—in a used dress that didn’t fit, hidden under a dirty coat that made her look completely out of place. She stood on the stage with all the other kids, who were combed and dressed and fussed over. There was a constant flashing of lights as the other parents took pictures. Her teacher counted eleven video cameras. But there was no one else there to smile up at her and congratulate her with a warm parental hug and share whatever pride she could muster over the event.
And while the other kids left with parents in one hand and award certificates in the other, headed to celebratory dinners at their favorite restaurants, the little girl climbed into her teacher’s car and sat quietly for the ride back to school.
And when her teacher—my little sister, who was in her first year of teaching—got home, she sobbed.