About a decade ago, I stood in a high school English classroom, trying my best to give an exciting speech about my experiences as a young reporter. I worked for the local newspaper at the time and the school had invited me and a photographer to give the students a sense of the career opportunities available to them.

The teens all sat politely, if not quite rapt … except for one. He was a short, scrawny kid in an oversized hoodie. I could see him fidget and, worse, heard him mutter the occasional complaint about my presentation. Finally, he seemed to surrender to the fact that yes, I would be there for at least a few more minutes but instead of perking his ears up to listen, he lay his head down on his desk.

His teacher approached him and I expected some form of discipline would ensue. Instead, she gently put her arm around him and said something in a soft voice. I couldn’t make out exactly what it was, but it was clear she wasn’t scolding him — just showing some TLC. I felt mildly annoyed, to say the least. A child was acting rudely during my talk and there’d be no consequence for it?

It only hit me later that the student’s behavior likely had little to do with me. The school served mostly poor students, more than half of whom qualified for free or reduced-cost lunches. The odds were good that this kid faced dire straits outside school hours. Maybe he was cranky because he had skipped a meal or two. Maybe he was tired because he didn’t have a comfortable place to sleep. Maybe he didn’t have a home at all. Whatever his problems were, his teacher saw fit to offer him compassion instead of punishment.

I thought about them both as I read a recent story in The Washington Post reporting that more than half of U.S. public school students live in poverty. The statistic itself is shocking, but what moved me even more was an anecdote about a kindergarten teacher in Albuquerque. Sonya Romero-Smith shows her young students some TLC, too, in part by stocking a drawer full of clean kids’ socks, underwear, and pants for the children.

“When they first come in my door in the morning, the first thing I do is an inventory of immediate needs: Did you eat? Are you clean?” she told The Post.

 

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