I’ve been mentoring a young girl, who was initially terrified of me, for two years. As we begin Year 3 together, she’s in the seventh grade and wants me to meet her in the cafeteria and sit at the table with her and her friends. I have enjoyed these weekly lunchtime visits in her junior high school cafeteria immensely. Yes, it’s loud, but it is fun to sit in the midst of 12- and 13-year old girls and just listen. I certainly wasn’t welcome to do that with my own daughters, nor would I have wanted to. These weekly visits have proven certain things I believed to be true, as well as taught me many things of which I was not aware.
Although this particular school district is located in an affluent incorporated city, and is considered a prominent school district, there are many children who are far from “privileged.” In fact, twenty percent of its students are considered “economically disadvantaged.” I was matched with a girl who lives in a Section 8 apartment with between seven and ten other people, depending on which extended family members move in and out. She sleeps on a couch with her sister in the den. Her mother works for “someone on t.v.,” and sometimes takes her and her sisters to her job to swim or for extravagant Halloween parties. She takes the bus to school early so that she can eat a free breakfast provided by the district. She just turned 12 and seems very happy with her life. I’ve gotten to know four or five other girls who sit at her lunch table, as they’ve all eaten together since they started at the junior high school. One girl has a penchant for ketchup and fills up a divider of her lunch tray with it whether the meal is chicken nuggets or pizza. Another brings her lunch daily but eats only the goldfish and fruit roll-ups that her mother packs. A third leaves her lunch on the table and buys two bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos everyday. Let’s just say nutrition isn’t high on this table’s list of priorities. One of the girls is black, three are Hispanic, and one is white. The white student seems out of place, not because of her race, but because she has a monogrammed backpack, a fancy iPhone with a cool case, and t-shirts with the name of her camp or her sister’s sorority letters on it. She’s the only one who goes on vacation during the summers and at spring break. The other girls wear faded t-shirts, torn jeans, and one never goes without a stained hoodie, even if it’s 95 degrees outside. One thing they all have in common is that they’re struggling with their studies. They share stories of how poorly they’re doing in school. Some are failing, some are being moved around to different teachers, some are staying after school as punishment for not turning in homework or missing a test. I’ve determined that these girls all sit together because they make bad grades. They also appear a little younger than their years and seem very innocent. They don’t seem bothered that other girls at other tables in the cafeteria are wearing some of the latest styles, with perfectly coiffed hair, football pins and ribbons, laughing together and ignoring them completely.
Today one of the girls at our table kept interrupting the others, trying to tell me something. I asked her to wait her turn to speak, then followed up to see what was on her mind. “Tell me your story,” I said. “It’s not a story,” she answered. “It’s about me. No matter how hard I try, I can’t make good grades. I’m failing all my classes and I don’t know what to do.” The other girls continued chomping on their unhealthy choices, while my heart sank. “Have you talked to your teacher?” I asked. She just hung her head and looked at the uneaten food on her tray. Then the other girls began chiming in, “I have no grade under 100 right now,” or “I have all A’s & B’s,” or “I had to be held back in first grade.” One giggled and said, “I got a 20 on my Social Studies test.” I told them I had an idea. “Why don’t you girls bring your lunch to a quiet place and once a week I’ll help you with your homework?” They all started giggling as if this was a preposterous plan, and said, “Nah. My grades are ok.” The bell rang and they were dismissed to the track to spend time outside before their next class. The failing-her-classes-girl hung back. Turning to leave, I found her lingering behind me. “If I get my Science book, can you help me?” “Sure,” I said with false enthusiasm, worried that Science was never my subject. We went to the library together and she pulled out a worksheet about the differences between plant and animal cells. It took me a bit to get up to speed, but she and I worked on it together and felt darn good about it afterwards. “You are so smart,” I said. “I think you’re good at Science.” She blushed and the bell rang. “Thank you,” she called as she walked back to class and looked over her shoulder and smiled at me. I left feeling happy, yet profoundly sad. Some girls sit unnoticed, right next to us or behind us, in need of our attention, an encouraging word, a little support. Let’s look out for them.