This week’s New York Times feature series, Invisible Child, about a gifted Brooklyn preteen and her life for several years in a decrepit homeless shelter with her parents and six siblings, explores—from the point of view of the child herself—the mass of ways opportunity can be crushed. Andrea Elliott, the reporter, traces Dasani’s journey from crisis to crisis over the several years her large family resides together in a 520-square-foot room.
This is also a story of the role of a public school in the life of a child who lacks another anchor. At school she has her own place to hang her coat. School is a place where much of the time she can hide the fragility of her family’s stability and where the principal and a special teacher willingly care for her and her siblings.
Here is a child whose parents both struggle with drug addiction and whose mother counsels her to fight to secure her place. But Dasani also listens to the teacher she respects, someone who grew up in the neighborhood, and who advises, “I don’t ever wanna hear, ‘Well, my mother told me to do this,’ unless you know that’s the right thing. I am telling you, as sure as I’m sitting here, you’re gonna be held responsible for the choices you make.” “You care about your life. There are people out there who are so hurt they don’t care about leaving here. They are looking for an opportunity to do something crazy and ridiculous. They have nothing to live for. I am telling you to listen to your internal barometer. Think about your next move before you make your next move.”
At a time when schools are judged by the average test scores of their students and when teachers are being evaluated by the econometric value-added formulas that consider cumulative test score growth of all the students in each teacher’s class, it is easy to forget what teachers really mean in the lives of the children in their classes. Dasani’s teacher—the young woman from the projects who made it out on a scholarship to the State University of New York at Cortland and then came home to be a public school teacher—serves as an extraordinary and believable role model for this child who confesses at one point, “I don’t dream at all. Even when I try'”
Family homeless is a serious and growing worry in New York City. Elliott explains: “Children are not the face of New York’s homeless… Their homelessness is hidden. They spend their days in school, their nights in shelters… Their numbers have risen above anything in the city’s modern history, to a staggering 22,091 this month. If all of the city’s homeless children were to file into Madison Square Garden for a hockey game, more than 4,800 would not have a seat.”
The series of articles, Invisible Child, is long and heart wrenching. I recommend taking the time to read and think about it.