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Hungry children have many faces

Hungry children have many different faces.

I see them in my classroom every year.

They’re often sunken, tired, withdrawn, and disinterested, putting their heads down and trying to sleep. They can also be restless, distracted by phones, classmates, and hallway traffic, and always snacking on something. Their bodies are thin, and they struggle to learn.

But several years ago I met a sophomore who was different. His face was ridden with acne, his eyes bloodshot, and his body overweight. And he was angry.

He didn’t participate in class on the first day of school and grew more withdrawn every week. A month into the semester he walked into class blaring music from a portable speaker. He refused to put it away. When I eventually took it, he lost it.

“Give it back, you skinhead,” he shouted.

He stood up, and threw a desk across the room, and walked out. When I called his mother about his behavior that afternoon she seemed indifferent.

While he was suspended, I reached out to his other teachers for anything they were doing that was working. One of the PE teachers visited my room that afternoon.

“I taught him in middle school,” he said. “There’s a lot you should know.”

In seventh grade, my student lived in a car with his mother. She kept it parked near a gas station, where they bought as much food as they could afford. Later that year he was placed in a foster home. His health improved, and he lost weight. He had been in and out of foster homes ever since, and his health fluctuated accordingly.

When he returned from his suspension, I gave him a pair of headphones.

“Let’s compromise,” I said, “I’m glad you’re back.”

A week later he was fuming again, this time because he fell asleep during his first period class and someone stole his headphones.

I gave him another pair, but he lost them again. And again. And again.

As he struggled to stay awake during school, our relationship improved. He told me about his upcoming move to a new apartment with his mom, that it would mean transferring to another school, and he was tired of all the change. He asked me to help him pass English class, and schedule his classes for the next year.

“In case I’m back again,” he said.

Turns out he didn’t move to another school, and he didn’t pass his English class either. He was treating me with respect and showing initiative with his classes, but he was still listless, overweight, and appeared unwell.

Toward the end of April, the school social worker used what was left of her budget to make bags of food for hungry students to take home in the evenings. The bags would bridge the gap between the free breakfast and lunch students’ received at school and the long afternoons and evenings at home. She asked teachers to offer the bags to students in need.

I immediately thought of my student, but didn’t know how to ask. We’d come a long way, and I didn’t want to embarrass him.

“I’m not assuming anything about you or your life outside of school,” I told him after class, “but I want you to know about a new program.”

He looked me in the eye as I described the process of discreetly picking up the bags on his way out of the building as often as he needed.

“No one will know about this other than you and me,” I said. “Would you like to try it?”

His gaze shifted from me to the floor. He took a long, deep breath.

“Probably so,” he said. Then he walked slowly, head still down, out of my classroom.

He picked up a bag every day for the rest of the year. His grades improved a little, but he still failed most of his classes. He didn’t return to my school the following year, and I never saw him again.

I learn a lot from my students, but none more than him. Like so many others, his hunger kept him from learning and the issue was never fully addressed.

I also learned that a child can be both obese and hungry. Sporadically consuming excessive yet nutritionally empty calories, like those found in gas station foods, in addition to the school’s less-than-perfect meals, can leave children both overweight and malnourished.

The symptoms of hunger — not the “I need a granola bar” hunger, but the stressful, debilitating, “I don’t know when I’ll eat next” hunger — get overlooked in schools every day. Students struggling with ADHD, drug use, learning disabilities, and complicated home lives often display the same behaviors. But some of them are hungry, too, and it’s easy to overlook the root cause of their issues.

My district provides free breakfast and lunch to students in need every school day, but just like an hour of reading can’t compensate for a life outside of school devoid of books, the free and reduced-price lunch program can’t make up for what our students don’t eat every evening, weekend, and summer.

Helping struggling students succeed and graduate is a huge task.

Hunger is one piece of the puzzle, but schools can’t fix it on their own.

Bryan Christopher

Bryan Christopher teaches English, creative writing, and journalism at Riverside High School in Durham. He’s taught for 8 years, all with Durham Public Schools, and was Riverside’s 2014 Teacher of the Year. He is a NC Teacher Voice Fellow with the Hope Street Group.