Listen To You Tell Me Texas Friday 8/29/14


School began for most area students this week including my daughter, who Monday had her first day as a freshman in high school. Of course, her first day reminds me of my own first days and I positively hate how old this piece is going to make me sound.

But here goes.

In September 1967 I attended my first day as a 7th grader at Stephen F. Austin Junior High School in Amarillo, Texas. That morning, during the announcements, Mr. Douglass, the principal, put out the call for students willing to work in the cafeteria in return for the price of lunch.

I signed up, figuring that I could pocket the five dollars a week my mom gave me.

A day or two later, Mr. Lively, the assistant principal, called my mother at home and asked if I might withdraw my application. As he explained, the cafeteria work program was a way for kids with financial hardship to have lunch without it being simply free.

There went my five bucks.

Interestingly, not that many kids signed up. The school was ethnically mixed but the vast majority of students – white, black and brown – nevertheless had parents who met their responsibility to see that their kids were fed.

That was 1967.

Today, the majority of students in public schools in Texas – including those here in Tyler and Longview – get their lunches for free or at a greatly reduced price. There’s no work involved. There’s apparently little requirement at all save for completing a pro forma statement saying that paying for your child’s lunch would constitute a financial burden.

In most cases, the money comes from the federal government. In most cases, school districts seem very anxious to receive that money. I don’t know this but I strongly suspect that school districts make more money selling lunches to the federal government than they do selling those same lunches to individual students.

What I do know is that school districts are at pains to remove any stigma attendant to free or reduced price lunch. And thus by the time kids reach a certain age, the “right” to a free lunch is firmly fixed in their attitudes about life.

I have no doubt that there are plenty of kids with real needs to be met. I don’t believe that any kid should be humiliated over the price of a school lunch. I certainly don’t want any kid to go hungry.

But that doesn’t keep me from asking; are upwards of nine out of ten parents really unable to afford a school lunch? Shouldn’t there be some itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny little bit of stigma attached to not paying for the food your kid eats? Is not the need to come up with money every day to feed your own child a positive motivator? Don’t kids need to see their parents doing that?

And am I crazy, or wouldn’t that sort of ethic encourage productive behavior in a way that institutionalized, socially acceptable dependency never will?

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