I am typing in my unheated house, waiting for the gas man to come turn on the gas and so the furnace. It has been four weeks since I closed on the purchase of a house in Anacostia, and it has taken this long for all the utility companies to help me get up and running. Actually, the water company never did turn the water on, as they said they did. I had to ask a friend to go underground and turn the valve.
The picture you see was a greeting card from a neighbor. It was their way of saying welcome. One of my students immediately saw it and asked if I was going to move. Another student saw it, and shame was written all over his face. Our students see their surroundings and are not proud. There is trash strewn on the streets surrounding the local market, and a lot of that trash was on the property next to mine before I paid two students to clean it up. Newt Gingrich mentioned lately that poor children do not have hardworking role models. That is an exaggeration, but there are plenty of adults just hanging around. Some are looking for work and have the potential to work hard, but others do not. My students fear for my safety because they see bad people on every corner. They are used to the fact that violence is part of their life, and they don’t want it to be part of my life.
“Crazy” and “I told you” (after the rock through the window) were some of the words my students have uttered about my move. One student, P, paid me a compliment. He doesn’t realize it, but students like P keep me going 12 hours/day every day, as I have since Thanksgiving break, including weekends. P said to me, “You know, Mr Penniman, you have a lot of guts coming over here.” P is one of our MATHletes, an eleventh grader who is absolutely brilliant but who reads at the second grade level. We have a reading tutor working with him. Our hope for P is to get him to a functional reading level by graduation so that he can have the option of going to college if he elects to, although my hunch is P will some day be running his own plumbing or electrician business.
We will see how crazy I am for living here. Our students need to understand their neighborhood is not a war zone; it is a financial and intellectual poverty zone. There are few college graduates compared to where I lived in Ward 3, where one out of every three adults has a graduate degree. Our students need to realize their potential goes beyond this level of poverty, that they can increase their standard of living if they work to their potential. It does not matter what they think they see on the corner or what Newt Gingrich thinks of their situation.