[Photo: The author’s son reading a book]
One day, my son came home from school and told me a child in his class hadn’t brought enough money to buy a book at his school’s book fair. He didn’t seem to know why, whether this child’s parents didn’t have cash on hand that day, or if they’d recently bought him a slew of books and didn’t want to buy any more, or if they simply couldn’t afford it. But at hearing this news, I wanted to cry.
We live in a wealthy community, and although we always find the money to buy books, we can’t afford the vacations, designer clothes, brand-name shoes, or electronics that our friends and neighbors have. I was once the kid who was always a dollar short, so it hit a nerve with me. My husband and I can both recall being made to feel inferior for not partaking in the same luxuries as our peers, and I dread the day that my son is made to feel bad for having less than the people around us.
Plus, I believe the greatest gift I can give my kids is a love of reading. No child should feel left out of participating in a book fair or singled out for having less money than others.
I was also concerned by the way my son laughed as he talked about it. My heart ached as I explained to him all the different reasons his friend might not have enough money to buy a book and why it wasn’t funny. It didn’t sound to me like my son and his friends had exactly “bullied” that classmate, but bullying starts with pointing out power imbalances, then progresses into exploiting them. This was the first time I heard my son mention someone being bullied at school, so I also had to talk to him about respecting people’s differences and standing up for his friends and for others who are less fortunate than he is.
Alarmed by the thought that another child might not be able to experience a book fair because he or she lacked the funds to buy a book, I wrote to my son’s teacher to find out what the school or Parent-Teacher Organization was doing for children who didn’t have enough money to participate. She assured me that no child is left out. The school holds a lottery for gift certificates and only enters in the names of students who need them. Thus, all the kids who are given financial assistance receive it without ever being embarrassed or made to feel like a charity case. My son is incredibly lucky to attend a school that is so generous and sensitive.
But this entire episode stayed with me. I had begun to see how these small instances of inequality add up over time into a yawning achievement gap. How could this inequality of opportunity be addressed? Could a cap be placed on how much money a child could bring? Well, that would undermine the effectiveness of the book fair as a fundraiser, its primary function along with encouraging children to own and read more books. Could each class collect the money and then buy books for the classroom? Well, that would defeat the purpose of instilling a love for books through the joy and privilege of ownership. But then it hit me: what if every child who bought a book lent it to the classroom before taking it home? Sure, the books probably wouldn’t be brought home in pristine condition, but a book loved by many is more valuable than a book loved by one.
Even better, what if the book fair was also a book drive? If every child was encouraged to bring their used books to donate to another school, I think they would help address inequality on an even larger scale and learn a valuable civic lesson as well. I shared this idea with my son’s school, and as they expressed their enthusiasm for exploring it further I once again felt grateful for their generosity.
These days, given the current sociopolitical environment, I think about inequality quite a bit. Even within my community I’ve noticed how segregated we are by neighborhood and socially stratified by income group. Yet to see social classes manifest themselves at such a young age – and over something I had completely taken for granted- was quite eye-opening. I am committed to raising my children to be inclusive of others, but I didn’t expect to have to impart this lesson so soon.
Thus, I am curious to find out what other parents and communities are handling these issues. How do you talk to your kids about poverty and privilege, inclusion and inequality? What are your schools doing – and what can we all do – to put the “fair” back into book fair?
Cara Paiuk is a freelance writer and photographer whose articles and pictures have appeared in The NY Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and many others. She lives in West Hartford, CT, with her husband, young son, and toddler twin daughters. You can follower her @carapaiuk.