Fear factor

June 04,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

When I teach freshman composition--which I do all the time, actually, I try and make an effort to assign my students readings that will help them understand and question the world at large. For years I've been giving my students readings from different cultures--whether they are cultures abroad, or cultures within this country, the one we all claim as our own. I try and shake up their perspective, in order to teach them the critical thinking skills I think are most important for success in this world. I could, I suppose, fill the class schedule with grammar drills and sentence structure exercises, and while I do work on these things, I like to take a more holistic approach. My motto is (it's nice to have a motto), teach the brain to think, and the rest will follow. Hopefully. Maybe. Each semester we look at one or two readings on homelessness, because I do think it's important to stare it down, now and again, and to think about it, question its causes, reflect on the solutions. We look at a couple of readings, including this one, and this one, and I hand out this fact sheet and this one as well. Every semester I'm shocked and dismayed to discover that most of my students think homelessness is not their problem, and that the people to blame for being homeless are the homeless themselves. I'm also perplexed as well, because I know that many of my students have seen homelessness paraded past their windows, through their streets, and sometimes it's touched their lives, in direct and indirect ways. One student, Student D., who wears attitude around his shoulders daily like some dark, heavy coat, scowled at me when I asked him, to suggest reasons why people end up homeless. "If you ask me," he said emphatically. "It's their fault." Even when we had thoroughly discussed the issue, and the accompanying readings, I know Student C. remained unconvinced that the homeless weren't, somehow, 100% responsible for their plight. Inwardly I was upset and bothered by his adamant refusal to acknowledge that we are all, really, as the statistic claims, only a few paychecks away from homelessness ourselves. I also knew that Student C. came from a difficult past, and that very little in his life had ever been very certain. Even if you do believe the only cause of homelessness is poor choices (which it's not), surely it's not too hard to concede that sometimes there are dire circumstances behind the choices? Why the denial, the harsh judgment? Then it hit me: sometimes it's easy to see just the label, but not the person behind it, as a defense mechanism; sometimes we refuse to see because we are afraid of something familiar--the kind of familiar and frightening thing that has brushed up against the walls of your house, rattled the doors, touched you, breathed an icy air into you. Sometimes anger and judgment are the walls a child learns to build; strong walls around them, impenetrable ones, safe ones--ones that encircle them everywhere they go.