Literacy and litter: A grocery store lesson

After dropping students off this morning, I decided to make a quick stop at the Fresh Grocer for some cereal and coffee. As I walked into the Fresh Grocer, I was stopped by a young boy—probably between 13 and 15—he was still too young for a real growth spurt, but had a thin mustache sprouting above his upper lip. “Miss, can you help me buy the….?” What? I couldn’t understand what he wanted. I asked him to repeat himself. “Can you help me buy the….?” His words were mumbled and I was confused, but I asked him to show me what he wanted.

As we walked across the Fresh Grocer, he told me, “I can’t read real good and I need to know which one to buy.” I followed him, with a mix of suspicion (what does this kid really want—my purse?) and curiosity (he can’t read what?).

We turned down the pet goods aisle and he pointed to the cat litter. He already had a plastic tub in his hand—and it started to click. He was setting up a litter box! “Did you just get a cat?” I asked him. “Yeah, they were selling them for $10, so my dad brought me one. I have mice, so the cat is going to get them.”

My kitties: Kobe and Layla

In that moment, I totally connected to this kid—I have two cats at home in Texas that I miss dearly. And I have mice in Philadelphia that I would like to be rid of.  It’s a superficial connection, I know, but here was my opportunity to see myself in someone I might otherwise shrug off: I needed to stop and listen to this boy. My initial suspicion that he could be a little thief was quickly overwhelmed by the realization that he didn’t want anything from me but some help. He really—honestly—could not read. Someone, somewhere dropped the ball on this kid. No way was I going to follow suit. My teacher was showing.

My quick lesson:
I showed him the price and explained to him that it could be deceiving. The lowest price doesn’t really equal the cheapest cat litter. Instead, it could be the most expensive because it’s in a small bag or container. So I demonstrated where he could find the unit price on the price tag and told him he wanted to find the lowest unit price. He guessed one quickly, but I could tell he couldn’t see the unit price—he looked at the lowest cost. I explained to him that yes, it was cheap, but it might not be the best buy. I re-taught the lesson. “Oh!” I saw those lights flicker. He got it. The boy looked around at several of the shelves and found a unit price of 7.8 cents. We looked to see if we could find anything less than that—we couldn’t. He was successful.

I walked up to the cashier station with him and showed him how to use the self-service area. He told me that he was supposed to go to school somewhere in southwest Philly. I debated. How much should I, or could I, ethically intervene? Should I have taken his name and reported him to the school? Should I have sat down and talked to him for a while about his school experience? Should I have marched him home and talked to his mother about how we could get him back in school? What is the right thing to do in this situation?

I don’t know. I’m still perplexed. The teaching profession creates a space of discomfort for me. My job is to ensure that every child can read, write, analyze, and reason, but I’m not supposed to get too close either. It sure wouldn’t look right for me to put that boy in my van, drive him across town, and march him up the steps of a school.  Yes, I want to make the world a better place and I believe that literacy is key. But I can’t save every child on my own; I am not superwoman. I’m supposed to push every person toward greatness and leave no child behind. As an educator, should I make a promise to treat emergency cases of illiteracy anywhere I encounter them, much like a police officer or doctor must stop and help those in trouble? And this is all complicated by a growth of distrust I have for whoever gave up on that kid to begin with– it’s not an easy reality to swallow.

I hope the unit price lesson stuck. I hope his cat is healthy and he has it for many years to come. I hope someone better positioned than me teaches him to read. I hope he decides that he should know how to read instead of reaching out to the nicest looking person in the grocery store to help him. I hope I find the courage within myself to cross lines of fear and do whatever it takes to make sure kids like this one don’t get left unnoticed. I hope I find a permanent place in me for the teacher that emerged so automatically, but so briefly, today.

It takes a lot of hope to teach. But I think it takes more action. Am I ready to act courageously?


We invite you to the Philadelphia Urban Seminar!

Penn State students,

The Philadelphia Urban Seminar teaching team for May 2011 is gearing up for a fantastic seminar this year! We look forward to learning and growing with you, and we hope you consider joining us for this year’s seminar.

For over a decade, pre-service teachers from many Pennsylvania universities have gathered in Philadelphia to experience teaching in an urban environment. The purpose of the Philly Urban Seminar is to encourage new teachers to consider teaching in the city of Philadelphia once they complete their degree and certification. All Urban Seminar students are assigned to a public school classroom in Philadelphia, where they work with a mentor teacher for two weeks. In addition to school placement, students will also engage in selected readings, participate in large group and small group discussions, attend panel presentations, and listen to fascinating speakers from across the city. But don’t fear, we also make time for fun! All Urban Seminar students attend a day-long field trip to some of the city’s best historical sites and museums, participate in a day of service, and experience the rich and diverse cultural neighborhoods of Philadelphia. We also plan outings to the local shopping centers, South Street, and even a Phillies game! By the end of the two weeks many students find that the experience is a rewarding one.

We hope you consider enrolling in this year’s Philadelphia Urban Seminar. After securing your clearances, please contact Kerri Kopcha at Hurry– the deadline is April 15!

For more information, see:
Our informational flyer: complete philly urban seminar_2011 flyerREV