Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch

My favorite childhood book was Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. I remember receiving it as a gift for Christmas, or maybe a birthday. It was the first chapter book I read. The transition from children’s book to what to me was almost a novel is a vivid memory.  Mrs. Wiggs was an impoverished widow who struggled to care for her children and lived in an urban slum. In film adaptations of the book the husband had left her alone to travel to Alaska to find gold. Still she handled the circumstances with great strength and aplomb.  I always liked that her daughters were named after continents, because Mrs. Wiggs felt geographical names would be more refined. I haven’t read the book for many years but I do recall it was humorous, inspiring, beautifully illustrated (and probably unrealistic). Mrs. Wiggs, with her courage and fortitude, became a hero of mine. 

Poverty. As a child, I knew we didn't have extra money for luxuries. We had plenty of food and clothes and toys but somehow I felt our lack. Going out to eat or to a movie was a rare treat. My parents were both raised in disadvantaged rural areas. I knew they had very little when they were growing up and worked hard to make sure it wasn't that way for their children. When my sister and I got older my mother finished her high school education and went to work. My father took extra work when he could. Never rich, but we were comfortable.

 When I was a public school teacher I taught many children who came from poverty stricken areas much worse than where I grew up and probably worse than the fictional neighborhood where Mrs. Wiggs raised her children.  Many of the students I knew suffered hunger, wore ragged clothes and lived in old hotel rooms transformed by the city into housing for the disadvantaged.  The old hotels also sheltered ex-cons, drug addicts and many other unsavory characters, making it an unsafe place for children to play.  One student often complained that her mother never let her play outdoors with the other children. After school she was confined to the hotel room. The mother feared for her child’s life. School was her escape. When everyone else were making Halloween plans this child sobbed because she would be excluded from participating.  One student was sexually assaulted there and all the children were exposed to more than they should be for their tender ages. They either grew up fast or became troubled children with emotional and behavioral issues. Brandon used to hear voices telling him to hurt other people. He would climb trees or hit his own head to prevent the voices from taking over. Matthew begged for food and to play games, any game. If he was refused and asked to do school work he would often fight and scream and rage to the point I often wanted to join him. Then he would fall asleep for hours, the only peace he ever received.  His mother said she would get a job and move her children out of the hotel as soon as God gave her a car and found her a job. Angie lived with a demon in her head that she could describe and draw. His words were vile and harmful, causing her to act out and consider ending her life. William threw chairs and terrorized the classroom when he was frustrated. Calling the authorities often enraged parents, making them punish their children or, due to an overload on the system, nothing was done.  I realize some of these students had legitimate mental health issues. But for some I think they were just hungry, neglected and discouraged.

Over 40 million Americans live in poverty. One out of seven Americans suffer from hunger. More than 500,000 people in America are homeless, a quarter of those are children.

I am not offering solutions here or blame. I am just troubled by the suffering.

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