Charlie Bucket: The Face of Poverty in Education

“The whole of this family, the six grown ups and little Charlie Bucket, live together in a small wooden house on the edge of a great town.

The house wasn’t nearly large enough for so many people, and life was extremely uncomfortable for them all. There were only two rooms in the place altogether, and there was only one bed. The bed was given to the four old grandparents because they were so old and tired. They were so tired, they never got out of it…

Mr. and Mrs. Bucket and little Charlie slept in the other room, upon a mattress on the floor. In the summertime, this wasn’t too bad, but in the winter, freezing cold draughts blew across the floor all night long, and it was awful.

There wasn’t any questions of them being able to buy a better house-or even one more bed to sleep in. They were far too poor for that.

Mr. Bucket was the only person in the family with a job. He worked in a toothpaste factory, where he sat all day long at a bench and screwed the little caps on to the tops of the tubes of toothpaste after they had been filled. But a toothpaste cap-screwer is never paid very much money, and poor Mr. Bucket, however hard he worked, and however fast he screwed on the caps, was never able to make enough to buy one half of the things that so large a family needed. There wasn’t even enough money to buy proper food for them all. The only meals they could afford were bread and margarine for breakfast, boiled potatoes and cabbage for lunch and cabbage soup for supper. Sundays were a bit better. They all looked forward to Sundays because then, although everyone had exactly the same, everyone was allowed a second helping.”

And so begins the story of Charlie Bucket, the protagonist in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I must admit, it’s a pretty bleak introduction for a children’s book but we learn some important facts about Charlie and his family.

First, they are poor. Very poor. So poor that in today’s world Charlie Bucket and his family would be living so far below the poverty line that CNN would probably make them to subject of an Anderson Cooper special. Second, his father is part of what we call the “working poor.” According to the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis, these are people who, “… spend 27 weeks or more in a year ‘in the labor force’ either working or looking for work but whose incomes fall below the poverty level. ” Third, his parents are not very educated. Mr. Bucket screws the caps on toothpaste tubes and, according to the book, he never is able to work enough to provide even the most basic necessities for his family. Mrs. Bucket does not work because, it can be assumed, she must take care of Charlie’s grandparents.  Fourth, Charlie’s parents are the primary caregivers for their ailing parents, who are too tired and too old to do anything except lie in the bed all day adding additional strain to an already dire situation. Fifth, Charlie is undernourished. Having only bread, butter, potatoes, and cabbage to eat day in and day out isn’t healthy for a growing boy. In other words, Charlie could be the poster child for poverty in America and indeed the world.

Now, if this was all there was to Charlie there would be no reason for any child anywhere to read this book. But we also find out, as the story progresses, that Charlie has big dreams. See, Charlie loves chocolate and it just so happens that in his home town, within sight of his house, is the biggest, most amazing chocolate factory every created. Wonka’s Factory! Each day as he goes to and from school, he passes the heavy iron gates that surround the property and takes deep indulgent breaths of the glorious chocolate smell that permeates every molecule of air for at least one half mile. Charlie’s greatest dream is to one day get the opportunity to go inside and see how Mr. Wonka makes his chocolatey creations. But, assuming Charlie would need an education to see his dream come true, the odds are not in his favor.

If Charlie were a real child, he would have a higher rate of absenteeism because he needed to work or care for family members, be 1.3 times more likely to have developmental delays or be identified as possessing learning disabilities than those who don’t live in poverty, and score two years below grade level. (The Council of State Governments Knowledge CenterGood thing Charlie is just a fictional character…

Recently,the Southern Education Foundation released a report saying that the majority of all public school children across the country (51%) come from low-income families. According to the study, that’s one in five children, 14.7 million, living in poverty.

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That’s a lot of Charlie Buckets…

And where do these children spend most of their time? At school. And what does that mean? Our public schools, many of which are already struggling to educate “the least of these,” must now figure out how to do more for more with less. The hard reality is while it costs money to educate all students, it cost more money to educate students in poverty and many schools, due to budget cuts, simply don’t have the capacity to provide everything these students need to be successful. To make matters worse, these schools are often labeled as failing and are subject to being closed or taken over by corporate charter companies that seem to be the “solution du jour.” Why? Did I mention it takes more money to educate students in poverty? If schools don’t have the money to provide the resources necessary to help support their students and teachers there will be very little student improvement, very little student success, and very little increase on those all important standardized tests. However, there are those that argue that “throwing” more money into failing schools is not the way to fix them, yet, had they had the proper funding to begin with perhaps they wouldn’t be failing. Oh the irony…

Okay. There’s a spoiler alert coming. Charlie gets to see his dream fulfilled, in spite of all the obstacles he has to overcome. (I mean, the book  is called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory  for a reason) but this doesn’t happen by way of his education. See, Charlie got lucky. Very lucky. “I can’t believe that just happened” lucky. But for how many students does that luck never appear? 14,699, 999.

If we are going to change this seemingly hopeless narrative, we must first stop pretending that the problems we have with our education system can be solved without addressing the root causes of what creates 14.7 million impoverished students in the first place. It is time for us as a nation to stop imitating ostriches and take our heads out of the sand (or other places) and be sincere about fixing the issues. Not trying to fix them. In the words of that most wise of mentors, Yoda, “No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.”  Of course that would require some modesty on our part, some admission that we have done a great job of running from the issues and a lousy job of tackling them head on. Sadly, however, humility is not something we tend to be known for and neither is admission of guilt. Yet, educators all across the nation wake up every day and do the very best they can for their Charlie Buckets; the very best of them, the Willy Wonka’s of the bunch, inspire students to dream big dreams and help them see those dreams come to fruition.

But that’s a story for another day…

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