A garden party

The purposes of education are many; but perhaps one important purpose of “free” public schooling is to ensure that everyone is provided with the opportunity of being educated. While this goal is achieved to a certain extent, inequalities of opportunity still exist, many of which are related to socioeconomic status (SES).

letter from Camus

While there is no doubt that a teacher can have a powerful effect upon the lives of students and any teacher would love to receive a letter such as that written by Albert Camus, socioeconomic status is often considered to be the most reliable predictor of success in school and, therefore, in life. There are many reasons for this, few of which have anything to do with intelligence.

According to Macquarie University the majority of students in tertiary education are of mid to high socioeconomic status. The parents of these students may have professional backgrounds and may have attended tertiary institutions themselves.  Most have an appreciation of the benefits of higher education and are able to continue supporting their students, to some extent, while they study.

While students of lower SES are attending tertiary institutions in greater numbers they are disadvantaged in doing so by a number of factors, primarily financial in origin. Although Australia is supposedly free of class distinctions, attitudes towards those from lower SES areas are often demeaning and unsympathetic. Students from these areas may battle to develop the self-esteem that seems to be a birthright for others from more privileged backgrounds. The negativism with which they are viewed, and some come to view themselves, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ready for school - year 2

Ready for school – year 2

I was a fortunate one for, while I grew up in a family with low SES background, my parents saw the value in education and sacrificed much for their children to have the opportunities it provided. The high costs of tertiary education that are now incurred could not have been afforded, but I achieved well enough in school to obtain a scholarship to teachers’ college and a three-year bond (guaranteed employment) when that was finished.

Nowadays there is no such thing as guaranteed employment and few scholarships. Many families cannot afford to have post-secondary/adult students continue to live at home and not contribute to expenses while they undertake further study. This means that students have the additional burden of working while they are studying. Many opt out of study altogether to seek long term employment, often in low paying jobs with little opportunity for advancement. And so the cycle continues. The lack of permanent employment even for graduates makes deferring earnings less desirable again.

caravan

Of course the disadvantage doesn’t just begin when approaching final years of school. The impacts can be observed from the earliest age. (My suggestion for an early learning caravan addresses this in part.) Although education is provided “free” to students, there are many other associated costs that families may struggle to meet, such as books, equipment, and extra-curricular activities such as excursions and incursions.

In most Australian schools, the wearing of uniforms helps to minimize differences that may otherwise be obvious by choices of clothing and footwear. It also helps to reduce costs. Sometimes additional activities can be a drain on family expenses, and while many schools will fund expenses for those in need, not all families are willing to ask for that help.

DCF 1.0

Studies have shown that many children arrive at school without having eaten breakfast. While this phenomenon can occur in any family, it is more prevalent in low SES areas. Some schools are now providing a healthy breakfast for students when they arrive at school. I think this great as hungry children tend to have difficulty concentrating and learning, are often lethargic and may suffer from mood swings and negative attitudes. I know how irritated I become when I am hungry. My family “joke” about not getting in the way of me and my food! How much worse for children who come to school with empty bellies.

Of course these issues are compounded for children who live in dysfunctional families. As much as we may try to be inclusive and equitable in the way we treat them, these students are often the ones who notice their differences and inadequacies and become most self-critical. It can be a very difficult task to change the attitudes and habits of generations.

This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills talked about attending a garden party. The hosts and guests at this party had obviously enjoyed some of the finer things that life reserves for a few.

lake-pend-oreile-cruise-may-21-31

Charli shared a photo of a rather idyllic spot on an island and challenged writers to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story, using the above photo as a prompt.

Well the photo is beautiful, but I couldn’t get away, I was stuck at the garden party. I thought it was a wonderful analogy for the rewards that can be had from an education; rewards that may be obvious and perhaps available to many, but rewards that may be out of reach to others because of circumstances over which they have no real control. I thought of Marnie who suffers the double disadvantage of a dysfunctional family in a low SES area; but who knows there is something better out there and wants it for herself.

Thanks to Charli for her prompt, here is another episode from Marnie’s life. I hope you enjoy it.

The garden party

Marnie’s face pressed into the bars of the tall white gate with amazement: white-covered tables laden with food; chairs with white bows; white streamers and balloons; and a band!

But the ladies had her spellbound with elegant dresses and high, high heels; flowers in their hair and bright painted lips.

A man in uniform opened the gate to guests arriving in limousines. Marnie followed.

“Not you, Miss,” said the uniformed man.

Marnie held out her invitation, “Jasmine . . .”

But he’d closed the gate and turned away.

Marnie looked down at her stained dress. What was she thinking?

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.

30 thoughts on “A garden party

  1. Bec

    Once again poor Marnie faces the most horrible injustices. It is reassuring to know that she ends up being ‘okay’, but hearing about all the barriers put up in front of Marnie makes you want to pull everything apart and start again so that it is more fair. You and I both know someone who had a tough time during life, and even though I haven’t met some of the adults who could have stepped in to provide support and security, I feel so much resentment to them for not being there when they should have.

    On another point, this fascinating article (http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/05/weird-potency-of-self-esteem.html) discusses some of the stigma attached to low SES people, starting with the embarrassment of receiving “help” in school.

    I like very much the picture of the caravan!

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    1. Norah Post author

      I’m sorry that Marnie’s story is causing readers such as yourself discomfort. I’m thinking I may have to put her to rest for a while and choose a brighter topic. It is always good to hear stories of those who have overcome disadvantage to lead rich and successful lives. It is possible but it takes determination, strength of character, and the ability to see opportunities outside the “box” of their disadvantage.
      Thanks for the link. It is indeed an interesting (and understandable) phenomena. That’s why welfare and charities must be very careful in the way they go about providing support.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and extending mine. 🙂

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  2. Ula

    My mother believed in education as a way to move up in the world, and I definitely see how my husband’s and my education have helped our son. He has many advantages that we didn’t. I hope one day he’ll appreciate and recognize his privilege.
    Your flash is so sad. I saw with Marnie the beautiful party. I could taste the cakes I imagined covered the tables. And I felt the disappointment and shame when she was turned away at the end. I hope it is an experience she’ll turn into something positive.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your lovely comment, Ula. I’m sure you son will be very appreciative of the support and encouragement you and your husband have given him in providing him with a good education. It is good that each generation provides greater opportunities for the next.
      Thanks for you comment re Marnie. I’m sorry her story is so sad, however I think there are many Marnies in the world. Do you think I should choose a less disadvantaged/more hopeful child to write about?

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  3. Paula Reed Nancarrow

    Interesting, particularly since I’ve been updating myself on the Minneapolis Foundation’s strategic framework where transforming education is concerned. Here we have a lot of difficulty untangling the effects of socioeconomic status and race, because if you’re a person of color, or an undocumented immigrant, you are also more likely to be poor. Income is certainly a critical factor, but not always in the obvious ways. Being ready for kindergarten is one of the current inequities most under discussion here. By age 4, according to a study by Hart and Risley, children in high-income homes have heard an estimated average of 48 million words while children in the poorest households have heard just 13 million. (http://www.strategiesforchildren.org/eea/6research_summaries/05_MeaningfulDifferences.pdf)

    The average cognitive scores of preschool-age children in the highest socioeconomic group are 60% above the average scores of children in the lowest socioeconomic group. ( Lee, V. E. & Burkam, D. T. (2002). Inequality at the starting gate: Social background differences in achievement as children begin school. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute) At age 4, children living below the poverty line are 18 months below the standard in cognitive development for their age group. Yet 90% of education funding currently targets the years after 90% of brain development has occurred. Can you tell my nonprofit has an early childhood education program and I am frustrated at being unable to get adequate funding for low to mid income families who find preschool and child care costs terrifically burdensome? Thanks for letting me step up on the soapbox for a moment. 😉

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for stepping up on your soapbox. It is a pleasure to have you standing here beside me and adding your voice to the request for better “education” for young children and their parents. It is for these very reasons that you cite that I have developed the idea of an early learning caravan (I’m not sure if you read that post) taking education to the communities where it is needed. The low to mid income families don’t intentionally disadvantage their students, they don’t know how to do things differently. The caravan program would support them in a non-threatening way. Now I only need to get someone to take up the idea! 🙂

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  4. Sherri

    Oh poor Marnie 😦 Such a rejection and with it, feelings of deep shame. I felt her longing, her excitement, her delight, and then to have it all crushed so horribly. But this is just what it feels like for so many who feel that they are on the outside of life, looking in from the sidelines, without the privilege of those who seem to always have the best in life. Yet, yet, you have already shown us something of Marnie’s strength and of her resolve to rise above her circumstances (something in which I’m a huge believer) and I can’t wait to read to see how she does this. Wonderful flash Norah.
    And I could say so much about education in response to your excellent post, when I think of my experiences at school and college and then that of my own children. I remember thinking what a wonderful thing for breakfast to be served for those children who arrived early at school when we lived in California. They had a sort of breakfast club so that the parents who had to go onto work could drop them off early.
    You did so well to get your scholarship Norah (and love the B&W of you, so cute are you in your hat and uniform!) but as you say, how different the world is today,
    I agree with you about uniform, I really found that hard in CA where kids didn’t wear it for the reasons you state. And yes, I do believe that SES plays a huge part in education here in the UK just as in Australia.
    But even if not given the best start in life, money-wise, I do believe that hard work, tenacity and resolve really does pay off. That, and plenty of ‘I’ll show ’em’ 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      I love your final paragraph, Sherri. That is so true. I think many of our collective of bloggers would testify to that from personal experience, ourselves included.
      I really appreciate your comment and your support of Marnie’s developing story. I’m pleased that everyone still seems to enjoy following her progress. I do rely on Charli to help me draw it out of her though!
      I know in the UK school lunches were (always?) provided, but here in Australia we don’t have a tradition of schools providing food. Some decades ago students were given a third of a pint of milk at morning tea time. While I don’t recall it as a student particularly, just from teaching days, I say that what turned me off drinking milk was having to drink milk that had warmed all morning in the sun, so I think I must have had it at school too. Funny that I remember the reaction but not the actual occurrence! I think the provision of breakfast and lunch is not only good for the kids, but for busy parents too. However it must be an enormous cost.
      I appreciate your comment re uniforms too. Although I had worn uniforms throughout my schooling, uniforms weren’t worn at college. I don’t remember feeling any embarrassment or “out of it” because of my clothes there, not the way I had at dances and social occasions when at school and “plain clothes” (as opposed to uniforms) were worn.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

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  5. Sacha Black

    I adore Marnie I really do. I actually said ‘oh’ out loud at the end of this flash.

    I also just wrote an entire essay in response to the rest of this post as its one of my fave debating topics. I pressed post comment and my stupid laptop deleted it – I even had three personal stories in it. so annoyed. will come back and re write it when I have calmed down.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Oh Sacha. I’m so disappointed your comment got gulped, particularly with the personal stories you were sharing. I can understand how annoyed you are. It is very frustrating. I do hope you find the time to come back and share, but I won’t hold you to it. 🙂

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      1. Sacha Black

        Sigh, it was several paragraphs long too! Let me see if I can remember some of what I said in a more succinct way today:

        1. This SES and Higher Ed is a topic close to my heart so I loved your post I found it fascinating.

        2. It’s close to my heart because at the time the tuition fee cap was being debated in parliament I was the university president. So I spent a good few months lobbying and hounding MPs not to vote it through. I remember one particular campaign I had a postcard designed with some witty political statement on the front asking the MP not to vote to lift the cap off. I had hundreds of these things printed and got hundreds signed by students too. The MP voted to lift the cap off in the end a great shame but to his credit although I’m sure he didn’t write each letter back to the students he certainly hand signed each one – perhaps his only redeeming action!

        3. You mentioned Macquarie… Oddly enough I nearly ended up there a few years ago – I got a scholarship to do a PhD but the timing wasn’t right – maybe we would have met.

        4. SES and HE – interesting I too come from a lower SES – in that I was with just my mum and so I was the first person to go to uni in my family – my mum actually went the year after I started so now we both have degrees 🙂

        I do think that SES isn’t all to blame though. I think that if you really want it then you need to push for yourself. I think family circumstances can have a horrendous effect on you but actually I think sometimes we need to take responsibility for our own actions and direction in life too.

        I think the gap is disgusting in my view education at all levels should be free at the point of delivery – that being said I also don’t think everyone should be able to go. I think it should be on merit and ability. Too many people when I was at uni pissed their student loans away partying and came out with shit degrees – well actually that’s not right what if there was a kid from a lower SES who had the ability but couldn’t afford to go. It’s wrong. It made me feel like my degree was devalued somehow.

        5. As for working and the impact I could not agree more. My first two years I had 3 jobs to survive. My final year I decided to jack them all in and concentrate and do you know what… It paid off – I got a first class. But when I was working my grades weren’t that good. So agree with you that the impact is significant

        Perhaps this wasn’t quite as comprehensive as my first answer but it’s a précis of it!

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thank you, Sacha. I very much appreciate that you took the time and interest to come back and share your thoughts in more detail. What a pity the initial ‘full’ version was gulped by the ghastly comment gobbler.
          I really enjoyed reading about your pro-activity at university. You were just as passionate then as you are now and speak up for what you believe in. Designing those postcards obviously required some skill in persuasive writing, which seems to be the genre of choice for our national testing in writing. I sometimes wonder at the need for 8 year olds to write a persuasive text about anything that is not personally important to them, but it is a useful skill to have.
          What a shame the timing wasn’t right for you to study at Macquarie. We most likely would not have met there though. It is in Sydney and I am in Brisbane, quite a distance apart. However one of my favourite literacy educators is based at Macquarie University.
          How wonderful for you and your mum to have studied together, and how proud you must be of each other; you for being the first in your family, and she not long after you.
          I definitely agree with you about taking responsibility for oneself, one’s actions and direction in life, and that SES is not the total picture (just as well, or where would most of us be!?) However some seem to be able to shake off disadvantage as if it was but a light cloak, others seem to be remain burdened by its weight for a lifetime. It would be an interesting study to find out the characteristics (probably personal) that have most impact upon that. For able students to not have the opportunity of higher education due to financial hardship is very wrong. Its something that definitely needs to change.
          How well did you do to get a first class degree! Your mum probably did well too. I found that when I went back later, as a ‘mature’ (I use the term somewhat loosely) student, I did much better than I had straight from school. My motivation and determination was much higher as I had made the choice, and more sacrifices to engage in the study.
          You are right. It is a very complex situation. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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  6. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    I have a couple of teachers that I would certainly be writing to in order to thank them if only I knew where to write. A teacher can make such a difference — definitely make or break. SES despite your latest reading I think has to make a huge difference to how well a child does at school. There is the odd one that would do well no matter who the parents were but for those from a lower SES they have to battle to overcome simple things like wanting to go to the library and wasting time reading etc. What makes me madder is the networking that happens at private schools and attending certain schools will ensure your success in the finance sector etc. It is definitely a matter of who you know. These kids from the lower SES can never beat those kind of odds and I find the whole class thing sickening. The govt should stop the massive funding for these schools for the wealthy and direct it to those schools in impoverished areas that can’t help themselves. I’ll get off my high horse before I really get carried away. Marnie’s story ties into this gripe of mine and I feel for her. Being judged for what you wear or how you arrive is a sad state of affairs.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment Irene, and I’m happy to ride along with you on your high horse all the way, in fact I think we’d probably give it a pretty good race. I agree with everything you said. There definitely needs a lot more to be done to achieve equity.
      I’m pleased you saw the link with Marnie’s story, even though it is a gripe of yours. (and mine)
      I appreciate your sentiments echoing mine, and your voice added to many who feel the same. 🙂

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      1. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Yes it is something I feel very strongly about even though I don’t have children that are effected I do believe that in some aspects of life we should all start off with at least a modicum of equity. And I love your caravan idea for that reason. Health is the other but don’t get me started there.

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        1. Norah Post author

          Thanks for sharing your additional thoughts, Irene. Yes, education, health, and all those things that we consider joint responsibilities seem to be lacking in equity. Most still go the ones who have and can.

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  8. plaguedparents

    Really fantastic job with this. My obsession with Camus fluctuates and lately I have been drawn back to him. I really believe that it is our duty as public educators at all levels (for me it is at the community college level) to expose everyone to as much as possible so as to “round” themselves out. This disparity which plagues human society at all levels and in almost every geography is unsustainable. Right now the push in the US from K-Higher Ed is “career readiness” — what a sham. This pathological focus on “careerism” offers only lip service to the reality that exists the world over — the rich get richer and poor stay poor. Our collective behavior towards the disenfranchised is incorrigible and irresponsible. Thanks for the reminder Nora. Best, Tony.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Tony. I agree. We need to be doing more to narrow the divide. You are working towards that by offering your students a full and enriched program.

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  9. Charli Mills

    There are many similarities between Australian and American education experiences. One reason that teachers in the US are frustrated with being “scored” for their students’ test scores is that many teach in SES areas. It was a real struggle for us to get our children a good education, but we believed in its advantage. Yet our children are also independent because they did have to support themselves in college. I think they had a greater “hunger” to achieve and we supported them in other ways.

    Reading your flash after your post is like seeing that disadvantage in action. “Not you, Miss” is a repeated message. That’s what I like about Marnie’s story — it embodies what you explain about the education system and its pitfalls and victories. Marnie become a voice for the disadvantaged student showing both struggles and how education can end some of those challenges.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Charli. Your children did well because you value education and you encouraged and supported them. I think that is the most important thing. Sadly that is what is lacking in many (but by no means all) low SES homes. I read an article today that said SES is not as important a predictor as often thought. I’m not so sure, but when you talk about teachers and scores, it makes me think of the Pygmalion effect and wonder how much teacher attitude influences the scores too, keeping the low, low.
      Thanks for your feedback re Marnie’s story. I do enjoy the challenges you set, and then my added challenge to make it fit my educational context. It pleases me that you see the connection and consider it visible. One day, with your prompting, her whole story may be told. 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      That’s true. Although I read an article today saying that SES is not as great a predictor as once thought. Hmm. I still think it plays a large part. Thanks for sharing.

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  10. Annecdotist

    Your flash really tugged at my heartstrings, Norah. What a ridiculous world we live in where people are discriminated against and if they don’t have the right dress. A different situation, but it reminds me of being turned away from a party at a nightclub when I was 21, ostensibly because the bouncer objected to my shoes (which were beautiful pink embroidered Chinese style silk slippers) but I really think it was because I was a young white woman with a black man. I really felt embarrassed as if I was letting down the woman who hosted the party, perhaps how Marnie felt about Jasmine.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing your story and its connection with Marnie’s. It seems to me discrimination knows no bounds. We all desire our individuality and uniqueness, but have a fear or dislike of anyone different. How humiliating and frustrating to be turned away from a party for the sake of a pair of shoes. I’m sure your friend wasn’t too pleased either. I heard that women were not allowed on the Oscars’ (I think it was, I don’t take make notice) red carpet this year if their shoes were not of a suitable height! What a load of nonsense!

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