I keep a ceramic fish in my office.
A few years ago, I was visiting an elementary school in Michigan.
By all appearances, the school was typical. Clean, bright hallways trimmed with small lockers, student artwork taped on walls and paper mobiles hanging from the ceiling. It rang with the expected sounds of start-time bells, a morning announcement, classroom doors opening and closing, chairs being shuffled. Laughter.
The art teacher took me to her room. She wanted to show me the many projects students had created using my books as themes. They were charming, innocent, moving. I loved them all.
Then she gently handed me a ceramic fish. It was colorful. It was delicate. She told me a 3rd grade student was especially excited for my visit, and had made the fish for me so that I would have a present from her. I took the fish in my hands and admired it. "I need to thank her in person," I said.
The art teacher told me I wouldn't be able to do that. She explained the student's family had disappeared overnight, just days prior. She said she didn't know for certain the circumstance - what challenges or situation had overcome this particular family - but most often it was homelessness. She told me there were many homeless students in this particular elementary school, and it wasn't uncommon to have them disappear without notice or forwarding information.
It's something we don't think about, because we don't want to think about it. As adults, consider how distracted we can become when even small nuisances pop into our day. Now, imagine being a young student with no home, no comfort zone. No kitchen cupboards to peek into when hungry, no dresser drawers to pull clothes from in the morning. No desk or table for doing homework or puzzles or art projects. No bed that's just yours - and only yours. Imagine how difficult it would be to arrive at school, ready to learn, undistracted by the effort it took to simply get there. But many do - and they face each day with reserves of fortitude and purpose that most adults can only aspire to have.
According to new federal data, homelessness in public schools has doubled since the recession. Most of the affected are hard-working, honest families who have been dealt a string of blows simply too tough to overcome. Not every family has a support system of extended family members to rely upon during hard times. Not every family has access to basic things others may take for granted. So when life's current grows strong and turbulent, these vulnerable families are the first ones to get bumped around like tiny fish.
The eye on the ceramic fish is overly large with beautiful eyelashes, and the body is etched with steady horizontal lines across its form.
She wanted me to have a gift from her, made by her.
There is no face to homelessness in the public school population. There is no icon to remind us that there are students who persevere through daily, heart-wrenching circumstances just to learn and grow like they have the right to do. Maybe we need a symbol to help remind us so that we can collectively find solutions.
Maybe her fish is a start.