The Fish in My Office

I keep a ceramic fish in my office.

Several years ago, I was visiting an elementary school in Michigan. 

It was a typical school by all appearances. Clean, bright hallways were trimmed with small lockers, student artwork was taped on the walls and paper mobiles floated down from the ceiling. The corridors rang with the sounds of start-time bells, morning announcements, classroom doors opening and closing, chairs being shuffled. There was laughter. 

The art teacher met me in the main office before leading me to her room. She wanted to show me the many projects her students had created using my books as themes. Once inside, I was overwhelmed. Energetic artwork filled the entire space with color and shape. The pieces crafted by the children were charming, innocent, and 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 gift especially from her. I took the fish in my hands and admired it. "I need to thank her in person," I said.

But the art teacher told me I wouldn't be able to do that. She explained that the student's family had disappeared overnight, just days prior. She said she didn't know for certain the circumstance, or what challenges or situation had overcome this particular family. She said that most often it is 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.

She went on to say it’s tough on the teachers. It’s tough on the kids. And it’s something we don't think about. Maybe it’s because some of us don’t want to, and maybe it’s because most of us don’t have to.

But we must.

Think about how we, as adults, react when even the smallest problem disrupts our day. A nuisance pops up and we become irritable, distracted. Now, imagine being a young school-aged child whose life is nothing but disruption. There is no place to call home at the end of a busy day. There is no kitchen cupboard to peek into when you’re hungry, no dresser drawer to pull your clothes from each morning. Imagine being a young student with no desk or table for doing homework or puzzles or art projects, no bed to rest upon, and no reliable place for brushing your teeth or combing your hair. Think about how difficult it would be to live with those circumstances and then arrive at school each day, wanting to learn but already taxed by the enormous effort it took simply to get there.

Sadly, this is reality for many students. And when they walk through the school doors each morning, they are required to face the day with reserves of fortitude and purpose and dignity 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 be disrupted, pushed out, dispersed. They are bumped and tossed around like tiny fish being scattered into a greater sea. 

The eye on the ceramic fish is overly large with exaggerated eyelashes, and its colorful 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 poster child or icon to remind us that there are students who persevere through daily, heart-wrenching circumstances just for the chance to show up and have an opportunity to learn and grow. And maybe that’s why it’s so invisible to most of us. Maybe we need a symbol to remind us to keep working on solutions for these young students.

Maybe her fish is a start.