The Grey Boy

It was my second year of teaching when Martin* first walked into the classroom wearing a grey shirt.

He was a good kid. Top set but would often take it easy. Got his homework done, got his head down, and never gave me any issues. A student I was grateful to teach amid tougher groups.

Now kids are messy and uniforms take a beating. Food spillages, ink stains on shirt sleeves, muddy knees – all familiar sights. And they haven’t figured out personal hygiene, particularly teenage boys. After that one Year 9 group on a Thursday afternoon, straight after P.E., your classroom fills with hellish odours that almost strip the paint from the walls.

But it was the first time I had noticed a grey shirt.

Wandering the classroom later, I stopped near Martin so that I could get a better look. His shirt was threadbare, and while clean, it was obviously well-worn and had taken a dull, translucent appearance that made it seem grey. Now that I was focused on him, I noticed more details about his uniform. The fading colour in his tie, the hurried repairs to his trousers, missing buttons on his blazer.

I asked him to collect the books for me at the end of the lesson so I could talk with him privately. As we chatted, I brought the conversation around to his uniform, gently asking about the loss of a button. During our chat, I learnt it was the only shirt he had left from the last uniform shop over two years before. One shirt for every day.

Unfortunately, it is here where we fall into some sad clichés. Mum didn’t have the money to spend on shirts as Dad wasn’t around anymore, so it had been tight moneywise. As Mum worked all hours she could, his Nan looked after him, but she was getting on. Most of the time he was looking after her. So often there wasn’t time for things like sewing a button back on a blazer, or patching his trousers with high accuracy.

The conversation ended sheepishly as he was keen to dash off to play some football during lunch. But it weighed heavily on me.

This is the thing about poverty. It emerges and hits you in ways you don’t expect.

The obvious signs of poverty hit you straight in the face. It could be that a kid will speak of broken or strained family circumstances, particularly if they’re in the care system or alike. They’ll make vague allusions to witnessing substance abuse, health complications, or worse. Having taught doesn’t give me some unique perspective on poverty – we can all recognise obvious signs, too many people have had to live through them. But this was something else more subtle, it didn’t hit you in the face.

I taught in a school that was around 70% free school meals. Free school meals doesn’t always mean poverty – there are a wide range of reasons why someone might be entitled to them. And not everyone who is in poverty receives them. It’s not straightforward, but it’s a useful proxy for poverty in many instances.

Marcus Rashford did fantastic work bringing free school meals to the forefront of the national conversation. But there is still a caricature that lingers. When the public think poverty, they think in absolutes, in Dickensian stereotypes of Tiny Tim or Nancy.

The thing is children in poverty don’t all look like Oliver or the Little Match Girl. Those 70% in my school weren’t dressed in rags rattling tin cans or picking pockets for a few coins. Many had the latest phones, new trainers, a fashionable bag. Parents took them on holidays, to restaurants, or to the cinema.

Anyone remotely familiar with poverty knows that it is often unpredictable. You get those bumper shifts or years that bring in a bit of money. You buy the phones, the TV, the holiday, but then something happens. Someone loses a job unexpectedly, or there’s an upheaval in the family. And sometimes the upheaval lasts longer than those rainy-day savings you had tucked away.

This cycle of feast and famine is common – so common in fact a new class, the precariat, is emerging. The danger of living on the bread line is that it doesn’t take much to make you dip below it. Suddenly people haven’t got the money for a new uniform, so you skip the back-to-school shopping one year. No dentist trips or takeaways for a while. We’ll skip the holiday this year too. The subtle ways poverty starts to reveal itself can be hard to explain because it doesn’t fit with the caricature.

You’ll be glad to know Martin got some new uniform in the end. After it was mentioned to Martin’s Head of House, a couple of new shirts from the school store were sent his way. But as we head into a likely recession, we need to be prepared that many (read: millions of) children like Martin will find themselves in poverty through no fault of their own, and it might not be the obvious ‘Tiny Tim’ kind.

Poverty is complicated, and it can seem contradictory and messy to those on the outside. But before the hard times are upon us, we need to move away from the black and white caricatures of poverty, so that we are better prepared to intervene in the borderline areas before it becomes absolute.

That’s because poverty isn’t always black and white. Poverty is all too often grey.

*Martin is a pseudonym.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s