Friday night, while walking our dog, my wife and daughter met a family of five. Of the three children, the middle girl was around seven - close to the same age as my daughter. The oldest - a boy - was ten, and the youngest - a toddler between a year and eighteen months - occupied a stroller. It was cold last night in Portland, and the toddler was bundled up with extra clothes and blankets. The father asked my wife for money.
"The shelters are full," he said. "We're on the waitlist at all the ones we called."
"And we're not going to Portland Mission," the mother said. "I don't know if you've ever seen that place, but you can't bring kids in there."
When my wife and daughter met them, they were on their way back to Safeway. "It's warm in there," the mother said. They were trying to get money for a hotel for the night.
"But even a bench outside Safeway is better than Portland Mission," the father said.
And my wife and daughter helped them out as best they could, but it wasn't enough, because really, in that context, what does enough even look like?
Afterwards, as my wife, daughter, and I talked about it, my wife was struck by the feeling that they were new to the street. "He talked about how people are really possessive of corners," she said. "He was ashamed, but he was having a hard time finding a good spot to ask for money."
And today, I read about Samantha Garvey, a kid whose family had been evicted just before New Years, and how she is a finalist in a national science fair, and how her family is getting a home - and I am really excited to read about her success, but the happiness I feel for her is leavened, because I can't get around the fact that there are thousands of families just like Samantha's who will not be written about in the national press, and who will not be getting off the street, into a shelter, or a home. They will be going precisely nowhere, at least not anytime soon.
And at some point, the three kids my family met last night will end up in school, somewhere. And my hope is that the teachers who have the opportunity to work with them to further their education will have the tools - the money, the time, the resources, and the support - to give them what they need. And I hope that the work these teachers and these students do will be judged and assessed on its own merits, against the backdrop of its own distinct context.
Within the current educational reform discussions, it's very fashionable to say that poverty is not destiny and that things would get better if we could only fire more bad teachers. And, in a very general sense, these truisms - like all truisms - are general enough to resemble something that might even be true. But these oversimplifications - like many of the "obvious" solutions to "fixing" education - break, hard, against the uniquely human conditions within which people are expected to learn. The specifics of the various educational settings are often left out of the discussion, as they don't fit neatly into a truism that makes a good sound bite.
And each day, families drift into homelessness, the distance between the very rich and the very poor continues to increase, social mobility continues to decrease - and against this backdrop, with 22 percent of the children in the US living in poverty, with just under 24 percent of children living in households that experience food insecurity, we need to drop the pretense that education, poverty, and health are separate issues.
Today, my daughter and I drove down Sandy Boulevard, and she looked for the family she met last night. We didn't see them.
She sat back in her seat. "Do you think they found a hotel?" she asked.
"I don't know," I told her. "I hope so."
She wasn't satisfied with that. She likes more precision. She likes to know.
I didn't have a better answer.