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Redmond: Back to School

09/18/12 7:55AM By Marybeth Redmond
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(Host) With back-to-school season underway, writer, journalist and commentator Marybeth Redmond is thinking about a fragile segment of the population also returning to school this month - children with a parent in prison.

(Redmond) I settled my son into his 4th grade classroom as part of this month's back-to-school ritual. In the days prior, we had purchased a mountain of school supplies. The shopping banter between us ran something like this:

"Mom, can I get the bazillion Crayola crayon box this year?"

"Nah, the 96- pack with built-in sharpener will do. Alright?"

"Yeah. Okay."

We then loaded "the loot" into his sleek, tangerine plaid Burton backpack, an early birthday present too pricey for my tastes.

Then on the first day of school, my eye caught a small girl with bedraggled hair and a wild look scurrying through the elementary building. And because of the mentoring work I do with incarcerated women, my mind instantly leapt to the thought that this could be one of their children - also beginning the new school year.

Last year's figures from the Vermont Department of Corrections show that 40-percent of incarcerated women and 28-percent of men were the parents of minor children. National statistics peg the percentages higher - more than two-thirds of imprisoned women in the United States are mothers of children under age 18.

It's hard to imagine the tumultuousness of back-to-school for a child with a parent in jail. Most likely, the child has been enrolled in an unfamiliar school because of temporary placement with an extended or foster family. Money is sure to be tight, with limited resources for new sneakers, calculators, or that two-inch binder Teacher requested. The natural stressor of new classmates adds to the angst. Most critically, a well-worn emotional connection to a beloved parent - despite shortcomings - is absent. This child enters school with a serious stigma through no fault of his or her own. It's not hard to imagine the range of traumas resulting. But hopefully, those of us gifted with intellectual and/or financial resources will be willing to accept some responsibility in all of this.

This year, I intend to be more aware of the struggling child alongside my son, who may not have the tools he or she needs to thrive. I will try to play an active role as tutor, mentor, backpack provider, or simply a kind, listening ear. I'll be less focused on getting the quote "easy kids" assigned to me for the upcoming class field trip. And less obsessed with surrounding my child with only the most advantageous friendships - in other words, with kids whose parents are like me, well-educated and well-resourced.

These considerations are, of course, deeply personal and unique to each one of us, but we do, after all, have the whole school year to ponder them.
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