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Pretend Poverty Meets Reality

Education: In Irvine High's homelessness project, students reveal their frustrations with peers' attitudes toward the less fortunate.

November 20, 2001|JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Irvine High School assembly meant to raise sensitivity toward homelessness took a surprise turn Monday when some students revealed that they feel excluded for being less affluent than their peers.

The assembly followed a three-day exercise last week in which 125 of the school's students practiced self-deprivation in an attempt to learn more about homelessness. At the assembly, the crowning moment for the project, the students shared what they had learned and introduced people who are homeless to tell their own stories.

But then junior Crystal Davis told the 2,000-member student body that her family lives in subsidized housing and she often feels left out because she cannot afford expensive clothes or electronic accessories. Conversations and activities revolve around having money, she said; it's a culture that pressures those without a lot of money to believe that they have to pretend to be like everyone else.

Such a revelation probably would have been unheard of before the project, but Crystal decided that it was time to tell her classmates how their attitudes toward the poor affect her. "Some of you guys are superficial," Crystal said. "I experienced so much coming to this new school from Anaheim."

Crystal was not the only student who revealed that she had been hiding her family's financial situation to fit in on campus. Cortney Cross, a senior, said that she had been homeless for eight months her freshman year and had mixed and matched outfits so no one would notice she had so few clothes. Another student stood up and said her family had gone through periods when they were unable to afford food.

Some teachers had hoped that the weeklong project in hunger and homelessness--which included not changing clothes, forgoing TV and cell phones and sleeping one night in the family car--would alter students' attitudes toward the poor.

But some said they had no idea that the Monday assembly would open up economic fissures in the student body, where issues of class and poverty are usually so carefully ignored that some students refer to their world as "the bubble."

"I am hoping this will affect the school climate," said Terry Griffin, the history teacher who helped facilitate theproject. "I hope this will make our students more aware of differences, and feel like differences are OK."

But some students said they do not have faith that attitudes will change much on a campus where many teens refused to go even one day without showering for the project, and others mocked those who chose to do so.

"The biggest thing I learned was there are so many people who keep their minds closed," junior Shaista Valle told fellow students at the assembly. "I just wish there was a way to get through to people. One of the most shocking things I found out was how quick we are to turn our backs."

But Cortney, the senior who spoke publicly Monday about her time in a homeless shelter, said she felt comforted by the warmth and understanding some of her classmates had shown after she revealed her secret in recent days.

Other participants in the project said that their attitudes toward the homeless had changed.

Even though she wasn't able to go a day without showering, said junior Cassandra Lebleu, she has new compassion for those who do not have instant access to hot water and scented bath products.

"I'm thinking about how selfish I've been," said freshman Shree Khalid, who sat on the gym floor during the assembly and listened with rapt attention to her classmates' stories. "I always used to think if 'I don't get a new CD player, I'm deprived.' But when you hear about this, I think I should start being grateful for what I have."

Many of the homeless and formerly homeless people who came to the assembly praised the students for their attempts at understanding, and urged them to keep their minds and hearts open.

"I think you guys are really lucky just to have a place to go home to," said Ana, a formerly homeless woman. "My hopes for you guys today is that you can recognize this."

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