Everyone's Problem

April 07, 1994|By ANNE WERPS

In her poignant autobiography, ''I Know Why the Caged Bird Signs,'' Maya Angelou recalls an incident in her childhood when she was in dire need of dental care.

''I lived a few days and nights in blinding pain, not so much toying with as seriously considering the idea of jumping in the well, and Momma decided I had to be taken to a dentist. The nearest dentist was in Texarkana, 25 miles away, and I was certain I'd be dead long before we reached half the distance.''

Ms. Angelou had been turned away by the white dentist of her own town, even though her grandmother had lent him money during the Depression and thus enabled him to save his practice. But the dentist had a ''policy,'' and his policy was not to treat colored people. The girl was eventually taken to the black dentist in Texarkana where the rotting teeth were extracted, but only after she had suffered simultaneously ''having a toothache and a headache and having to bear at the same time the heavy burden of blackness.''

It is easiest for us to believe that such tales of suffering before the days of civil rights no longer occur. Jonathan Kozol's ''Savage Inequalities'' (1991) tells us otherwise:

''Although dental problems don't command the instant fears associated with low birth weight, fetal death or cholera, they do have the consequence of wearing down the stamina of children and defeating their ambitions. Bleeding gums, impacted teeth and rotting teeth are routine matters for the children I have interviewed in the South Bronx. Children get used to feeling constant pain. They go to sleep with it. They go to school with it. Dental care is often long delayed. Children live for months with pain that grown-ups would find unendurable. The gradual attrition of accepted pain erodes their energy and aspiration.''

Have we even begun to consider the cost of failing to invest in our most precious resource, our children? Those of us with means know how heart-wrenching it can be to see our own children in physical pain, but we are fortunate. We can do something about the pain because we have insurance. When it comes to other people's children, we are not always so sensitive. And yet we all are paying the price.

Educators know what the price is. Children who have suffered hearing loss when they had untreated ear infections will not learn read and write as easily as those who have had health care. Investment in prenatal care for all women would result in fewer birth defects, and therefore fewer learning-disabled students. The numbers of emotionally disturbed and otherwise at-risk children would decrease. Badly abused children in need of counseling cannot see the need to ''pay attention, concentrate, learn.'' A child whose head is chronically full of lice is not motivated to acquire basic math skills, even with the most caring and nurturing of teachers.

And so again we are confronted with ''policy,'' as was Ms. Angelou in her tale of the toothache.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist, writes about policy in her book, ''When the Bough Breaks; The Cost of Neglecting Our Children'':

''Our policies in and around childbirth tell a multi-dimensional story of carelessness and neglect. They tell the tale of a self-centered people supremely uninterested in the fate of other people's children -- particularly if these children happen to be poor and black. And they tell a tale of personal culpability. If you have a child, you are on your own. If you can look after it, fine. If you can't, don't expect Uncle Sam to bail you out. You made your bed, you lie in it. The spirit of those tales is uncaring, even spiteful, and the thrust of the story is to deny any form of collective responsibility for children.''

The voices of Ms. Angelou, Mr. Kozol and Ms. Hewlett are compelling. The voices tell us that we have let our children down. Now, as the insurance companies, the doctors and the lobbyists wrangle, our president has echoed the voices. Are we listening? Are we hearing? Will we do something? How much longer can we shirk our responsibilities? Who will take care of the children? As we look around us, the adults they are becoming surely make them everyone's problem.

Anne Werps is an instructional facilitator at Dundalk Middle School.

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