"How many of you ever had your lights, heat or water turned off in your house?" Almost every hand goes up.
I'm starting a lesson with my second graders to combine the economic recession, their upcoming Christmas that may not be as bountiful as last year's, and addition problems using what their list to Santa might cost their parents.
I got the idea for the lesson from one of the boys walking up to me last month and saying, "We don't have any water." At first I thought he meant we were out of the bottled water in our room. (Bottled water delivered to a high-poverty school classroom?--that's a story for another day.) But then I realized he meant his water at home.
I wasn't surprised at the raised hands; it's almost as many as got raised when I ask who had parents or relatives lose their jobs this year. Such is common knowledge among teachers who work in poverty/working class neighborhoods.
Anyway, out of the lesson we learned that most kids' lists came to a few hundred dollars. By the time we were done, I'd led them a little way down the path of harsh reality, maybe preparing them some for a leaner set of gifts under their tree. I'm their teacher, it's some of what I need to do so they know, rather than worry.
When I was growing up in San Antonio, I remember we occasionally got our lights, heat turned off for FTP. It's a cyclical poverty thing where poor people get physically and financially punished for not having the finances to keep up with the crucial bills. Sometimes it meant warmth became more crucial than nutrition, so we starved so we wouldn't freeze.
As I started this piece, my knees still had not regained most sensation, and my breathing was still short and shallow. It was 50 degrees in here and kept plunging trying to match the 20-degree temperature outside, which will be the high for today.
Because I mostly pay my bills on time, I ignored the notice stuck in my door when I got home last night, the one that said the gas had been turned off. Ignored it because it was about a house on the next block, not mine. I knew nobody could possibly confuse my block with the next one over.
Later when I noticed the house getting chilly, I assumed the worst--that my furnace was out. Naturally I couldn't get a hold of my favorite repairman: I was told he was out drinking in some bar that no doubt had nice-warm heating.
When I tried to use the oven at 3:30 this morning to get some of the same, and I found the dog had moved from his usual pillow to a nice-warmer one on our couch, the stove wouldn't work, and that's when I remembered the note stuck in the door, the same note I'd so nonchalantly scoffed at.
I immediately called Xcel Energy, not realizing it would take 3 calls, all the way until 10:30--not 8:00am like they promised--and my threat of filing a complaint with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) before nice-warm heat started coming out of my heat registers again.
"On Saturdays, the only trucks that are out are answering reports of gas leaks, and your problem will be taken care of after that. No, I can't guarantee your service will be on before the afternoon." That's the gist of what the Xcel 800-number people told me. Turned out not to be true. The threat of a PUC complaint put me at the front of the line, the guy showing up not 20 min. later.
I realize that in the middle of this recession-not-yet-a-depression my situation pales against what some families are enduring. I'm at least not some homebound old lady who doesn't know about the PUC. I at least don't have a newborn infant that would have been endangered. I at least have the money to keep my heat turned on or the credit to get it turned back on, if need be.
Nevertheless, I thought it ironic how my temporary predicament coincided with the math lesson. For a few hours I got to be a little like one of my seven-year-old students, I got to remember what it's like not knowing when I'd be nice-warm again.
The furnace has now been blasting for almost an hour trying to get the house back to such a temperature. My knees are still shocked but my breathing's improved. The dog's decided even though the heat's returned, the sofa's a preferable nice-warm place to lay his smelly self on. If the dog smell doesn't come out of the couch, I'm sending the bill for a new one to Xcel Energy, possibly along with an aromatic piece of the evidence.
As you rush out to maybe blow money on stuff no one really needs, keep in mind you should set aside money to pay today's heating bill. And if there's a note stuck in your door when you get back, do read the whole thing and assume the worst.
I won't end this with some doleful attempt at "please remember the cold, shivering children." For one thing, you might have been one of those once, will probably never forget it, and don't need me to remind you. For another thing, it might make you want to give money to the "energy assistance program" in your area, the one to help people struggling to keep the lights and heat on. Literally, that wouldn't help any of my kids who next January inform me their heat's been turned off. What we need is turn off the system that physically tortures kids born to poor or unemployed parents.
But I will end this on something more in keeping with the season. Relish the warmth around you--the wool blanket you so wisely bought, the spouse, family who occasionally show up, the two cats (one for each foot), that money in the savings account you left untouched, and that furnace you can afford to have checked every so often. Then like Ramos said yesterday, "Let the tunes fill the room as you wrap that last minute gift, trim the tree, suck down the eggnog,… a warm tamal, a cold beverage."
[NB: I did file a complaint with the PUC. Suggested new regulations penalizing erroneous disconnections and providing aggrieved customers like myself some sort of justice. Maybe the heat's on them now.]