Monday, YALSA, the young adult librarian services arm of the American Library Association, awarded the 2020 nonfiction award to Rex Ogle’s Free Lunch a small book that left a huge impact on this reader. The memoir tells the story of Rex’s first semester of sixth grade in Texas. He’s just entered middle school, a milestone for which he was very excited. He’s a hardworking and bright student who loves to read and values the routine of school. In addition to his schoolwork, Rex shoulders a tremendous amount of responsibility at home caring for his 2 1/2 year old brother and preparing meals since his mother “doesn’t cook.”
And, he’s poor. Really, really poor.
Rex lives with his mother, her boyfriend, and their child, in a two bedroom apartment in which all of the furniture items can be counted on one hand. Rex sleeps on the floor in a sleeping bag, storing his meager wardrobe of ill fitting, but clean, clothing in cardboard boxes left over from the family’s most recent move. They move a lot.
There is never enough food in their home, but the threat of physical, emotional and verbal abuse fills the otherwise empty rooms. Grocery and school supply shopping expeditions are balancing acts between getting what is needed and not angering a mother who rages against every perceived societal injustice with a loud and confrontational voice.
Reading Rex’s words on the page prompted memories and strong feelings for me. We were poor, too. While my mother never was abusive, she also was not particularly interested in the emotional needs of her own children or sensitive to the pressures of fitting in socially. I just don’t think she had the resources to explore either of those avenues.
I shared Free Lunch, along with Hey, Kiddo, Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s National Book Award Finalist graphic novel memoir, last week with my 7th grade students. The theme of the presentation, and the books I pulled, was families. I talked a little about the infinite number of household compositions that can be encompassed by the word Family. I told the kids about the embarrassment Ogle felt about his home situation and poverty and explained that I knew what he was talking about because of my own experiences growing up in a single parent household, being dependent upon welfare, and receiving free lunch.
When I was a kid, there were times when we had to devise ways to heat up food (pre-microwaves) when there was no gas for the stove. Hot water wasn’t always available and sometimes in the winter there was no water whatsoever because we had neglected to leave the water dripping on cold nights and the pipes had frozen. Most of the time, in home laundry was a luxury we didn’t have and I have memories of clothing drying near the wood burning stove upon which we were dependent for heat.
Hours of my childhood were spent in the overheated offices of the county social services building waiting as my mother reapplied for assistance. I learned at an early age that toilet paper, soap and aspirin were all considered nonessential and thus not able to be purchased with food stamps. And the embarrassment of free lunch? I’m very familiar with the shame of having to publicly admit that my family did not have the means to provide me with a midday meal.
My lesson finished with a “blind” book selection activity in which I asked students to close their eyes, reach into a bin filled with assorted books and withdraw one. As they lined up to perform the task, I explained that none of us get to pick the family that we’re born into and I requested that they sit down for 5-7 minutes with their randomly selected book and just read. Following their quiet reading, they had the option to borrow the book or opt for an alternative title. The choice, just like what might come next in their own lives, was theirs to make.