John Spargo.

The Bitter Cry of the Children online

. (page 6 of 22)
Online LibraryJohn SpargoThe Bitter Cry of the Children → online text (page 6 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

“always had a good lunch.” Here, then, was a big school with over two
thousand pupils, representing twenty different nationalities, in which
there were only three possible cases of underfeeding, the element of
doubt being strong in each case! Every one who has had the least
experience of work amongst the poor knows perfectly well that it would
be absolutely impossible to gather together 2000 children from the
tenements of any city without including many more cases of undoubted
hardship and suffering. And the neighborhood of this school is a
particularly poor one. Close to the school are some of the foulest
tenements to be found in the whole city. The crowding of two families in
one room is common, and poverty and squalor are abundantly evidenced on
every hand.

After the principal had told me of his report I went over the district
with the Captain of the neighboring Slum Post of the Salvation Army. The
Captain knew personally several children attending the school who were
literally half starved. Out of 26 children, boys and girls, at the free
breakfast one morning there were 22 from the school, and their hunger
and misery were beyond question. One little boy was barely seven years
old, and a more woful appearance than he presented cannot well be
imagined. He had come to the breakfast station two days before the date
of our visit, the Captain said, literally famishing, filthy, and covered
with sores. The good woman had fed and cleaned the poor little waif and
bandaged his feet and legs. “It was an awful job,” she said, “for he was
so dirty. It took four changes of water to get him well cleaned. Then I
bandaged him and got some old but clean clothes for him.” Even so, after
two days of such feeding and care as he had never known before, the poor
child looked forlorn, weak, and inexpressibly miserable. Little Mike’s
case was doubtless exceptionally bad, but it is not too much to say that
the whole district is a wen of terrible poverty. Yet from the
principal’s report it would seem that the children bear no share of its
hardships and privations. And this is impossible. It is the children who
suffer most of all.

To account for the principal’s roseate and obviously misleading report,
it is only necessary to understand how the inquiry was made upon which
the report was based. Asked to explain how he had made his
investigation, the principal said, “I went to every class and asked all
those children who had had no breakfast to stand up.” When it is
remembered that children are naturally very sensitive about their
poverty, regarding it as being something in the nature of a personal
degradation, nothing need be said to show the futility of such a method
of inquiry. I have frequently known children on the verge of exhaustion
to deny that they were hungry, so keenly do they feel that poverty is a
disgrace. I saw the little girl and the two Syrian boys in the presence
of the principal upon the occasion of my second visit to the school and
questioned them. The two boys said, through an interpreter, that they
had bread and coffee for every meal and vigorously denied having had
butter, jam, milk, eggs, or meat of any kind. They certainly looked
anæmic, weak, and underfed. The little girl’s story, which I could get
only by dint of careful and sympathetic questioning, epitomizes the
whole problem of underfeeding as it affects thousands of children. She
gave at first practically the same answer as she had given the
principal, saying that she did not have breakfast because she was not
accustomed to it and didn’t need it, and that she always had a good

But her full story revealed a very different condition from what these
innocent replies would indicate. Both her parents go out to work,
leaving home soon after five o’clock in the morning. The father is a
laborer employed at the docks, and the mother works in the kitchen of a
cheap restaurant. They go away leaving the little girl in bed, and when
she rises there is generally some cold coffee and bread for her. But
there is no clock, and she does not know the time and is afraid of being
late to school and does not stay to eat. “Sometimes, when papa has no
work, there is no food left for me to eat,” she said. Then she told of
her “good lunch.” Generally there is five cents left upon the table for
her to buy lunch with. “Only when papa is not working is there no money
left.” On the day of my interview with her she had spent her five cents
for a cup of coffee with nothing at all to eat, as she had done for two
or three successive days. Asked why she had not bought something to eat,
or a glass of milk, instead of coffee, she answered, “Because coffee is
hot, sir, and I was so cold.” Her father returns home at six o’clock in
the evening and sends her to the delicatessen store to buy
something—generally bologna sausage—for their evening meal. The mother,
who eats at the restaurant, does not return until about two hours later.
From this fuller story of the little girl’s life it is seen that her
“good lunch” day after day consists of a cup of coffee without a morsel
of food, and that she fasts frequently, almost constantly, from the
evening of one day to the evening of the next.

Such tactlessness on the part of the principal of a great public school
seems almost incredible. But it is a fact that most teachers seem to
have no other method of finding out anything from their children than by
calling upon them to “show hands,” notwithstanding that experience
proves it to be a most unreliable one. Children not only shrink from
confessing their poverty and hunger, but they are also quick to give the
answers desired by the teacher, even though the teacher’s feelings are
only manifested by a slight inflection of voice. Public examination of
the children is a useless as well as most cruel method to adopt. But it
was generally adopted, and I could cite case after case from my notes.
One other case, however, must suffice. The principal of one of the
smallest schools in the city, situated on the East Side in a poor
Italian district, assured me that there were practically no hungry or
underfed children in the school. Asked to estimate the number of such
children, she said that they were “less than 1 per cent of the
attendance.” She had found 9 cases of destitution just previously as a
result of an inquiry made through the teachers, which, as was pointed
out to her, meant fully 2 per cent of the attendance. For the total
enrolment in this school is less than 500 and the average attendance not
more than 450. Asked how the 9 cases had been discovered, the principal
replied, “Why, I simply went to each class and asked, ‘What little boy
or girl did not have breakfast to-day, or not enough breakfast? Please
show hands.’” There was, she said, no doubt whatever that the 9 children
were the victims of great poverty. That as many as 2 per cent of the
children should, under the circumstances, confess their poverty is
undoubtedly a most serious fact and indicates a much larger number of
actual victims.

How such a method of examination intimidates the children and fails to
elicit the truth, the following incident, related as nearly as possible
in the principal’s own words, will show. It relates to a little boy whom
we will call Tony:—

“I went to a classroom and asked: ‘How many children had no breakfast
to-day? Show hands!’ Not a single hand went up. Then the teacher said,
‘Why, I am sure that boy, Tony, looks as if he were half starved.’ And
he really did, so I told him to stand up and questioned him. ‘Did you
have any breakfast this morning, Tony?’ I asked. He hung his head for a
minute and then said, ‘No, mum.’



“‘Now, Tony, wouldn’t you like to have a good breakfast every
morning,—some hot coffee and nice rolls?’

“‘Yes, mum.’

“‘Well, do you know the Salvation Army where they give breakfasts to
little boys who need them?’

“‘Yes, mum.’

“‘Well, if I get you a ticket, won’t you go there to-morrow and get your

“The little fellow’s eyes flashed and he looked straight at me and said,
‘No, mum, I don’t want it.’ Really, I admired his spirit. Poor as he
was, he did not want charity.”

Better than any argument the principal’s own words show the cruel,
inquisitorial method and its effectiveness in suppressing the truth. I
repeat, that was the method of inquiry generally adopted, and it was
upon reports based upon the results of such examinations that the
special committee of the Board of Education based its report.


Of course, not all teachers are so tactless. A very large number are
merely unobservant, possibly because they have become inured to the
pitiful appearance of the children and their painfully low physical
development. It is common to hear teachers in poor districts say: “When
I first came to this school my heart used to ache with pity on account
of the poverty-stricken appearance of many of the children and the sad
tales they sometimes tell. But now I have grown used to it all.” That,
in many cases, tells the whole secret—they have grown accustomed to the
sight of stunted bodies and wan, pinched faces. There are teachers,
earnest men and women devoted to their profession, and consecrating it
by an almost religious passion, who study the home life and social
environment of the children intrusted to their care; but they are,
unhappily, exceptions. The number of teachers having no idea of how a
healthy child should look is astonishingly large. The hectic flush of
disease is often mistaken by teachers and principals for the bloom of

In one large school the principal, in the course of a personally
conducted visit to the different classrooms, singled out a little
Italian girl, and asked with a note of pride in his voice: “Wouldn’t you
call this a healthy child? I do. Look at her round, full face.” There
were a great many signs of ill health in that little girl’s appearance
which the good principal did not recognize. I pointed out some of the
signs of grave nervous disorder, due, as I afterward learned, almost
beyond question, to malnutrition. Her cheeks were well rounded, but her
pitifully thin arms indicated a very ill-developed body. I pointed out
her nervous hand, the baggy fulness under her eyes, and the abrasions at
the corners of her twitching mouth,[46] and asked that the teacher might
be consulted as to the girl’s school record. “She is not a very bright
child,” said the teacher, “and what to do with her is a problem. She is
very nervous, irritable, and excitable. She seems to get exhausted very
soon, and it is impossible for her to apply herself properly to her
work. I think very likely that she is underfed, for she comes from a
very poor home.” Subsequent investigation at her home, on Mott Street,
showed that her father, who is a consumptive, earns from sixty cents to
a dollar a day peddling laces, needles, and other small articles, the
rest of the income supporting the family of seven persons being derived
from the mother’s labor. They occupy one small room, and the only means
of cooking they have is a small gas “ring” such as is sold for ten cents
in the cheap stores.

Where principals and teachers declined to assist, it was impossible to
make inquiries in the schools, and it was useless to make them in
schools where the children had already been openly questioned. Wherever
it was possible to secure the coöperation of principals or teachers, I
got them to question the children privately and sympathetically. In 16
schools, 12,800 children were thus privately examined, and of that
number 987, or 7.71 per cent, were reported as having had no breakfast
upon the day of the inquiry, and 1963, or 15.32 per cent, as having had
altogether too little. Teachers were asked to exclude as far as possible
all cases of an obviously accidental nature from the returns, as, for
instance, when a child known to be in fairly comfortable circumstances
had come to school without breakfast merely because of lack of appetite.
They were also requested to regard as having had inadequate breakfasts
only children who had had bread only (with or without tea or coffee), or
such things as crackers or crullers in place of bread, but without milk,
cereals, cake, butter, jam, eggs, fruit, fish, or meat of any kind. That
this standard was altogether too low will probably be admitted without
question, but there was no way of examining the actual meals of the
children, and some sort of arbitrary rule was necessary. The figures
given are therefore based on a very low standard, and most certainly do
not include all cases either of the unfed or underfed. It is more than
probable that some children who had gone without breakfasts refused to
admit the fact, and there were several instances in which children known
to be desperately poor, and who, the teachers felt, were certainly
underfed, gave the most surprising accounts—which must have been drawn
from their imaginations[47]—of elaborate breakfasts. Out of 12,800
children, then, 2950, or more than 23 per cent, were found either wholly
breakfastless or having had such miserably poor breakfasts as described.
And that is certainly an understatement of the evil of underfeeding in
those schools.

One of the most notable of these school investigations was undertaken by
the principal of a large school to “prove conclusively that really there
is no such thing as a serious problem of underfeeding among our school
children.” The principal is a devoted believer in the theory of the
survival of the fittest, and in the elimination of the weak by
competition and struggle. “If you attempt to take hardship and suffering
out of their lives by smoothing the pathway of life for these children,
you weaken their character, and, by so doing, you sin against the
children themselves and, through them, against society,” he said. With
the view of Huxley and others that the real interest and duty of society
is to make as many as possible fit to survive, he expressed himself as
having no sympathy, on the ground that it conflicts with nature’s
immutable law of struggle. But, as often happens, his deeds frequently
run counter to his merciless creed, and he is one of the most generous
and compassionate of men. The children trust him, and the sense of an
intimate friendship between him and them is the most delightful
impression the visitor receives. There is no absence of real, effective
discipline, but it is discipline based upon sympathy, friendship, and
trust. The principal declared that he did not believe that 5 children
could be found in the whole school of 1500 who could be described as
badly underfed, or who came to school breakfastless.

The district in which this school is situated is one of the poorest in
the city, the population consisting almost exclusively of Italians. Most
of the men are unskilled laborers working for very low wages and
irregularly employed. Many of them are recent immigrants and subject to
the vicious padrone system. Every fresh batch of immigrants intensifies
the already keen and brutal competition, and to maintain even the low
standard of living to which they are accustomed, the wives frequently
work as wage-earners. The people are housed in vile tenements, and the
crowding of two families into one small room is by no means uncommon.
“Little mothers” and their rickety infant charges crowd the pavements.
In the early morning, even during the winter months, groups of shivering
children gather outside the school waiting for admission hours before
the time of opening, and at lunch time instead of going to their homes
they hasten away with their pennies and nickels to buy ice cream,
pickles, peppers, or cream puffs for their midday meal. Knowing these to
be the conditions existing in the neighborhood, it was impossible to
accept the optimistic views of the principal without serious
questioning, and it was to convince me that he was right that he
undertook to have the investigation made while we went over the school.

The teachers were requested to examine every child privately, and to
report the number of children having had no breakfast that morning and
the number having had inadequate breakfasts. Some of the teachers
absolutely refused to ask the children “such questions,” and two or
three sent in obstinately stupid reports such as “nobody underfed but
the teacher.” Reports were received from 19 classes with an actual
attendance of 865 children, of which number 104 were reported as having
had no breakfast and 54 as having had too little. Not all the reports
were of equal value, I afterward found, some of the teachers having
ignored the rule and regarded coffee and bread as sufficient. In one
case there were three children who declared that they had only cold
coffee without any food. They should have been reported as
breakfastless, but in fact they were not reported in either column. So
that it is probable that in this case also the figures given are an
understatement of actual conditions. In one class of 43 children 13 were
reported as having had no breakfast and 12 as having had insufficient,
and when the report was sent back with instructions that the teacher try
to find out _why_ the 13 children had no breakfast, it was returned with
the postscript in the teacher’s handwriting, “There was no food for them
to eat.” In another class out of 65 children no less than 30 were
reported as having had no breakfast, but of these 12 had had either tea
or coffee. As they did not have food of any kind other than the tea or
coffee, the teacher reported them as breakfastless. Making all
allowances for discrepancies and differences of value in the teachers’
reports, it is surely most serious that no less than 17.81 per cent of
the children examined should be reported as either breakfastless or very
inadequately fed that day. It should be said that this inquiry took
place in the winter, the season when there is most unemployment among
unskilled laborers, and it is not probable that the same amount of
poverty would be found all the year round.

One incident in connection with the investigation in this school is
worthy of record. A lad of about 13 or 14 years of age in one of the
highest grades, who had been reported as having had no breakfast, was
seen in the principal’s office at noon. He seemed to be quite rugged and
healthy, and the principal said that he was “the brightest boy in the
school, and a good lad, too.” He showed us his lunch—a roll of bread and
two small pieces of almost transparent cheese. “Isn’t that enough for a
boy?” asked the principal, laughingly. The boy responded: “Yes, but I
had no breakfast, and this has to do me all day. I don’t have any
breakfast most times, and sometimes no lunch or supper. You know that
Mr. B—— used to give me some very often.” And the principal confirmed
this part of the lad’s story with a tender, “Yes, I know, sonny.” The
boy told us a saddening story of a mother cowed down by a brutal
husband, and of the latter’s vice. He is a cook and has often beaten his
wife, who works in an embroidery factory. A year or so ago he went to
Italy, leaving his wife here. Soon afterward he wrote to her for money
to pay his passage back. She was penniless, but, the lad quaintly said,
“she made a debt of a hundred dollars” to send to him. “Then she had to
pay every week, and there wasn’t much food.” The rest of his tale of
shame—shame of a father’s sin—need not be told. It is too horrible. “Why
doesn’t your mother leave him and just take you with her? You are the
only child, aren’t you?” asked the principal. “Yes, I’m the only one,
but there are ten dead,” was the boy’s startling reply. It was,
unconsciously, a significant comment upon the good principal’s theory of
the survival of the fittest.

In another school the principal told me that she had reported to the
District Superintendent that of 1000 children on the register at least
100 were badly underfed. She told of children fainting in school or in
the yard from lack of food, and of others suffering from disorders of
the bowels due to the same cause. Many of these children were pointed
out in the course of several visits to the school. “Ignorance plays a
large part in the problem,” said the principal, “but I think it is
mostly poverty. When work is hard to get, or there is sickness in the
family, or when there is a strike, then the children suffer most, and
that shows that it is poverty in most cases.” Upon one of my visits to
this school, I encountered one of those pathetic incidents of which I
have gathered so many in the course of these investigations. Little
Patsey, the American-born child of Irish parents, had for some days been
ailing and unable to attend properly to his lessons. The teacher
suspected that improper food was the cause, and Patsey’s account of his
diet confirmed her in that opinion. So she advised Patsey to tell his
mother that oatmeal would be better for him. “Get oatmeal, Patsey, it’s
better—and very cheap, too.” There were tears in the principal’s eyes as
she told how, that very morning, the teacher had found what she supposed
to be powdered chalk upon the floor and was about to scold the culprit,
when she discovered that it was Patsey’s oatmeal! _Poor little Patsey
had for three days been spending his daily lunch allowance of three
cents upon oatmeal and eating it dry. Teacher had said that it was
better!_ Only the thought of the teacher’s influence, and the hope that
through the medium of such influence as hers it may be possible to
dispel much of the ignorance of which so many children are the victims,
relieves the pathos of the incident and brightens it.


Soon after the foregoing investigations were made, Dr. H. M.
Lechstrecker, of the New York State Board of Charities, conducted an
examination of 10,707 children in the Industrial Schools of New York
City. He found that 439, or 4.10 per cent, had had no breakfast on the
date of the inquiry, while 998, or 9.32 per cent, exhibited anæmic
conditions apparently due to lack of proper nourishment. Upon
investigation the teachers found that the breakfasts of each of the 998
consisted either of coffee only, or of coffee with bread only. Only
1855, or 17.32 per cent, started the day with what Dr. Lechstrecker
considered to be an adequate meal.[48] Other independent inquiries in
several cities show that the problem is by no means peculiar to New

In Buffalo the principal of one large school, Mr. Charles L. Ryan, is
reported as saying that of the 1500 children in his school at least
one-tenth come to school in the morning without breakfast. In 8 schools
in Buffalo, having a total average attendance of 7500 pupils, the
principals estimated that 350, or 4.46 per cent, have no breakfasts at
all, and that 800 more have too little to insure effective work. No less
than 5105 of the 7500 children were reported as having tea or coffee
with bread only.[49] It is rather difficult to analyze these figures
satisfactorily, but it would appear that no less than 17.33 per cent of
the total number of children in these 8 schools are believed by the
principals and teachers to be appreciably handicapped by defective
nutrition, and that only 16.80 per cent are adequately and
satisfactorily fed.

In Chicago several independent investigations have been made. Mr.
William Hornbaker, principal of the Oliver Goldsmith school, says: “We
have here 1100 children in a district which is so crowded that all our
pupils come from an area comprising only about twenty acres. When I
began work here, I discovered that many of the pupils remained all day
without food. A great majority of the parents in this district, as well
as the older children, are at work from dawn to dusk, and have no time
to care for the little ones. Such children have no place to go when
dismissed at noon.”[50] At this school a lunch room has been
established, and two meals a day are provided for about 50 of the most
necessitous children. At first these meals were sold at a penny per
meal, but it was found that even pennies were too hard to obtain. Mr.
Hornbaker points out that the pride of the larger children restrains
them, and it is most difficult to get them to admit their hunger, but

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryJohn SpargoThe Bitter Cry of the Children → online text (page 6 of 22)