Needs vs. Wants

[Excerpt from Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom]

My third-grade classroom in East Oakland.

I know a park is not technically a need. It’s not like food or shelter or clothing. But I tend to think of it as a basic need for children. However, like many people, I sometimes overuse the word “need.” I have a tendency to say that I need the new iPhone or I need a pedicure, even though those are clearly just things that I want.

My greatest lesson on distinguishing between wants and needs came with my first grade class during my first year of teaching. Volunteers from the business world came to our school to teach for a day through the Junior Achievement program. As a new teacher, I was overwhelmed and relieved to not be responsible for lesson plans for one day. However, I was nervous about how an idealistic businessperson would deal with twenty extremely needy first graders living in one of the most violent parts of Oakland.

The woman who showed up at my class was clearly unnerved to be in this particular neighborhood. When she walked in, she was shaking slightly and she stammered the first few times the kids asked her a question. But she collected herself quickly enough, and taught in an enthusiastic and respectful manner after that. She went over the official Junior Achievement curriculum, which included basic map skills and identifying the different essential parts of a city.

Then she got to “needs versus wants.”

I don’t remember exactly how it fit into the lesson as a whole, but I can still picture the images she used: cut-outs of an ice cream cone, roller skates, a house, a plate of food, a t-shirt, etc. The class was supposed to vote on whether each item was a “need” or a “want” and the picture was then taped to that side of the board. For some of the items, there was clear consensus. Everyone agreed that while roller skates and bicycles were nice to have, they were definitely not necessities, so those items went on the “wants” side of the board. Others required some explanation. Ice cream was supposed to be a “want,” as it’s a treat, but the plate of food represented food as a whole, which went under “needs.”

The businesswoman seemed happy with the class discussion and the decisions the kids were making as a group, right up until she got to the picture of the house. The class collectively decided it belonged on the “wants” side. The guest teacher looked confused and then clarified that this image included apartments also, which was quick thinking on her part. But the kids were still not sold. “That’s a want,” many insisted. The woman looked at her notes and clarified that it was supposed to be a need. “People need homes.”

One six-year-old saw her confusion and helpfully jumped in with an explanation. “My uncle don’t have a home,” she said. “And he still alive.” Other kids started jumping in:

“My friend live in a shelter; she don’t have a home.”

“Some of my family members homeless.”

“My mama used to live on the street, but when she had kids she moved to my auntie’s house.”

One after another, at least half the class shared their anecdotes about homelessness and they all agreed: homes are a “want.”

My guest was taken aback — this had not fit into the cookie-cutter script she’d been given. These kids were young enough that most of them were not fully aware how shameful mainstream society considers homelessness to be. They definitely didn’t like it, but for them, it was a normal part of life.

After school that day, the guest teacher stayed to talk to me and began to cry. She said she had never thought about this kind of poverty existing in the Bay Area. She pointed out that none of the students “looked homeless,” as they were all clean and wearing nice clothes. She was also confused why I hadn’t corrected them; she thought they should know that homes were a need.

I didn’t agree, though. I thought the kids had a good point.