Rex Ogle tells the story of his first semester in sixth grade through the voice and perspective of his younger self. He starts off hopeful for the new school year, but his enrollment in the free lunch program embarrasses him, food is scarce at home, and he suffers physical and verbal abuse from his mom and stepdad. He just wants to have a normal family, but, as his family tells him, life isn’t fair.
Rex Ogle’s Free Lunch is a searingly honest look at the experience of growing up poor. Told in the voice of the sixth-grade Rex, it reveals how hunger and the fear of ending up on the streets take not only a physical toll, but also an emotional toll, on the whole family. There are no false platitudes here, no belief that being poor can somehow be an uplifting or spiritual experience. There is only Rex’s hunger, and his dream that, one day, he will be able to escape.
Free Lunch is a timely memoir now that debates about whether schools should pressure families into paying off their lunch deficits seem to crop up in the news every few months. While many commenters take the stance that parents should provide for their children, that schools (and the taxpayers) should not have to pick up their slack, Ogle’s story reminds readers that it is the children who end up suffering when their parents cannot and do not provide. The stigma of being poor is an additional burden they have to carry on top of their hunger. Ogle tries very hard to hide from his friends the fact that he is in the free lunch program. He knows all too well the suspicion, the disdain, the cruelty that can result from being “Other.”
Ogle’s story is heartbreaking, not only because he is hungry, but also because he chronicles the breakdown of his entire family from feeling the pressure of being poor. His mother and his stepdad seem somehow fundamentally broken from the feeling that they have failed. They often express their feelings through the use of their fists. Ogle, meanwhile, cannot see the bigger picture of why his family is suffering. He blames his parents for their poverty and lashes out at them when he is upset that he is hungry, that his mother will not buy him school supplies, that they are pawning their possessions, that they have to move. He blames them for not getting jobs–and his mother does seem oddly picky to him about what jobs she will choose to apply for–and adds to their feelings of inadequacy and failure. Poverty does not bring the family closer together, does not make them appreciate the free things in life. Rather, it makes them turn on each other.
Free Lunch wants very much to dispel the notion that being poor can be some sort of blessing in disguise. Rex argues persuasively that money can buy happiness; his mother seems to love him more when she is working, and not stressed out about paying the bills. In addition, money can buy him friends at school. It can buy him the experience of being able to walk into a store and not have the cashier ask him to turn out his pockets. It can buy him the ability to walk into class and not have the teachers frown at his ill-fitting clothes and immediately label him “trailer park trash” and “trouble.” Yes, Rex thinks he would be very happy indeed if he had some money.
Free Lunch is a heartbreaking book, and also a thought-provoking one. It makes readers reevaluate their assumptions about who receives free lunch, and why. It makes readers reevaluate their perhaps unacknowledged biases against the poor. It is a book that should be on every middle school classroom shelf.