Thursday, January 28, 2010

Part 1: The Spirit of Charity

Teach Your Children Well

Oh to be young, naïve and full of faith in the so-called ‘milk of human kindness’. Instead, I find the older I get, and the more informed, my milk, metaphorically-speaking, of course, has dried right up, along with my skin and eyeballs. I know I sound like a curmudgeonette, but I can’t help it. The more I see and read about the millions of dollars being thrown at yet another disaster, the more I tear out what’s left of my hair (hopefully, just the grey ones).

As a teacher of the young, a great deal of time, both personal and institutional, is spent trying to inculcate them with the concept of charity, both the kind that begins at home (share your toys with your siblings and friends) and the kind that looks farther afield (save the world and all the suffering people in it, the animals that people kill for pelts or, even worse, food, and, of course, the rivers, forests, oceans, skies….you get the idea). It’s a full curriculum and it’s not even on the curriculum!

I began my teaching career in a huge high school, located downtown, subsequently referred to as 'inner-city' and recently renamed 'a priority neighborhood', full of immigrants (or New Canadians, as they are now, more politely referred to). Although I'd like you to believe so, I did not take this job purely for humanitarian reasons. At the age of 20, marooned in suburbia without a car in a city where most public schools are inaccessible by public transportation (thank you city planners) I jumped at the opportunity to commute with an old, dear friend who had already landed a job, the previous year, at this decrepit shrine of learning. Should you think otherwise, I am not casting aspersions….this school was SO OLD that many of our parents had attended it in their adolescence and I was constantly asked if Mr. or Miss So-and-So was still teaching there or had they died? The frequent reply was that they were, indeed, still teaching there and having lunch at the next table in the ‘staff-cafe” every day! (Very few of us ever die in teaching….for as we all know, what doesn’t kill us, makes us strong….eat your hearts out, dentists). All I had to do was pay for my friend’s gas and I got to ride to work with her in her shiny new Mustang (the best name for a car, ever!). Her car cost about half of her first year’s earnings, but since we all lived at home until we got married, in those days, it was money well spent. By her. But I digress (which I am allowed to do since this is my very own blog and if you don’t like it, start your own blog, dear reader!).

About a month before Christmas, in a flurry of excitement, the students began the annual holiday homeroom project of making gift boxes for ‘the poor’. Somehow, these kids, with so little of anything of their own, were able to imagine that there were children even less fortunate than they were and they were going to give them the best Christmas ever. As an ‘educator’ this was not a ‘hard-sell’, believe me. Being so close to the situation themselves, I guess they really understood how the ‘kindness of strangers’ could be life-altering. In the education game, the term ‘empowerment’ gets thrown around a lot, too much, if you ask me, but when you actually see it in action, it is something to behold. And beholding is what most people like to be doing, especially around Christmas.

Of course, being as how we were at an institution of, what is mistakenly referred to as ‘higher learning’, there had to be a competitive element to this whole endeavor. Whatever god you believe in (or not)-forbid, this heart-felt thoughtfulness could not go unrewarded! So the entire event was orchestrated as a contest, with recognition at a school-wide assembly and a tacky prize (probably a pizza lunch) to the best gift box/most creative home form. You have to remember that no money was involved in this event, since the students and their families had none, so creativity was key. Making things out of other things, toys fashioned from old stuff, was the idea. This would never pass the quality/safety standards review boards that hover over our society nowadays, but back then, life was simpler, if more dangerous, and we all took our chances.

I wish I could describe the fantastic objects d’art that spilled out of the elaborately decorated cardboard boxes lined up on the stage of the auditorium during that assembly. My sporadic memory fails in recalling specifics but I definitely remember the incredible upheaval in my heart, of admiration and amazement at the pride and joy felt by those children. (There is a reason those two words appear together so often in life and literature). Although they never saw the faces of the recipients of their efforts, the act of thinking of them for so long and wanting to share something of themselves with them, was enough. The pizza lunch wasn’t even the icing on the cake of their generosity, if you don’t mind a few mixed metaphors. ( I don’t, especially when it comes to food).

The next year, my little head was hunted by a former teacher/mentor and I left the inner city and the free-ish ride to teach at a suburban school in a new middle class neighborhood. At the end of the November staff meeting, during the aptly named "good and welfare' item on the lengthy agenda, I raised my trembling hand to ask a question. (You know I am making up the ‘trembling hand’ part since I am never nervous about asking questions, but it does make a more effective picture, don’t you agree?)

“What do we do, at this school, for Christmas charity?” I inquired. “At my previous school, we used to make gift boxes for the poor."

“Oh, the poor get too many gift boxes at this time of year. We don’t do anything,” came the snappy response.

Meeting adjourned!

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