Saturday, December 3, 2011

Service Lessons/Service Lessens?

Last night, I went with my daughter and some friends to see a local musical production of A Christmas Carol. Watching Ebenezer Scrooge humbug his way through numerous requests for charity and benevolence, I could almost understand his barking demand that the hordes all leave him alone.

We are bombarded by more information and more pleas for help than most of us can process. The 1% vs. the 99%. The unemployment rate that stays too close to 10%. The people with dead-end jobs. Children in at-risk homes. Women in abusive situations. Obese Americans. Animals in kill shelters. People experiencing violence every minute. People who don't vote. People who give up. People who don't have what they need to make choices about what they do in life. People with heartbreaking medical conditions. People with no access to medicine or clean water or safe homes.

A glance in my mailbox, virtual or real, shows overwhelming and overflowing need. From the NAACP, a reminder that Justice, Equality and Civil Rights need my attention. From Planned Parenthood, a warning that President Obama needs support to keep women's health issues within their control. From the local food pantries, a plea for staples: dried beans, rice, canned tomatoes, powdered milk. From a home for mentally ill children, a grim picture of institutional walls and children without family connections. From Amnesty International, reports of abuse of human rights. From Oxfam, Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, World Wildlife Organization, the ASPCA, Heifer International, numerous organizations devoted to researching cures for particular cancers or other health issues, religious institutions, my own school's fundraising letters, we get the picture. There is enormous need out there.

The world would be a terrible place if we just told everyone to leave us alone.

With pounds and pounds of appeals, do we even open each one any more? With 77 new emails in the inbox, do we read them all? And how do we teach children about starting to make those decisions?

First, it helps to remember a whole lot of truisms that are actually true. Whether it's Mother Theresa, “If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” Or Annie Dillard, "The dedicated life is the life worth living. You must give with your whole heart." Albert Einstein,"A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving" or the Talmud, "He gives little who gives with a frown; he gives much who gives little with a smile." We can understand that small things aren't small things, they're everything and we can try to do whatever small things we can.

As a classroom teacher, I want to give the children opportunities to participate in a way of life which considers the needs of others. This happens in many ways, within the classroom, with our younger buddies, as part of every meeting, every lesson of the social studies curriculum. In the past, through selling pizza every Friday at a slight markup and donating the profits, the children also gave generously outside our community. In addition, a tiny portion of this money was used to purchase bright red empty stockings from the dollar store. The children then purchased items to fill the stockings and we delivered the filled stockings to a nearby homeless shelter in time for Christmas. The children were asked to do extra chores at home as their contribution to the family's shopping endeavors and were excited to think about how someone would feel receiving these gifts.

This year, we're wondering if we can keep up that service project. We no longer fundraise through pizza sales. Our school is a non-sectarian, progressive, independent school. Many, but by no means all, of the children hang stockings by their own chimneys. No matter what their family traditions were, in the past, the students were excited to imagine the joy on the faces of the recipients of their stockings. They knew they were adding cheer to the lives of even a few in need. This year, the local shelter has at least 120 children in residence. At the same time, many in our own school community are facing tougher economic times.

While no one can agree on the number of homeless people, and while that number is always shifting, one study done by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty states that approximately 3.5 million people, 1.35 million of them children, are likely to experience homelessness in a given year (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2007)(Quoted from the National Coalition for the Homeless)

Is it right for a school to ask families to purchase stocking stuffers for 120 of these homeless children? Can the school leave this shelter in the lurch after 10 or 12 years of being there for them? What is the responsibility of the school? Most schools are facing such severe funding cuts that they can only offer the essentials. Are service lessons part of the essentials?

As Scrooge told the gloomy and silent dreadful Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, "The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on. . . "

I can only hope that in all the ways that we can we will teach caring. I hope we can learn Scrooge's lesson. "He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." As much as we must teach our children math or science or reading or writing, we must teach them to give. We can't take care of all the problems of the world. But we can do what we can do.