Every year around Super Bowl time, our Student Council sponsors a collection for the local food pantry. Before the Chiefs and the 49ers (or whatever the team happens to be) face each other on the field, it’s the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade battling each other to collect the most soup (and other nonperishables) in individual bins placed in the front of the building. Generally speaking, kids like to compete in hopes of winning anything: a Soar for Four ticket, a double lunch one day (instead of having half that time into fairly quiet lunch study), and – of course – bragging rights. So wouldn’t it make sense that they would eagerly participate in this “Souper Bowl” contest – and even help some well-deserving, needy individuals to boot?
You might want to believe so – but you’d be wrong.
This is an area that caused me all sorts of sadness through my years of teaching. For no matter how much I and my fellow educators tried to instill in our students the good vibes of giving in order to care for others – whether through donations of money, items, or time – the collections we held every couple of months always seemed less important, and emptier, than they should have been. We tried to collect books, clothing, and lots of nonperishables, along with putting change in jars to root for students’ favorite bearded teachers during Movember. We tried to collect still more food to fill a staff members’ big truck, which was parked out in front. We tried.
Each year, naively optimistic, I started my spiel at the very beginning of the year, banking on students’ desires to please their teachers, at least at first. As soon as the Student Council reps were chosen, I would call them together, as they were in charge of announcing and following up with most collections. Privately, I explained that they needed to be leaders for their peers, making sure to bring in whatever was needed and encouraging others to do the same. Over the last few years, I had some very responsible homeroom students – in fact, my there were so many students from my homeroom who wanted to be reps, and not enough from other homerooms nearby, that we had floaters who were responsible for announcements to these other classes. And still, despite the fact that they were reading the announcements to the classes, some would forget about the collection by the time they got home, or wouldn’t even try.
I would tell all my students to let their parents and guardians know any time we had a collection, as soon as they got home. It’s what I had always done with my own children; they told me what they needed, and I provided it. As I explained to my students, receiving a laugh, I was aware that they didn’t have cars to drive to the local drugstore or mall – but I was also aware that the majority of their parents did, and that these children often came along. They can’t help you if they don’t know you need anything, I emphasized. Just tell them!
The best part, I explained, was that, in most cases, there wasn’t even a need for anyone to travel to a store; all the students had to do was look on their pantry shelves and ask a parent if they could take one item, and why. During Toys for Tots collection, I suggested that students simply go to the area in their homes designated as a play or game space, such as a basement, and find a toy that had never been opened – and wasn’t likely to be. Sometimes, this was because the item was a duplicate, given as a gift. Sometimes, it was because the children were already too old for the game or toy – or had never been interested in it to begin with.
Daily, during the time of a collection, I took on the role of cheerleader, doing a morning dance as I talked up bringing in the particular donation. Of course, I would be the first one to offer up items, and I would usually bring in something more than once along the way, especially if it was a more lengthy collection. And I tried all sorts of rewards. The best, for many years, were Schrafft’s red and white peppermints – my teaching partner nicknamed them “cheesy mints” – which were always a hit until food allergies and fear of lawsuits took over. I gave out Soar for Four tickets (which got placed into a bin for a weekly raffle, and were, in any case, something students generally felt good about receiving). During Toys for Tots collections, I had students go to the front of the room to share what they had brought with the rest of the class, and we’d spend a couple of minutes reminiscing about playing with those games or those toys; finally, the students would get to bring the items down to the collection box. Losing a couple of minutes of language arts by going completely off topic was a win-win for students; it’s what some of them lived for. (And it didn’t happen often enough for their liking in my classroom.) Still, the collection bins continued to have plenty of room in them.
Was I asking for more than my students could easily handle? Was I making students who couldn’t easily donate feel uncomfortable? No – not for most, or nearly all, of the students in my fairly affluent school district, who left school for a week at a time to go on vacations all over the world, even when it wasn’t a school holiday, from participating in cheerleading contests in Florida, visiting Colorado for skiing, or taking a Disney cruise. And most students with even limited means could generally find a can of soup or box of macaroni to bring in. (Besides, I always said that I didn’t expect students to do this all the time, and that if they couldn’t easily do it but wanted to, they just needed to see me and I could help out.)
Although I’m gone now, I’ve heard that due to particularly poor participation this year, the Student Council began to offer an incentive to teachers whose homerooms were able to scrounge up 10 cans. Why make this appeal to the teachers? Quite simply, many had probably, by now, given away their cheerleading uniforms in futility, as it had just become too difficult to push the students to do what they did not seem to care, at all, about doing on their own. Those 10 minutes of homeroom include a host of important tasks, including the most important: an accurate attendance. So what if we no longer made a big deal about the latest collection?
The incentive: a dress down day. Teachers do like their dress-down days, and so maybe this helped them to try again. A close friend of mine, who happens to be a math teacher, went to the store and bought 10 cans of soup on sale at 77 cents apiece and had the students do the math: 10 cans X 77 cents divided by X students in the class equals $___: the amount that each student could give. Or, students could bring in their own cans. The students began to step up, and she wore her jeans last week.
But there’s a price to pay for all of this supplication in our world, when it seems, sometimes, like kindness is simply being washed away by selfishness – the teenaged kind. However, there’s never any problem getting students to bring in money to buy Girl Scout cookies from their friends (or begging their parents to buy them from their neighbors). There’s no problem creating team shirts for Team Building (formerly known as Field) Day, with elaborate drawings in puffy paint, nor in finding and applying all sort of war makeup for the competition. And there’s never any problem in bringing in ridiculous amounts of junk food for the rare class party we had in recent years, mostly to celebrate 100 books read as a class (though these days, the snacks are supposed to be individual ones, again due to potential allergies.)
I don’t think it’s just nostalgia and/or memory loss that make me believe that my students of 15 and 20 years ago were more generous about giving. I simply don’t remember pushing as hard. And it wasn’t just about giving a few cans of food or an unwrapped gift; it was even about becoming a Student Council member to begin with, and doing the job with pride and a sense of responsibility when you did so. I want to believe that these young teens are just going through a bad cycle – and, truthfully, seeing the mess going on in our country, I wouldn’t blame them for opting out.
Still, I’m hoping that more than a few soup cans made their way into the bins at schools this week. And no matter what, I’m cheering on my former students and all those just now coming up the ranks who may – one day when they least expect it – do the right thing for a family member, friend, acquaintance, or stranger, because somewhere along the way, their teachers helped them to figure out what that right way should be.
That will really be a win.