Community Columns

Experiment in altruism fails badly

I was fortunate to have a great bunch of students (generation Text!) in my two human relations classes at Davis High School this past school year. Together we delved into topics like responsibility, empathy, respect, teen dating abuse, perseverance and more. We had terrific discussions and some very thoughtful papers were submitted.

Midyear, after a discussion of the concept of "pay it forward" from the film of that name, I told them that Oprah had aired an episode in which she gave $1,000 to each member of her studio audience, instructing them to pay it forward, then write to her with the results of their philanthropy.

I told the students that I didn't have the money to give each of them $1,000, but I did have $25. As I walked around the room handing each of my 64 students (two classes) a $20 bill followed by a crisp five-spot, it was quieter than my classroom had ever been. The moment seemed almost sacred.

As I passed out the new bills, I told them my expectations: Don't rush out to spend your money on the first homeless person you see, though that may ultimately be the choice you make. You may actually have many opportunities from which to choose. Some of you might come up with ways to invest your money and make it grow, allowing you to do even more with it. Trust me, you will know when it is the right cause and the right time. For some, the money might go to the neighbor woman with three little kids and no husband. Maybe she'd love for you to watch her kids so she and a friend could go to McDonald's and a movie on you. Trust your heart to know when and what to do with the money.

I then told them that their only requirement was that by the end of the term I wanted a paper answering the following questions (without giving recipients' names):

How did you spend your money?

What made you choose this recipient?

How did it make you feel?

What was the recipient's response?

Was there any ripple effect that you are aware of?

I challenged them to consider doing a matching gesture, maybe financial or perhaps through some act of service. I would then compile these reports and read them to the class during their final without mentioning names.

I did not tie the activity to a grade because I wanted it to be motivated by something intrinsic. I figured there might be a couple of students who wouldn't come through, and I wondered if years from now, I might get a letter or two from them once some life experiences and more maturity kicked in, maybe with some money enclosed from a repentant former student who remembered the assignment and wanted to make it right.

I was excited at the prospects the assignment presented, even after my teenage son, who happened to be in one of the classes, said to me, "I heard someone say that they were going to buy pot with it."

His girlfriend added, "That was dumb; they're going to keep it."

I knew better; after all, they were bigger than that.

One day early on, a student asked to talk to me after class about her money. She informed me that the family member she lived with had stolen her funds and that I would not be getting a report from her. I vowed not to remind or hound them about getting their reports in to me.

So I waited and I waited but no reports came.

The spring semester came and went, and when all was said and done, I received a total of three papers.

I was surprised and terribly disappointed. These weren't the low-life druggies of the street; these were great kids, full of life and heart and promise!

One girl purchased clothes at the Goodwill store and gave them to some homeless folk. Two others used their money to buy car wash supplies and organized a car wash, netting $150 that went to a local children's charity.

The rest of the students, including my son, never said boo.

There is a lot I could do with $1,600. Am I embarrassed and disappointed? Yes.

Will I ever do it again? Maybe.

Recently, in my summer school class, I told students about the experience. One girl laughed and said, "You are so stupid!" I asked her what she meant and she said, "If you gave me $25, I would keep it, too."

I said, "You wouldn't think of it as stealing, a breach of trust?"

She replied, "Once you gave it to them, they just heard it was theirs. They didn't hear anything else."

Is this an indication that the character education offered in today's educational system is falling on deaf ears? Why is that?

What is it about our students that prevented them from thinking of others, that kept them from entering into the adventure presented and blinded their hearts to the potential blessing of blessing others?

Johnson is a longtime Modesto teacher.