Wednesday, March 6, 2013
As I walk the halls at school where I teach, I observe the interactions of a variety of people. Too many young people are insecure and develop many misconceptions about their peers. Some attempt to form opinions on those around them without enough real insight of who that person truly is. Most forget that others have issues outside. And note, I am not only talking about the teens I see in the hallways, but the adults as well. We’re all human after all. It takes effort to not be consumed with our own burdens, our own “clutter”, our own issues. But it is not only noble to stop and think of our fellow man, it is essential.
Several weeks ago, I introduced a task to my Honors Freshmen English class. We were reading Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations. Students had reached the part of the classic book where poor Pip, a young boy being raised by an abusive older sister had just been told he has a secret benefactor, someone who will make a huge difference in Pip’s future by lifting him from his home and having him educated to live as a gentleman. I invited students to become “secret benefactors” to one of their English class peers. I randomly selected someone for each student to “take care of” in the form of supportive “presents”. The presents were to be of minimum cost or handmade--a pack of gum, a granola bar, a note with a bright and cheerful message, a funny picture or cartoon. Their benefactor identities were to remain in the strictest of confidences.
I served as “Jaggers”, the observant lawyer in the novel who is the middle-man for Pip’s benefactor, the one who doles out Pip’s allowance until the time when the benefactor’s identity is revealed to Pip. For two weeks prior to February vacation and for two weeks after, students came in with gifts for their assigned peer. Sneaking up to my desk and quietly whispering the name of the recipient as they passed the pop tarts, hand lotions, jelly beans, colorful signs, and homemade cookies behind their backs into my waiting hands, the four weeks of “giving” made for amusing class beginnings each day. I asked everyone to abide by the rules Pip had been given in the novel. Keeping the secret of who was whose benefactor was key. Students were not to make any inquiries or to speculate on who their benefactors might be. I asked everyone to be as discreet as possible.
Was this class of thirteen 14-15 year olds to be successful in this challenge? Were students lifted by the attention of their benefactors? Did people enjoy the chance to give presents to a random peer? Did students recognize the opportunity they were given to practice selfless generosity and did they take any time to reflect on the bigger picture of what this experiment was all about?
I hope so. I’ll get back to you on this. The experiment is not yet complete. At the end of the four weeks of giving on Friday, March 8th, I will tell students it is now time to reveal their identity as the secret benefactor they each have been to one of their classmates. Just as Magwitch the convict revealed himself to Pip, students will now have the chance to talk with the one to whom they have given gifts to. The students then will be asked to craft an essay discussing and describing the experience they’ve had in being both a benefactor and recipient of another benefactor’s generosity. I hope that students will believe that this exercise and their gift giving was designed to be a well-placed reminder of our purpose as human beings—to befriend each other, and to share our kindness generously. Most of all, I hope that as we all continue our walks down the halls of our school, that we’ll work harder to set aside the clutter and personal anxieties to extend a hand to the human beings who walk the halls with us each day.