21 August 2008

A Lesson From School Supplies


It's that time of year again for...school supplies! I admit that office supply stores are one of my favorite places to go. I think it's mainly the temptation they offer of promises to gain control over my life, as if I could contain the craziness of life in manila file folders and over-priced planners, tame chaos with post-it notes and paper clips. Well, as a missionary friend of mine used to say, being organized does make life easier...but not necessarily any richer.

Being the idealistic realist that I am (or am I a realistic idealist?), I want life BOTH easier AND richer! Ha! :)

Of course, in order to save money, reduce the amount of trash our family dumps into God's beautiful creation, and chase consumerism from our lives, we re-use as many school supplies as we can each year. I spent $100-$150 the first year I bought school supplies for one child, if memory serves. This year, I averaged just over $20 per child because we re-use.

Now to the real topic of this post...An interesting thing happened tonight as I gathered, labeled, and bagged school supplies this evening. One teacher who is new to our school requested that only a couple of items be labeled with a name, the rest not. Interesting, I thought, and different than usual. Of course, being the somewhat compulsive person I am, I've always labeled everything whether requested or not. Every pencil. Every crayon. Every glue stick. Part of the reason, too, is that when I volunteered regularly in the classroom of my younger children, it was so much easier to know what to do with stray crayons if there was a name on it. No student would lack the red crayon that was required to circle the triangles on the math worksheet if everyone had their supplies. Labeling made it easier.

I pondered. Why was this teacher asking things not to be labeled? I speculated. Is she into the communal box of supplies approach? No one owns the crayons. We all own them together. Perhaps she has a view that communal ownership and egalitarianism eliminates selfishness and raises awareness of the needs of others. The "I" disappears into the "we." Like magic.

Despite the pure inefficiency of such an approach (a communal container of supplies always takes more time to distribute than students quickly reaching into their own pencil boxes), I thought, "Does this actually accomplish what is intended?" Does true charity (in the Biblical sense, not the modern sense), true generosity, true sacrifice of oneself for another...Do these come from a forced communal "sharing?" Is it really sharing at all?

No, it isn't.

For one to share, to give, to sacrifice for the sake of another, one must own something in the first place to give. Private ownership is what gives the individual a choice to share, or not. Without the crayons belonging to someone, in particular, that someone can't actually choose to share their red one with someone who lost theirs. Communal "sharing" makes the choice for the group members by virtue of the authority of the person who established the communal rules in the first place. Totalitarian giving, if you will. Definitely an oxymoron.

Lost is the sensitivity to the voice of the Spirit that spurs us to sacrifice, unknown is the struggle of flesh vs. Spirit, missing is the active use of faith and obedience to the Giver of all things, gone is the joy of having participated in God's blessing of others through a simple act of love. None of these are needed when the law, the rules, the way things already are make our choices for us.

And the student does not learn responsibility for taking good care of his own things. It's an important stewardship principle. He who is faithful in small things will be faithful in greater things. Just look at the trash along our communal roads. Smokers don't flick their cigarette butts into their own yards, just along our community streets.

Of course, this principle applies to a lot more than school supplies. Davey Crockett (yes, the backwoodsman hero of the Alamo who became a congressman) gave a thought-provoking speech about this principle applied to government in the early 19th century. It's an interesting story to read. (The speech is easier to read if you download it as a Word doc.) It was this document that opened my mind to a perspective I had not heard before. Words from the past often do that. I encourage you to read it.

Well, I don't know what my son's teacher is planning. I hope she doesn't mind that many of his supplies are labeled because they have already been so for a few years now. (And I'd like them back at the end of the year...for next year!) I guess we'll find out soon if the labels are a problem. My speculations may not be what she has in mind at all, but it was interesting to contemplate the true nature of generosity and service to one's fellow man.

And all that from simple school supplies? The learning has already begun...

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