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What You Thought You Taught

Maybe we’re not teaching what we think we’re teaching. Parents and teachers alike. Perhaps we have something so set in our minds that we aren’t really aware of the reality of a situation.

As a kid from a West Toledo neighborhood, I remember one of the best things to happen in the winter was a heavy snowfall. Lots of snow meant lots of money! The more shoveling jobs we could get, the more money we could earn. As an eager young worker who had little income, this was a great combination.

I would finish breakfast as fast as I could on these snowy mornings so I could get outside and get to the shoveling jobs before the other kids. I had competition for these jobs: Pete, Curtis, Scott, my best friend Mike, and, of course, my brother, Kevin. Luckily for me, a lot of my competition stayed in bed, so I generally had first pick at the shoveling jobs.

No sooner would I finish tying my boot laces, and my mom would declare, “You have to shovel Mrs. Taylor’s and Thelma’s sidewalks before you do any other jobs. And don’t expect to get paid. Those you do for free.”

“Mom! You’ve got to be kidding. Why can’t I do their jobs last?”   Surely she would agree with my reasoning.

“You don’t have to shovel the other jobs if you don’t want to. You decide.” Ugh. There was no way around it. I had to get the free jobs done first. And fast.

As I shoveled at Mrs. Taylor’s, and then at Thelma’s, I kept a close eye on the other potential shoveling jobs. The houses were close enough so I could see all of them from any point on the block. I also knew that I had to do a good job on the “freebies,” or I’d hear it at home. Believe it or not, the phone network among the moms in the neighborhood worked faster than today’s internet! Bad news, or news of my latest screw up, always beat me home.

My biggest concern, of course, was that the other guys would get those jobs before me, and I would miss out on anywhere from $5.00 to $15.00. The reality was that sometimes my competition did get those jobs, but I usually managed to get enough of the shoveling jobs to put some decent money in my pocket.

My mom taught me that it was important to take care of others first. She wasn’t really close friends with Mrs. Taylor or Thelma, but she knew they would need help. My mom figured Mrs. Taylor probably wouldn’t pay much, and she knew the kids wouldn’t approach Thelma’s house anyway. She was always yelling at kids to stay off of her yard. Kids didn’t have the guts to face her.

The lesson my mom was teaching was actually the lesson that got learned. (It didn’t always work out that way, but it did for this particular lesson.) I value that experience of having to shovel “free” jobs before earning money, and I share the story with young people when I can. Unfortunately, the next story isn’t quite the same. The lesson being taught was not the lesson being learned.

One snowy morning, I knocked on the porch door of one of my friends. His dad, a tall guy with curly hair, answered the door. I figured if his kid wasn’t going to shovel the walk, maybe I would get a chance at it. It was worth a try.

“Can I shovel your walk?” I asked. It took some courage for me to ask since I was intimidated by his size. The fact that I was standing two steps below him didn’t help. But, I stood my ground and let the awkward silence take its toll. “Sure,” he said. “Go ahead.”

Cool. I started thinking about the best way to approach the job. I figured I would start at the sidewalk and save the big driveway for later. I made sure to get the front walk by the house, and did every inch of the driveway. When I was finished, I checked over the job to make sure it was acceptable. It was.

I went to the front door to let him know I was finished. I figured $5.00 was a fair price. He answered the door, and said, “What do you want?” I was a little surprised by his question.

“I’m finished with the job, so I’m letting you know”, I said.   He smiled, and said, “Okay.” I didn’t quite know what to say, so I said, “Aren’t you going to pay me?”

He told me he wasn’t going to pay me. He reminded me that I asked if I could shovel his walk. He explained to me that I never said anything about getting paid. I remember instantly deciding that this adult was bad news. I knew at that instant that the way he treated me was not the way adults should treat others. It wasn’t the way anybody should treat others.

A switch must have gone off in my head that told me not to take the money, even if he did offer it. I was not willing to accept money from someone like him. I also hoped that the anger he made me feel might be matched by the guilt he may have had for not paying a twelve year old kid for shoveling his sidewalk.

This foolish man made matters worse when he tried to explain to me that I would thank him in the future, and that he taught me a valuable lesson about getting paid. What he really sounded like was somebody making an excuse for not paying a twelve year old kid for shoveling. He told me, “You always set the price first.” I agreed; that is a valuable lesson. I also have to believe that I would have learned that lesson somewhere along the road, and not so harshly. So, that lesson cost me $5.00.

While this adult figured he was teaching me one of life’s lessons, he actually taught me another lesson: He was wrong in what he did.

All he had to do was ‘spook’ me a little. All he had to do to teach me a lesson about getting paid would be to just ‘act’ like he wasn’t going to pay me. He absolutely missed the opportunity to talk with me about how to ask for money. As an adult, he had the chance to tell me about his first job, or something about the value of money. A Chinese proverb reminds us, “Don’t use a sledgehammer when a flyswatter will do.” He didn’t choose the flyswatter. I hereby suggest that adults keep their flyswatters closer than their sledgehammers.

If you take me to the edge of a very high cliff and tell me, “You’ll get hurt if you fall from here,” I am absolutely going to believe you. When someone tells me, “You really don’t want to put your finger in that light bulb socket,” I’ll most certainly take your advice. If you tell a 12 year old that he might not get paid next time if he doesn’t set a price, he’ll understand. (But, as an adult, you pay him like you should.)

Make a connection with a kid. Make sure you are teaching what is really being taught.

-Chuck Benway, Culture of Connections co-creator

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