Tuesday, March 27, 2018

"Pennies and Change"

One morning at breakfast, while reading the news
Natalie’s mother said, “If you so choose,
Somebody’s looking for a kid to help out
With setting up garage sales -- for pennies, no doubt,
But it might be a good chance to meet some new friends
And fill up your long, empty summer weekends.”

Natalie gave it a thought as she chewed,
Focussing mostly on eating her food.
When breakfast was finished, she looked at the ad
And decided to try -- it might not be that bad --
She did love to look through old second-hand things,
And fancied the freedom that pocket change brings.

The notice requested that those who apply Bring letters of reference explaining just why
The person in question would be a good fit, And whether or not they would really commit. Natalie asked folks she liked and respected; And they all wrote her notes, just as she expected. On Saturday morning she looked up the address, Donned helmet and jacket, and sped off to impress Her potential employer with her hard-working cheer; She was ready to make her abilities clear. But when she knocked on the door, she was taken aback For the person who answered did not smile back! “What are you here for?” the gruff old man barked. “To apply for the job,” the girl gently remarked. “The newspaper ad said you need some assistance.” She smiled again, despite his resistance. The man gave Natalie a withering look Which did not make him seem very nice in her book. “The help that I need is with lifting and sorting, With setting up tables, and pricing, reporting… It’s crack-of-dawn early, whether raining or sunny, With my reputation at stake, not to mention my money. You’re simply too little,” he said with a smirk, “I’ll find someone bigger for this type of work.” Natalie‘s eyebrows flew up in surprise. “Did you just pass judgement, based only on size? If you read through these letters, my references show That I am responsible through from head to toe. Clearly I’m not the candidate you’ve come to expect, But frankly, sir, I deserve your respect.” A new look of wonder covered the grumpy man’s face, And he had to reconsider the little girl’s case. “You know what? You’re right. I stand corrected. I’ve treated you poorly; you’ve rightly objected. Perhaps you’ll do well in this job after all… you’re physically short, but you’re morally tall.” They met once a month as the summer drew near And by first sale of the season, Nat had nothing to fear. Though rough at the beginning, he’d softened a lot And spoke with respect, as a decent chap ought. The money was nice and she had found some treasure, But being treated as valuable was, by far, better.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Give and Take"

The Eatery opened at seven o’clock in the morning, every day of the week except for Sundays. It wasn’t in quite the same neighbourhood as True North Elementary, but it was certainly within walking distance of the school. There were very few restaurants in that part of town that served more than fast food and french fries, and that was part of the reason the Eatery was a popular place to spend money on a meal.

The building that housed the Eatery was a renovated bank. Money still changed hands behind its old wooden doors, but cash wasn’t the only thing being exchanged at the Eatery these days. Customers were encouraged to connect with each other in conversation; patrons invited to invest in the lives of strangers. Those who ate at the Eatery were expected to spend time in the space, to linger and to laugh, to share their thoughts as well as their tables. If anyone felt inspired to do so, they were able to buy buttons that could be later used as money, when someone was unable to pay for their meal. Every time a dollar was donated to the project, one button was moved from a supply jar to the active jar, ready to fill a future need. The atmosphere in the Eatery was one of welcome and generosity, and that brought people through the doors as much as their food ever would.

At seven o’clock in the morning, every day of the week except for Sundays, a huddle of regular customers could be found waiting at the door of the Eatery. They each had a favourite spot to sit, and a favourite breakfast to eat. Some came in sets and some in pairs; others took their food alone, with a newspaper, a book, or even a cell phone to keep them company. More often than not, Eben could be found among them.

The Eatery was staffed primarily by volunteers, and Eben’s mom was one such person. She preferred working in the early mornings and would arrive at the restaurant quite early to help prepare for the day. She straightened out chairs and tables, wiped down countertops, started the giant coffee machines and so on. As she got things ready to open, Eben would tuck himself off to one side of the large, open room, keeping himself busy until it was time to leave for school. At 8:30 his mom would take a break so they could eat their breakfast and walk to school together. Then she would return to her shift at the Eatery, heading just after lunch.

One morning a man that Eben had seen around the Eatery a couple of times came in just after the initial morning rush. He was dressed in a grey suit, complete with shiny black shoes and a pocket square. He looked like he’d just stepped off an old-fashioned movie set. He looked like an African-American James Bond. A few heads turned when he came in, but the place settled back down pretty quickly. It wasn’t all that uncommon to see slick-looking businessmen eating elbow-to-elbow with a slightly bedraggled looking soul.

Eben watched and listened as the fancy man ordered his breakfast: double eggs and toast, with some kind of tea to sip at. “The old button jar’s looking a little bare this morning, Jenn,” he commented.

“I’m afraid so,” she agreed. “The morning rush often clears us out for a while.”

“How many buttons in that one?” he asked, indicating the colourful supply jar.

“About three hundred,” she answered. The fancy man opened his wallet and pulled out six crisp $50 bills. He handed them casually to Jenn, who thanked him warmly. Then he took the flag with his order number and settled down at the large communal table, in a seat close to Eben’s own.

Eben was gobsmacked. He’d never seen so much cash outside a game of Monopoly -- and even in Monopoly, it wasn’t often that someone was so willing to give their money away. When the man was just about finished his eggs, Eben picked up the book he was reading and carried it over to the big table, sitting just across from the fancy man, who smiled politely as he sat down. Eben popped open his novel.

“I saw what you did with the buttons,” whispered Eben from behind the book. He was holding it up as though he was reading. He was acting the part of a spy.

“I didn’t exactly mean it to be a secret,” the older man said with a chuckle. “I’ve been blessed with a great life and a good job that allows me to be generous with my money.”

“Money isn’t something I have very much of,” said Eben, still using the book as cover.

“You don’t need money to be generous,” he said. “I bet you have lots of something.” The fancy man swirled the last dregs of his tea around in the cup and swallowed it down while Eben tried to think up something he had lots of, but he came up blank. “How about time?” prompted the fancy man. “Look at this place here. It only runs because all sorts of people offer whatever they can to keep it going. For some of us, it’s money. For other people, it’s food. For still others, it’s their time and labour. It takes all kinds of generosity.” He stood up to leave.

Eben thought about his mother, then. She didn’t have spare cash, but she was generous with the resources she did have. Maybe volunteering was just as valuable as $300 in buttons. When the fancy man had gone, Eben looked at his watch, then around at the restaurant tables. He put his book away and started tidying up, giving what he could.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

"Lessons Learned"

Liam had always been a decent student. He never had the very highest grades, but he put in the work that was needed to succeed at school, and although he rarely made the honour roll, his parents were content. He liked science, especially geography. He disliked writing, but not enough to dread it.

Things were working out fine for Liam, and like his parents, he was content.

Just before March Break, Liam’s regular teacher announced that she would be on maternity leave when they returned from the holiday. Although her departure didn’t take anyone by surprise, her class was a little apprehensive about who their new teacher would be when they got back.

 They had a lot of theories. Some hoped that their new teacher would be like Miss Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame, all full of adventure and creativity; others feared someone more like Professor Snape from the Harry Potter series, whose personality is brooding, mysterious and cruel. None of them really had any idea of what was coming, and they had a whole week to worry and wait. They did so in small groups, meeting up in the neighbourhood park to discuss the possibilities while dangling from the jungle gym, or swinging on the swings.

When the bell rang on Monday and Liam’s class filed in to take their seats, they were met at the door by a person that not even one of them recognized.

“Good morning, friends!” announced their new teacher. “My name is Mr. Brady. I’ve had a long talk with your previous teacher, so I know where you ought to be in your studies, but I think it’s important to get a sense of your skills for myself before we carry on learning from here. After announcements and the anthem has been sung, I’ve devised a bit of a test for you. We’ll begin our day with that.”

Groans and whines escaped from the unsettled students. “Snape,” Essence whispered to Liam.

But the test was hardly what they’d expected. Instead of papers and pencils and quiet head-down work at their desks, Mr. Brady had them walking all over the room, looking up answers in their books, chatting problems through with a partner and even playing a game for some of it. For each correct question, they were awarded a certain number of points. At the end of the session, instead of having a percentage grade that emphasized how much they got wrong, everyone had a positive score in varying amounts. Mr. Brady added up everybody’s scores together and wrote the final number on the chalkboard at the front of the room. It looked rather impressive.

“This is our new baseline score,” explained Mr. Brady, after the class had settled down again. “It’s a measure of how we are doing as a whole group. Success this year will mean that each of you will need to grow and learn individually, but I want this number to be our focus.”

Liam smiled to himself as they moved on to their History lesson. That test had been a masterstroke of team building. Mr. Brady was shaping up like a very good teacher indeed. “Frizzle,” said Liam, aloud. Essence had to agree.

After a few weeks in Mr. Brady’s classroom, Liam noticed something beginning to change inside his own head. Mr. Brady was attentive and intelligent, careful and kind. He wasn’t just a very good teacher -- he was an excellent teacher -- and his excellence made Liam want to excel, too. If you have ever had the privilege of studying under a fabulous teacher or working with an incredible coach, then you will know what a joy it can be to make them proud. Excellent leaders inspire others to work hard. When the people around them are finding success, great leaders shine all the brighter.

Mr. Brady repeated his unconventional test once a month, and the class watched as their collective score climbed.

“Every single one of you has been producing truly excellent work this term,” said a very happy Mr. Brady. “I’m very proud of you! I hope you’re proud of yourselves.” And the students in his class did indeed beam with pride at their collaborative achievements.

Liam’s parents noticed the change in their son’s attitude towards school long before his final report card came home. He had gone from being a decent student to an excellent one in less than a year, still not at the very top of his class, but easily making honour roll. He leaned into his homework assignments and toiled diligently on every project. His parents had been content with his academic performance; now they were ecstatic.

School was out for the summer holiday now, and Liam’s daily interactions with Mr. Brady were over. But excellent teachers hover in the minds of their students, edging them forward and growing them up long after the classroom doors are closed for good. The very best teachers leave a permanent mark on their pupils, and some of their lessons -- learned so long ago -- last for a lifetime.