Stories of Kindness from Around the World

Thanksgiving Experiment With My Class


--by Rick, posted Nov 23, 2007
Last week, I did a little experiment.  Instead of holding class during a holiday week, I didn't show.  Except that I left a tote bag on the door of class in the engineering building, with a bunch of Smile Cards and $200 in $10 bills.  And this note:

Hey,

That's the way many of the email messages I receive begin.  It's a handy shorthand solution to the question of how to greet someone you know but don't know.

Others--many fewer--begin with the word "Dear."  It's a holdover from the time when we wrote actual personal letters. I still like that, and treasure the rare gift of a personal, handwritten note almost as much as an authentic conversation about something more than a transaction issue, like a grade, a missed assignment, an evaluation of some kind--criticism or praise included.

So my preference is to start with

Dear...

Would you read this aloud to everyone else who is here? Collect the attendance, give out the money any way you wish and return the rest to me whenever you want?  Someone has to volunteer.  It would be great if it was someone other than those who are generally the ones to take leadership.  Could be you.

Although this course is listed under the title of "Nonprofits and Consumers," I see it as more than that.

So this note, impersonal as it is, is about the key issue: trust.  But then, of course, life is rarely that simple.  Trust is only one of the foundations for giving.  Faith enters into it.

In this case, I have the faith (there’s a concept!) that you will think a good deal...and talk...and ask for advice from people you value, and maybe even do some research about the entire notion of giving.  Or, if I remember my own thoughts about such things at times of stress or overload, I'll sigh and imagine that you might be tempted to just get this "assignment" over with.

Keep the money?  Give it away a dollar at a time?  Get change in quarters and bury the quarters in sandboxes for kids to find?  Give it to panhandlers? Pay someone else’s toll at the toll booth? Those are all options. You could buy something and give it away, or try ten experiments in investment one dollar at time.  Set up some "if I did this, would you do this?" equations.  Make some explicit, some not.  

What I would hope is that you spend more time on this.  Think of it as an extended meditation or an exercise in creativity. Don't just take the money and leave because "there's no class today."

The only difference is that you are the teacher(s).  I am asking/requesting/suggesting/requiring/expecting/challenging you to fill the minutes between your arrival here and your leaving with open conversation about what giving is all about.

I would admire you as an individual if you did not go through this alone. I will admire you as a group (as I secretly admired you when I observed how many of you pitched in with the fundraising last week) if you help each other optimize the value of this exercise.

You could talk about such things as:

  • Easy vs. more difficult ways to meaningfully use this opportunity.
  • Fun vs. tedious (e.g. just fulfill the assignment and get it over with) The meaning of the act of giving each time you do it. The meaning to you, to the people you explore this with and to those you may give the money to.
  • Magic, both deliberate and serendipitous. (Look up the word serendipity). As I have mentioned a few times, you can be alchemists and turn things into gold.   
It would be exciting to see this gift come back to us (but only after traveling though many hands, minds and inspirational transactions) with more value. Your $10 could be matched 2 to 1 or 4 to 1 or 1,000 to one...and we could be absolutely amazed.  It could all be anonymous, or some of it could be anonymous.  You could give this all away and give me back $230 so we could do this again.

Would it be a miracle if we could find ten or a hundred times the amount, then invest it again?  Yes.  Imagine how great that would feel.

I've got lots of ideas for you.  Buy these bags and help transform the lives of seven women in Sri Lanka who support their very large families by sewing them.  Then they will help others.  If we could sell 1000 bags, we could build Yamuna and her mother, sister and nieces and nephews a house.

Buy children's books.  Tell your parents and friends about this little assignment.  Ask them what you could or should do.

If you get rid of the money with a simple gesture or "invest" it or keep it, all I want to know is a thorough explanation of why or why not.  But not just a sentence.  You can be as academic or personal as you want.  Please take the time to do this well and know that our mutual exploration of the meaning of giving will resonate for a while longer.  

I want to be amazed by you.  We could settle for less, but why?

Happy Thanksgiving.  Interesting words. --RSB

Follow-Up in Jan 2008: What Can You Do With Ten Bucks?

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Readers Comments

Molly wrote: Mr. Brooks, YOU are an amazing teacher and man! A wonderful lesson, I look forward to reading more. Thanks!
Rick Brooks wrote: Just a quick update. I was--and am--amazed. So much so that I'll be putting together a collection of what my students wrote and did, and continue to do. A group donation to a Neighborhood Center, gifts for one student's neighbors whose father died over Thanksgiving in a house fire; support for a family whose father has a brain tumor (cash matched 5-1); that's jut the beginning. More important to me was the fact that, to a person, everyone in the class thought and talked about the "project" a lot, with their roommates, friends and families. Most of them spent more time thinking about this than any other "assignment" all semester. And the end of the semester will not be the end of their understanding of the value of giving. Stay tuned. More coming.
Nice to see all your comments, too, by the way. Thanks.
Glorybe wrote: Why are we all asking what the class did with the money? I see an open invitation for each of us to invest our $10 (or whatever amount) and create our own story. Then we can all report back. I want to be amazed by ME! In fact I can hardly wait to see what I come up with.
PJ wrote: Wow, please update us with the results!
lmil1954 wrote: What a trusting, courageous TEACHER! The key work being teahcer. A lesson give, a lifetime learned!
katlampi wrote: Yes, please update us on the outcome of this project. It is always interesting to see what people do with your trust. Thank you for presenting this interesting social experiment... hopefully the money goes to good use! God Bless!
lOVEBUG wrote: I did lookup the word serendipity. And I do have the faculty of making happy discoveries. Thank you for giving me the word I needed to describe my condition. Hope you will give another on line class soon. If you have your own web site I will join your class.,
zsazzy wrote: This is a wonderful, thought-provoking idea. I too, would love to hear the outcome. Alot depends on who the first reader of the note is. There is the person with great responsibility.
rsalas21 wrote: Wow, that was such a great idea and I am sure they will never forget that lesson!
rachel wrote: Please let us know how it turns out!

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